Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Sub-Time Crisis in Web 2.0

A few months ago I came across Steve Rubel's post on Attention Crash, where he predicts an imminent bursting of the Web 2.0 information bubble since there is no Moore's Law of exponential growth for our attention. This was a provocative remark, which I worked through more thoroughly in Moore's Lore and Attention Crash. Actually, I spent a few days off my laptop scribbling down various ideas and observations on paper, whatever came to mind. I surprised myself with filling 12 pages in a few hours on a Sunday afternoon and a few train rides. Some of the smaller asides will find their way into other posts, like the The Restaurant at the End of the Web. Here I will continue with the Attention Crash theme.

The worst case scenario for Web 2.0 is that we are heading for a singularity, precipitated by dividing our attention into informational units effectively rated at zero content. Using available streaming and aggregation tools we can quickly and effortlessly create an overwhelming flood of information. It is clear that we are building social computing structures that we do not comprehend. Social computing joins two areas that have the potential for massive scaling - computing technology and social interaction. The Sub-Time crisis lies at this intersection. In fact it is the intersection.

After reading Rubel's original post I subscribed to his blog and even his FriendFeed, and soon found that while he is concerned about Attention Crash, he is also a major contributor to the pot of Web 2.0 tidbits (links, comments, posts, pictures and so on). He is typical of other Web 2.0 luminaries who produce content but then also produce “content” on there being too much content.

But is there really a coming Attention Crash? Well certainly not informational equivalents to the Great Crash of 1929 or the Subprime crisis we are currently experiencing. If there is such a thing it will be very unevenly distributed and localised. It is clear that certain people are going to get rain on their personal web parades, but this is not global deluge.

When I was a boy my father regularly asked me “stimulating” questions. He belonged to the generation of Australian men for whom intense argument over inconsequential matters was considered both relaxing and invigorating. Apart from the perennial favourite of "How long is a piece of string?", usually recounted when someone asked how much does a reasonable quality car cost (I come from a long line of car people), and "Did you know you can sink a tractor in a lake of average depth of 1 inch?", he did ask me one time "What is the difference between a crash and a collision?" And the answer is that a collision involves two moving objects (say two cars) while a crash involves one moving object and one stationary object (say a car hitting a tree).

So when we speak of Attention Crash we may think of our information intake hitting up against our stationary capacity to absorb it. This capacity varies from person to person, but there are always hard bounds.

But as with the Great Crash, Rubel is probably using Attention Crash to mean a general or systemic collapse - an event that is widespread, foundational and severe. But the coming Attention Crash will not be of this form - there will be enough localised warnings. Unlike our current financial structures, the web is not at threat of collapsing, though many foot soldiers will fall by the way (they see themselves as pioneers, but in fact they are easily replaced). Our informational structures are not hierarchical but relational, and as such, are much more resilient to the removal of individuals. It is not the case that there are eager underlings waiting to replace leaders – the underlings are here and functioning already.

Web 2.0 losses will largely go unnoticed. New users/readers, whose information experience begins today, are being added constantly. They are essentially unaware of what happened last month and will remain that way. Joining is not a generational wait, no corporate ladder to be climbed. Everyone joins and progresses simultaneously. This turnover goes largely unnoticed since leavers are dwarfed by joiners.

Returning to Rubel, his tips on handling Web 2.0 overload are not very helpful - know what you want, be selective, apply the same ruthlessness that you do to your inbox. In short, organise your way out of the Web 2.0 glut. But this advice is nothing much more than platitudes. If at some point you used to receive 20 emails a day, whatever method you used to process those messages is probably not going to help you when you start receiving 50, 100 or 200 emails a day. But perhaps we are not really talking about scale here. If you buy a car for 4 people and then try to transport 50, this is not a matter of scale but just simply miscalculation.

The tools we have are simply the wrong ones. But ironically we seem to rely on web 2.0 to solve the problem it has created. This is surely like hoping that the fast food industry will take steps to help their customers lose weight. The point is that we face a disinterested informational adversary, that for the foreseeable future operates in a scale-free environment. In the information battle we have some sharp spears with occasional impressive horseback riding. However our adversary has the power to create a data mushroom cloud. Your best fallout shelter is abstinence.

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