Has the knowledge economy been hijacked by the social web?

As you might have realised over the past few days, perhaps to your irritation, I’ve been obsessing a little with the subject of the social web.  The relevant posts can be found here, here, here, here and here.  Yes.  Perhaps you’re right.  Too many.

Anyhow.  Just a short shortish final one to tidy up some of the loose ends.  There was a time, many years ago, when I was a kid growing up in what became the shadow of a “white hot technological revolution”, when a certain kind of wonderful future was being promised to us all.  But as the THE article suggests (the bold is mine):

Human nature being what it is, we may live in a new world but we react in ways shaped by an old one. New visions may inspire but getting there is hard. So found Harold Wilson 30 years ago as his vision of the white hot technological revolution dissipated before entrenched vested interests and economic rigidities. Opportunities were not fully grasped: Wilson’s penchant for manipulation led to fudges: rhetoric was not matched by a clear industrial strategy; failure deepened Britain’s cynical defeatism.

There was this – in hindsight – curious belief that the capitalism we best know (not the only one on the table) would allow a significant part of opportunities to scrape future technological profit to benefit their supposedly soon-to-become leisurely workforces.  And for a while it seemed there would be enough slack to make such progress possible.

These days, however, it is not the case.

There is a crisis of remuneration in the knowledge economy which no one seems able to deal with.

Those in favour of copyright believe in using it to crack down on infringements – infringements which sometimes border on the humongous, it is true.  Yet copyright, these days, would seem mainly to benefit the copyright holders – again, we come back to the corporate bodies that wish to rule both our leisure time as well as our work; both our commerce as well as our democracy.  The vast majority of creators, painters, authors and photographers who work under the control of such large organisations rarely get to see very much of the profit generated by their creations: either the overheads and waste of the industry models in question swallow up so very much of what could become creator income –  or, alternatively, as history has often shown us, life in the garret is bound to be the destiny of most of those who would live to be creative.

Yet whilst those who do favour copyright seem to despise technology companies such as Google and manufacturers such as Samsung even more than the end-users they claim pirate their product, there is another area of modern endeavour they seem to have ignored: the hijacking of the benefits of the knowledge society by those who have created the social web.

Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.

What do we have instead?  Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.

Yes.  We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us.  We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments.  Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.

And in the above case, no one is suggesting (except perhaps yours truly) that anyone is really injuring the copyright of anyone else.

The problem, then, isn’t even principally one of copyright infringement.  The problem is that these software companies have worked out a way of attracting us to sit down for free in front of our monitors and screens, and input devices various, and create content which substitutes the stuff they promised us fifty years ago was going to release us from the drudgery of manual labour.

Essentially, it would seem the long-promised knowledge economy has been hijacked and dumbed-down by the requirements of the social web.  And, right now, I really cannot see our way around it.

The future?

In a previous post, David commented that direct remuneration might not work.  Are we condemned, then, to a life of generalised poverty, addicted as we have become to describing our lives which in their parts are pretty uninteresting but which when brought together with the lives of others by clever code (code which refuses to acquire liability but reserves the right to monetise all the same) ends up becoming an all-too-fascinating tapestry we cannot avoid following?

Is, in fact, social web the opium-eater’s dream of the 21st century?

And a slow and uncomfortable impoverishment our common fate?



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