Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sir Tim Rules the Waves (of digital communication)

I find it unpleasantly ironic that, on the day after I filed my obituary piece about Chalmers Johnson and his efforts to stem the combined tides of American imperialists and purveyors of mind rot to impede efforts of the general public to think for themselves, I should encounter an imperialist manifesto in, of all places, Scientific American.  This, of course, is not how things appear on the surface.  The title of the article in question is “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality;”  and the author is Tim Berners-Lee, writing on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the World Wide Web.  The letter of his text embraces principles that many readers are likely to find admirable;  but the spirit is that of nineteenth-century Britain, a time of an unholy alliance of “Enlightenment rationalism” with imperialist statecraft so unbridled that the sun had no place to set over the British Empire.

I thus advise readers to give serious thought to Berners-Lee’s visions and proposals but then to consider the impact of his final paragraph:

Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.

The underlying problem with Berners-Lee’s manifesto is that those who engage objective teleological rationality to arrive at utility commodities, such as the World Wide Web, inevitably ignore the “self-evident truth” that the social world that actually engages those utilities is not the same as the objective world that produced them.  Thus, while it is easy to employ the noun “humanity,” those who build often fall into the trap of equating it with “people like us.”  Such tunnel vision misses out on all sorts of unanticipated consequences, which, in the case of the World Wide Web, can usually be grouped under the rubric of malware.

The very concept of “humanity” is a product of Western rationalism, which assumes that there is some useful category that serves as an umbrella over a vast array of radically different instances.  (This is the same problem that Ludwig Wittgenstein examined in the difficulty of defining the word “game.”)  Each of those “instances of humanity” has a different set of culturally-induced values that reflects an equally different set of interpretations of just what it means to be served.  This does not sit well with the missionary zeal of the builders, particularly when their greatest aspiration is that the next generation of builders “will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.”

Because of its diversity, however, the social world has always been more robust than the objective world.  However, to the consternation of those in the objective world, the behavior of the social world is rarely teleological, at least in any straightforward manner.  Perhaps those who understand this best are the Zen sages who live by the precept that those who try to change the world only make things worse.  On this anniversary the best I can wish to Sir Tim is that he be visited by the ghost of Ronald Reagan, who will ask him, “Are you better off now than you were twenty years ago?”

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