Sunday, October 5, 2008

Steven Pinker's notion of Web 2.0

In a commentary on recent happenings in the US economy, linguist/evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker asserts that "The past decade has shown us that unplanned, bottom-up, productive activity can lead to huge advances in social well-being, such as Linux, Wikipedia, YouTube, and the rest of Web 2.0." I generally like Pinker's work and tend to agree with many of his points, but ...

Personally, I wouldn't call any of these "huge" advances in social well-being, though I'll certainly agree they've moved the ball forward in their own ways. I'm also not sure that "unplanned" is quite the right word and I suspect Linus might agree on that (at least regarding Linux). But that's a separate quibble.

What I find interesting here is that he appears to include Linux as part of Web 2.0 (The sentence is slightly ambiguous -- he might conceivably have meant "YouTube, and the rest of Web 2.0" as distinct from "Linux, Wikipedia", but that seems unlikely given the punctuation and that Wikipedia is very much a web thing).

Leaving aside the finer points of parsing the sentences of linguists, what's interesting about including Linux, and not specifically mentioning "social networking" sites and not even coming close to mentioning technologies like AJAX, is the emphasis on "unplanned, bottom-up productive activity". So to Pinker, Web 2.0 appears to be more about a democratic "open source" ethos than about any particular product, and even less about any particular technology.

While it differs fairly sharply from the more familiar "social networking" or "AJAX" or "social networking plus AJAX" versions of Web 2.0 one runs across, the position is certainly worthy of consideration. I have a particular sympathy for it since I consider technology more a reflection of human nature than a shaper of it.

However, I don't think that "Linux, Wikipedia, YouTube, and the rest" is an appropriate definition for Web 2.0. First, I try to defer to current usage, and most people in the biz don't seem to use "Web 2.0" that way. Second, the very real and useful thing Pinker seems to be trying to capture here considerably predates "Web 2.0".

In fact, it predates Web 1.0. According to Wikipedia (see, I told you it was socially useful), the Web debuted in August 1991. It can, of course, trace its technical roots back earlier, but as a living, wide-scale collaboration it didn't really get going until 1992 or so. Meanwhile, the Linux kernel also debuted in August, 1991. I cheerfully admit I had no idea that these two major developments were sprung (quietly) on the world in the exact same month.

If we're litigating here over "which came first, the kernel or the web?" we'd have to declare a virtual tie. But that's not my contention. My contention is that the notion of internet-driven "unplanned, bottom-up productive activity" was well-established long before the web was the web. The announcement of Linux just happens to provide a useful case in point. Consider:

  • Like everything else, Linux did not appear from nowhere. It draws directly on BSD, an open-source UNIX kernel with its origins in the late 1970s. One can quibble over whether BSD, with its institutional sponsorship, would qualify as "unplanned", but the 'B' does stand for "Berkeley".
  • Linux is also intimately related to, though decidedly not identical to, Richard Stallman's GNU, first announced in September 1983.
And here's the punchline: Linux, GNU and the Web were themselves first announced on Usenet. Usenet seems at least as good an example of what Pinker is driving at as any of the examples he does cite, including being "productive" in roughly the same sense that YouTube is "productive". In retrospect, Usenet could be considered Web 0.1. Usenet dates to 1979, roughly the same vintage as BSD.

Also of that vintage (depending on just how you count): The internet itself.

In short, Web 2.0 has been around for a few years. Linux is older than Web 2.0 and about as old as Web 1.0. The kind of bottom-up social collaboration Pinker seems to be referring to has occurred over the internet for roughly as long as there's been an internet. In keeping with my theme of human nature shaping technology, I'll leave it to the reader to ponder whether such activity might have been occurring off the internet for considerably longer.

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