Jakob Nielsen has been writing about the effective design of Web pages for almost as long as there have been Web pages, or at least as long as Web pages moved from plain text to "rich media." He offers sound advice in clear, no-nonsense language. Therefore, I think that BBC NEWS made an excellent move in running a feature in which Nielsen sounded off on Web 2.0. Nielsen's message was that Web 2.0 was goring his favorite ox, providing site designers with slick distractions from the principles of design and usability have that been his focus for over a decade. This message provides an alternative take on my proposition that Web 2.0 is little more than dot-com redux, an economic bubble that is still inflating but will repeat the history of the dot-com bubble. Here is how the BBC feature put it:
He [Nielsen] said sites peppered with personalisation tools were in danger of resembling the "glossy but useless" sites at the height of the dotcom boom.
The problem is that those who have drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid blind themselves to the sad truth that most of the world out there (including the world that visits the World Wide Web) does not share their technocentric perspective. Nielsen offers a pithy summary of most of the Web-using community:
For them the web is not a goal in itself. It is a tool.
For all his keen perception and sound advice, Nielsen is not interested in diagnosing why Web 2.0 technocentrism should be turning what could be a valuable tool into such as "glossy but useless" place. My own opinion is that technocentrism is the "new utopianism;" but, while most previous utopias were (or at least began as) rather isolated intellectual exercises, this is a far more populist movement, perhaps because so many choose to view it as a magnet for venture investments. However, whether intellectual or populist, utopianism still fails to stand up to the criticisms of Isaiah Berlin, who, while hardly the first to see the connection to fascism, was one of the most articulate (political correctness of not, that is the best word for it) about it.
Hayek's Road to Serfdom addressed the question of how, through subtle manipulations in social context, a free society could prepare itself for fascist domination. His target was the rigid controls of economic planning; but, were he alive today, he might view technocentrism through the same lens, since, at the end of the day, it, too, is all about control. To build on Nielsen's perspective, the "potential serfs" of today are deluged with propaganda endorsing extremely attractive tools. However, these tools do not do what we want; and, for the most part, we do not want what they are capable of doing. They thus fulfill Douglas Adams' vision of the elevator that, when you press the "down" button, tries to convince you that you would rather go up.
Sadly, when we are not blinded by propaganda, we are confused by turbulence. This is another powerful social context. When people are confused, they crave simplicity above all else, even their civil liberties. We have seen this in history; and, as I recently observed, times of turbulence engender any number of false hypotheses. We may now have progressed beyond the ability to learn from cautionary tales, however clear and alarming they may be. Perhaps we shall just all sit on T. S. Eliot's beach and wait for the whimper.