The Expense of Information (Web 2.0/3.0)

Tim Berners-Lee argues in February 2009 that what the internet needs, more than anything, is more sharing of data. The future of the web, the next step, where we want and need to be as a technological society–Web 3.0–depends on the linking of data. Data data data. Scientists want access to other scientist’s data so they can learn from it, improve on it, innovate it. If only there was more sharing of information then the best and brightest minds working around the world could freely and instantly tap into other genius brains, and that knowledge can be combined to create cures for diseases and to save the planet and to make the world a better place.

And not just scientists, everyone wants more information. Policy makers and educators and entrepreneurs. Even your average everyday internet users want more sharing of information between social media platforms–a more seamless online experience. According to Berners-Lee’s slide, people are literally clambering over walls trying to get their social media sites to swap some 411 so they don’t have to log into Bebo, Myspace, and Orkut because how inconvenient is that?

Exactly five years since Berners-Lee’s TED talk and social media is inextricably intertwined. Bebo? Myspace? Orkut? Come on, it’s 2014. No one uses those things anymore. But you can post to Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine and Facebook all at the same time! Not only that, but more and more frequently you don’t even have to create unique IDs and passwords to access a members-only website–you can just log right in with your Facebook or Google information. And contrary to Berners-Lee’s assertion, people are absolutely not stoked on it. And if they are anything other than not stoked, they are probably completely unaware of what’s going on.

The same reason that companies like Google and Facebook started cozying up to other online avenues is the exact same reason that Berners-Lee’s conception of a new web comprised of openly shared, free-information is still a utopian ideal. Google and Facebook make money by sharing data; the institutions that possess the information that holds the key to making the world a better place don’t.

Manuel Castells says of the internet (in 2001, 13 years ago, eight whole years before Berners-Lee’s talk!), “It is a culture where the amount of money to be made, and the speed at which the money is made, are the supreme values. This,” he writes, “goes beyond usual human greed” (57). In fact, the whole foundation of internet entrepreneurship, Castells argues, is that ideas–information, data–are money (56). When it comes to social networking, those ideas are user-generated, and that information is bought and sold by other outlets looking to capitalize on all of the data that they can analyze in a way that teaches them to make money off of you. You do all of the work for them, and then they get paid for it!

But when it comes to industry, biology, human sciences, and all those other fields with world-bettering applications, innovation costs money. So money is made by implementing a system that this Wikiversity article refers to as “Capitalism 2.0.” We know from Castells that the internet makes money out of ideas, but our generous wiki custodian(s) explain, “…the advent of Internet and digital media made storage and distribution of information so easy and inexpensive that the value of the information itself, not the medium…became central.” And the most valuable of all of that information? The raw data that would allow us to cure diseases and save the planet and make the world a better place.

If every scientist in the world working towards sustainable energy sources had instant and free access to the information discovered by all the other scientists, how would energy companies dependent on gasoline continue to make money? How would pharmaceutical companies dependent on profit from expensive prescription medications continue to mass tremendous amounts of money if their raw data was available to scientists working to make life-saving medical treatment available and affordable to all those in need?

The Wikiversity article argues that this information may but abundant, but in the Web 2.0 system we have created an artificial scarcity of information, and while supply may exceed demand (and potentially save the world, according to the idealists) profits are built by carefully regulating who has access to that information and at what artificially high price.

It seems that both Berners-Lee and our gracious Wiki custodians agree that we must overcome the artificial obstacles set by the information-hoarding elites and freely spread our world-bettering data all over the internet and bring forth the new era of Web 3.0.

But how, as an online, tech-consuming culture, can we achieve that when Candy Crush is available for free?