Will Web 2.0 kill the experts?

New concerns emerge about a culture that celebrates amateurs

Editor’s note:

Federal Computer Week asked Bruce McConnell to review Andrew Keen’s new book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” which is critical of Web 2.0 applications. McConnell, a former Office of Management and Budget official, is now president of Government Futures, a Web site that seeks to tap into Web 2.0 applications.


Find a link to other books in the FCW library with tips on managing during chaos on FCW.com’s Download at www.fcw.com/download.

We stand on the verge of a new era of collaboration and partnership in developing information and perspective on matters we care about. Although this new method of researching and interpreting the world is still unfamiliar to many in our community, the young people coming into our workforce expect to use tools such as Wikipedia and information linking.

That shift is promising because new eyes looking at a problem are often more likely to see new solutions, and many eyes are needed to fully comprehend the complex world in which we live. Yet some believe this wave of participation will put the experts out of business. This fear is unfounded.

One proponent of the fear theory is Andrew Keen, a former dot-com capitalist. His recent book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” predicts that objective truth and expert opinion will soon be destroyed by the cacophony of the blogosphere, the rip-offs of illegal file sharing and the narcissism of Facebook. Amateur reporters and publishers will eliminate thousands of jobs at respected publishing enterprises, to be replaced by mere handfuls of people in the back rooms of Craigslist and Wikipedia. Respected sources of information such as the New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica will go bankrupt, ceding the field to citizen journalists and their cell phone cameras. Consumers will be left to sift through a tangle of conflicting half-truths published by unaccountable laypeople.

Unfounded rumors and urban legends will prevail over accurate and objective reports. And to console ourselves in this new world, we’ll have nothing but the sounds of amateur musicians or inane YouTube videos.

To be sure, the old institutions and business models that create content are under attack. For centuries, the economy functioned by a simple set of rules. I create something and I own it. Because I own it, I can sell it to you, at which point, you own it. For physical goods, this model still prevails. For intangible goods, such as ideas and their expressions in inventions and writings, the system of patents and copyrights protected their creators’ ownership rights.

Those rights were enforceable in part because copying and distribution were slow, difficult and expensive activities. Language and distance permitted national laws to protect most works. In the Digital Age, however, copying and distribution are fast, easy and virtually free. In cyberspace, national boundaries are porous, and it is much easier to hide one’s identity.

The music industry was the first to feel the attack on its business model, and it responded vigorously against illegal file sharing.

First, it attempted a legal and technological solution, getting Congress to require the use of copy protection software and make it illegal for users to tamper with it. However, statutory law is proving to be too slow to keep up with technology, especially involving issues in which multiple competing interests clash.

Next, the industry proceeded through the courts, suing Napster and individuals. But the music sharers — aka pirates — simply morphed into a distributed architecture that continues to elude enforcement.

Recently, Apple’s Steve Jobs bowed to market reality, announcing that the company’s iTunes would abandon copy protection. The works are still copyrighted, but users can share them.

Perhaps the more challenging paradigm shift is in the way creation itself is changing and along with it the role of the individual creator in that process. Creativity is often about putting old and new ideas together in new ways.

That’s a valuable skill because people who know a subject well often have found it difficult to think outside the box. Looking at things in another light is easier when the light comes from somewhere else. And that is how Web 2.0 and social networking will make their biggest impact: by altering the way that information products are created.

In a recent meeting, four baby boomers and one Net Generation person discussed the prospect that collective intelligence tools such as wikis might help solve tough problems involving government/industry relationships. The boomers’ view, borne out by experience, was that Washington culture rewards information hoarding, not information sharing. “But that’s so crazy!” exclaimed the 20-something. The boomers smiled sympathetically.

Yet, against the odds, the culture of collaboration is expanding. Law enforcement and intelligence officials are sharing information as never before. Students today find themselves graded on the quality of group products rather than individual efforts. The sense of individual ownership of information is eroding. Keen sees those shifts as signs of a “troubling new permissiveness about intellectual property.” But new institutions are arising, such as the nonprofit Creative Commons, which supports more collective forms of intellectual property and IP licensing.

Former Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” in 1942 to describe “the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” Commenting on the troubles of the music industry, singer Paul Simon said, “Maybe a fire is what’s needed for a vigorous new growth. But that’s the long view. In the short term, all that’s apparent is the devastation.”

To be sure, we are entering treacherous territory. Visual evidence is undermined by digital editing and animation. Trusted brands are misappropriated by spoofing. Recent reports that certain Wikipedia entries may have been edited surreptitiously by federal agencies and large companies attack our expectations of transparency and seem to confirm the shakiness of truth on the Internet. A digital chain of custody is becoming essential for any data used in legal proceedings. In the digital world, experts are necessary as intermediaries to validate information.

The complexity of the new world suggests that amateurs and experts will coexist for a long time. The contributions of thousands of local writers and photographers can bring new perspective and speed to situational awareness. At the same time, high-stakes decisions will still require expert perspective, sorting and context. It could be the start of a great collaboration.


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