Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Web 2.0 is more than just "you"

Time magazine's "Person of the Year" in 2006 was "You," and that person lived in a place called "Web 2.0". This was the "you" of new social-networking and content-sharing web sites like YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Wikipedia, and -- yes -- Blogger. It was the "you" who labored with the latest personal and portable text, audio, and video production tools to produce free and original content for the World Wide Web -- especially for those Web 1.0 corporations like Amazon and Google who now owned so much of the new Web 2.0 landscape and benefited from so much of that free Web 2.0 labor. But the growth of Web 2.0 wasn't seen as the result of these corporate giants and their projects for commercialization, commodification, brand-building and revenue-growing. Somehow, the success of Web 2.0 was due to you.

The "you" of Web 2.0 was not without contradictions, however. While progressive, both in your technological acumen and in your willingness to open your life to the Internet, "you" were also an amateur, a loudmouth, a zealot, a short-attention-span child pretending to be a grown-up -- alternately posing as a journalist, a politico, an activist, an author, a professor, an expert of one kind or another. If Web 2.0 was ruled by "you," it was the land where "they" the experts were unwelcome, untrusted, underprivileged and even deported. Again, nevermind that most of the ideas, claims, and revelations which were discussed, debated, and derided by "you" in Web 2.0 were actually produced behind the scenes by "them" -- those representatives of powerful Web 1.0 institutions such as corporations, NGOs, governments and universities, still doing most of their knowledge production in Real World 1.0. Somehow, the failure of Web 2.0 rested with you.

And so here I sit, one of "you," typing away at my little corner of Web 2.0 (care of the corporate infrastructure owned by Google and the discretionary time granted by the university which employs me). Folks in my broad field of communication and information studies are still debating whether Web 2.0 is repressive, liberatory, or both (a set of weblog postings by former ALA head Michael Gorman and others over at is the most recent). Yet the more I read about, think about, and experience Web 2.0, the more dissatisfied with both the positive and negative characterizations of it I become. Web 2.0 is an uneven geography, not so much pitting expert against amateur knowledge production, but blurring the spaces between the two, and revealing for all of us the problems of playing both expert and amateur roles -- in both knowledge-production and knowledge-consumption activities -- more intensively and interchangeably throughout our daily times and travels than ever before.

Let me try to lay out this argument for "you." First of all, engaging in the production of Web 2.0 knowledge as amateurs does not necessarily mean that you cease to participate in more traditional forms of knowledge-production as experts. After all, a quick look at the history of "digital divide" statistics at almost any scale shows that it has been the most intensively-educated, most professionally-employed, most economically-privileged members of society who have had the most opportunity and power in building Web 2.0 over the last decade or so (much to the detriment of the utopian potential of Web 2.0, I would add). Most of you creators of Web 2.0 knowledge online continue to wrestle with knowledge offline, whether as managers or teachers, journalists or artists. With any luck, you're bringing your offline expertise online; but even if you're not, that offline expertise is still available to others to bring online themselves. Undoubtedly, though, given the different time-space demands of producing Web 2.0 knowledge (blogs go "stale" after just a few hours of inactivity) versus real-world knowledge (produced according to working weeks, semester schedules and quarterly investors deadlines) you fragment your knowledge production activities in each realm differently.

Similarly, consuming Web 2.0 knowledge resources is more likely a selective activity than a substitution effect (even with that subset of you most likely to produce, and most feared to rely exclusively upon, Web 2.0 knowledge: college students). In times and places where you happen have access to physical information -- or when you place yourself in such settings through social and cultural conventions -- you can still read a complicated book, take lecture notes with pen and paper, deconstruct the painting hanging in front of you. But in times and places with Web 2.0 connections, questions asked can now become questions answered (at least tentatively) through online collaborative encyclopedias, film guides, or photo travelogues. Rather than substitution, fragmentation and reorganization are the activities you experiment with. The online availability of print metadata means that the time you spend browsing for books in the library is vastly reduced. But that doesn't mean you stop going in the first place.

Finally, it is through those connections between Web 2.0 and Real World 1.0 that you bring to bear your new personal, wireless, mobile, and perpetually-active technologies -- from wi-fi laptops to Internet-capable mobile phones. These devices -- like online access and experience itself, still subject to a digital divide along the expected lines -- complicate your current time-space patterns of knowledge production in both Web 2.0 and Real World 1.0. In terms of production, ubiquitous connectivity outside the office means that you can be working on your professional industry analysis or your graduate thesis at home, in transit, or on vacation. But high-speed Web access within the office means that your coffee breaks are no longer spent around the water cooler, but typing on Blogger or uploading camera photos to Flickr. You can consult collaboratively-provided consumer information online while roaming the aisles of the grocery store. But you can also do some instant online fact-checking or footnote-following when you're reading that history book under the covers before bedtime. The physical infrastructure now available to you, allowing you to alter the spaces and times in which you draw from and contribute to Web 2.0 knowledge during your busy day, becomes nearly as important as the original virtual infrastructure that enabled you to produce and consume Web 2.0 knowledge in the first place.

Where does all this leave "you"? Perhaps you are not as important as "they" think. After all, they still build and own those virtual and physical infrastructures -- they being the corporations, organizations, and governments which employ, engage, and serve you. You will continue to restructure your production and consumption of Web 2.0 knowledge, but always within a tightly-coupled dialectic to the production and consumption of Real World 1.0 knowledge. The potential exists for a positive feedback relationship here -- producing more knowledge, in more ways, with more checks and balances, and more points of entry, made accessible and understandable to more people than ever before. But it's a decision that is, perhaps, both up to "you" and out of "your" control.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Reconceptualizing "information labor" as "imaginative labor"

I'm uncomfortable with the term "information labor" -- just as I'm uncomfortable with the terms "information society," "information technology," "information studies," and the like -- but I'm unsure about what to propose as a substitute. In some sense every labor process can be seen to depend on information, every physical artifact can be represented by information, every cultural communication can be reduced to information. But if information is everything then it explains nothing.

There's the term "knowledge work" of course, which implies some sort of greater value than "information labor." "Information" suggests potentially useful but unprocessed data, while "knowledge" suggests a certain intrinsic or predetermined value to that information. The troublesome concept of "truth" also seems bound up in the idea of knowledge more than in the idea of information. Perhaps "information labor" transforms the raw materials of information into knowledge? Perhaps engaging in knowledge work is a precondition to making, defending, and reconsidering truth claims in the world? But then are information workers necessarily less skilled, valued, or compensated than knowledge workers? Still unsatisfactory.

The term "creative labor" carries with it similar problems. We are told that it is to a new "creative class" of workers that we must look in order to rescue our culture, our economy, and our urban environment in an age of political-economic globalization. Can "creativity" be taught or is it an intrinsic gift? Are the products of creative work necessarily meant to contain or produce knowledge? Can't one be creative without having much access to most storehouses of information? And certainly a century of mass communication advertising has shown us that creativity and truth don't necessarily accompany one another. Shouldn't knowledge and information be expected to have a closer claim on such concepts?

Some have focused on the mental mechanics of information, knowledge, or creative work and coined terms like "symbolic analysis." Such work is assumed to be more difficult and thus more valuable than the physical labors of extractive, manufacturing, or service work. At the core of such efforts, it would seem, is the ability to understand, manipulate, and generate utterances in various languages -- spoken or written, numerical or theoretical, visual or musical. Here I'm uncomfortable with the easy split between the head and the hand -- any language seems to me to be biologically and materially rooted in the bodily and environmental history of the individual trying to communicate. But I'm also uncomfortable with the dry reduction of all aesthetic and truth claims to the movement of sign and signifier. Surely we are more than Turing machines.

So lately I've been mulling over the idea of "imaginative labor" as a useful bridge between these different concepts. Imagination requires memory, language, and mental manipulation -- each of which might be augmented by imaginative technologies of all sorts -- but it is something beyond the hundred monkeys hammering out a Shakespeare sonnet at random. Imagination requires a sense of time and space, a sense of change and play, a motivation for moving beyond the status quo (whether to a nostalgic past or a progressive future). And imagination can scale up out of our isolated dreams and diatribes, either in the communication between imaginative individuals or as the shared imaginary enacted daily and transformed over time within a cultural group.

There's something about the various demands which imagination makes upon us that attracts me here. Being willing and able to imagine the world as it is not -- as it once was, as it might be, or as it currently appears from a different point of view -- takes education and empathy and effort. Thus imaginative work seems to be a particular form of labor which is enhanced by quality information, required for productive innovation, and perhaps even essential for daily reproduction.

I think I'm going to try to imagine for a while what such a reconceptualization of "information technologies" as "imaginative technologies" might add to our understanding of our world.