Thursday, April 8, 2010

Peter Singer, the Internet, Libraries, and "Crowd-Sourced" Content

Maybe 5% of what I see via Twitter is worth reading. This wasn't really among that 1%, but was short enough for me to scan:

Peter Singer, The Unknown Promise of Internet Freedom

Yes, its that Peter Singer, but he's tackling less-controversial topics here. He notes that even as Google has decided to stop kow-towing to China, the Austrailian government is planning to go into full nanny-state mode and start blocking all manner of offensive stuff on the internet.

Most of this article summarizes several well-worn points about information and the internet: "[e]ven with censorship, the Internet is a force for change" and "we are still only beginning to grasp the extent of what [the internet] will do to the way we live", but the passage that ticked me off is some boilerplate about the vastness of the information on the internet:
Today, if you have an Internet connection, you have at your fingertips an amount of information previously available only to those with access to the world's greatest libraries – indeed, in most respects what is available through the Internet dwarfs those libraries, and it is incomparably easier to find what you need.

Remarkably, this came about with no central planning, no governing body, and no overall control, other than a system for allocating the names of Web sites and their addresses. That something so significant could spring up independently of governments and big business led many to believe that the Internet can bring the world a new type of freedom.
Wait - take away the government and big businesses contributions to what's on the internet and you have, what? Wikipedia (where the article on Britney Spears - 8512 words today - is longer than the one on George Washington - 7719 words today), 10,000,000 blogs mostly about mindless drivel, and all the cutting-edge political back-and-forth in most news site's discussion and comment forums? The internet dwarfs the world's greatest libraries only if you consider that all great libraries lack an authoritative, sixteen-thousand entry encyclopedia about Pokemon.

Singer seems to be fixating on the Clay Shirkey "Here Comes Everyone" aspect of the internet. All this user-generated stuff from the countless unwashed masses is great for the millions of niche obsessions and hobbies for which you can find kindred spirit(s) on the internet, but its crap at producing anything of enduring value. For example, I've been slowly trying to watch every available Audrey Hepburn movie and after seeing one that was new to me, I stumbled upon a fan site for her that is fantastic - it looks great and has a lot of interesting content, but its mostly trivia and photos scrounged up elsewhere on-line. Its a great example of what the internet can do (and apparently mainly the work of one guy), but if I really wanted to learn something substantive about her life, I'd read that recent biography about her that was well-reviewed in the New York Times a few years ago, not the brief Wikipedia overview that this fan site gussies up with some additional pictures. Similarly, although its amazing that a fan ther has painstakingly dubbed her version of some of the songs from My Fair Lady onto those clips from the movie, I'd maybe watch that on YouTube once for the minor novelty of it, but it would only make me want to watch the full movie, on DVD, not streaming wherever it might be available on-line.

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