It is an oft-commented truism that the virtual world reflects the real world at every opportunity. In, for example, the real world’s well-honed ability to obfuscate and confuse.
I was Skyping with a family member this afternoon on the occasion of my fiftieth birthday and we briefly touched on the subject of music piracy and its economic implications. It seems that some of the arguments being bandied about by copyright supporters would suggest that if illegal music downloads hadn’t taken place, the US music industry would now be larger than the entire US economy. Hardly realistic, I’m sure you would agree. Certainly, the figures which have been used in the recent past – which even continue to be peddled – are suspect to say the least.
This wouldn’t be the first time lobbyists tried to blind us with the farmyard science of pulling the wool over our eyes.
But the virtual world reflects our own in more ways than one. Even as our populations grow towards a veritable plague of physical obesity and eating disorders, so our online corporations do the same. This is what I think is happening – quoting, and slightly adapted, from something I’ve just posted on a Facebook conversation*:
The thesis? Via the example of the bridge of open source, which offered payment in kind for its freely offered labour, owners of proprietorial social networking software have continued to dumb down the contributions of its data-inputters (its unpaid worker bees) to the point that no one can reasonably demand payment for authorship of such discretely trivial activities as a like or a photo post or a comment on one’s drunken state.
The software, however, becomes the author of a far more complex stream of product, so replacing any claim to human authorship – and therefore remuneration – with that of algorithms and maths. The knowledge society, instead of consisting of educated people doing clever things and getting just rewards, involves educated people doing primitive things – whilst even giving up DOBs and post codes in exchange for the right to be the drones in question! – and all the time receiving absolutely no reward at all; except perhaps the dubious one of an all-too-public notoriety.
Question is – and here I am currently stuck – is how to recover the promise of the knowledge society as once posited in those wonderfully forward-looking – and radically mistaken – 90s. Ideas? You’ll tell me, I guess, the living is to be made in other areas. But just think of this: 1 billion active users who spend hours every day on this beast. Imagine what a truly productive society we could have if 1 billion active users were actually producing stuff of real value and reach. Solving external problems, real world issues, practical challenges. We need social networking software which achieves the latter, surely; not the former. The former is there simply to concentrate the wealth in the pockets of the few. Dead wealth. Inactive wealth. A wealth of the societally disconnected. And, precisely, in a society where connections of these kinds could serve to resolve so many pressing problems.
And so you see it: the obesities of Facebook, Google, Apple and Samsung – and how they exactly mirror our own. Sedentary citizens versus sedentary wealth.
Two debilitating curses for our times.
* Some of the content of this post is, incidentally, part of something I’m preparing for a PhD submission; comments and advice from interested parties – either online or offline – would be very welcome and would, of course, be duly referenced if I achieved funding for the proposal.