Digital Disorder: The Internet and Public Sector

by Elisabeth Davies

The World Wide Web has an unabashed promoter in David Weinberger. The following statements and summaries come from his talk presented at an Armchair Discussion at the Canada School of Public Service on January 7, 2008 in Ottawa.

The web is, in a word, “abundance.” The web is an abundance of everything, and it is more everything than we have ever known. Because it is fundamentally abundance, the web disrupts organizations and institutions that are based on scarcity of information, resources or products.
Traditionally, the larger a given project or enterprise, the higher the amount of control implemented. The web has never had control or managers and therefore presents a new way to discover and create knowledge/information. That said, despite the lack of top-down or centralized control, some level of organization is necessary and no system of organization is neutral. All classification is political. One means for democratizing information organization, suggested by Weinberger, is through “social tagging” in which value is added to information by the non-traditional use of classification by ordinary internet users.

The real world keeps things apart, largely due to the laws of physics. Objects composed of atoms cannot occupy the same space at the same time. This is one of the limitations of traditional libraries with physical collections. It is also a limitation on traditional print newspapers: there is only so much space on the front page. The web, however, brings things together that may never have been together before.

Now that we have reached the point where data and metadata are both digital, we find that there is no longer a distinction between the two; that is, on the web, they occupy the same “space.” It may be more helpful nowadays to think of metadata as what you know and data as what you seek. For example, if you know an author’s name you can find the titles of any of his or her works. Similarly, if you know the first sentence of a work, you can find the author, the publication year, etc. Anything can be metadata.

Weinberger discusses four characteristics of web use. Including hyperlinks so that readers can find more information is an act of generosity. Web users provide details about their lives and this makes for a high level of intimacy. “Scalable conversations” among users of the same product, supporters of the same candidate, practitioners of the same art, etc., are inclusive and intimate. Expertise and social knowing are components of collaborative work and can lead to the best answers because, eventually, “conversation drives the bugs out of knowledge.” We know socially – the web is simply the manifestation of this. Issues of trust and fallibility are addressed by admitting fallibility which lends to one’s credibility on the web, as is the case with Wikipedia.

According to Weinberger, generosity, intimacy, and fallibility are based on love and love is what is holding the web together. There is a sense of “turning toward the world together” – a shared world with many differences. The joy is in the sharing.

No comments: