My Corner of the ‘Net

Is the Internet a Commune…?

Posted on | December 18, 2010 | No Comments

…because Wired seems to think so

It’s a valid point of view, to be sure: with communication links and easily available content, simple social networks and freely exchanged products, it sounds like one. One could say it’s a form of Socialism, taken in the most literal root of the word, “Social”.

But there’s one flaw there, one that’s plagued Communism and Socialism as a theorem people attempt to put into practice: Everyone Isn’t Equal.

These Collectivistic philosophies are based on the notion that everyone will be happy contributing to a central pot of wealth, the superior and more able willing to make up for the deficits of the less able. A great idea.

But what if some people are just lazy?

That’s why Communist theories tend to break down: you can have an ideal, but it’s dependent on everyone pulling their weight and there being no “ruling class”. Over time the superior will be asking themselves, “why should I be working so hard when that guy over there isn’t? He may act like he can’t do my job, but is he faking it?” Think about doctors and ditch diggers; while both occupations are necessary to the world, why would a man who has gone through 10 years of medical school have an incentive to do his job well if he makes as much money as a man who only has to know how to lift a shovel?

Schisms such as envy, jealousy, distrust can crop up and create paranoia throughout the society. If someone gets more, another gets less. Take a moment to think about it: does that sound like the Internet?

The cruxes of the article focus on the strengths of any information sharing network: sharing, cooperation, and collaboration. But that’s simply what the Internet was built for to begin with. Look back far enough and you’ll see a dusty blueprint for a crash-proof computer network built by the Defense Department to help rebuild the United States after a nuclear war, and what it’s being used for now no longer even remotely resembles that, but it’s still just meant to carry information. No political dogma there.

And the information on it? There’s alot of mention about “sharing” sites in the article, i.e. Flickr, photos on Facebook, and Open Source programs. Wired tries to make it sound like everyone is trying to contribute their digital media towards a common good, allowing other ‘net users to access their photos and programs in order to help out complete strangers. Yes, indeed it sounds a bit like the Socialist credo “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

Until you realize all those posters and programmers are doing it for their own profit.

Using the Internet is always about incentives. If we didn’t get something for ourselves out of shelling out for a laptop and hopping on a web browser, we wouldn’t do it. If every television came with a keyboard, mouse, and unlimited access to the ‘net, some people would never buy a PC.
So what are those uploaders and developers getting out of adding shared content to websites? In the case of Flickr, it’s to show off their own artistic ability. Or perhaps just to post a few funny pictures from a drunken night out for friends to see, maybe even an album with a whole vacation’s worth. The same goes for Facebook, although the content there tends to lean more heavily towards being photos of the profile owner along with pics of their friends on the site.
And the most valuable asset, applications that have been programmed, debugged, and released for public consumption, are uploaded by Open Source developers for one reason: for the lulz.
Profit drives programming. That is a certainty. But what drives the men who do the programming? Money if it’s their job, but with Open Source sometimes no financial gain can be had. So what’s their motive?
On the one hand, you have individuals who need to solve a programmatic problem of their own, and they realize that solution could be used by others. So the cost of sharing that solution, uploading a few hundred or thousand of lines of code, is so cheap they do it as easily as forwarding a funny cat video to someone.

And if there isn’t a fix-it need to build the program, there’s always just proving to yourself that you were able to do it. A programmer is always trying to expand his horizons, especially when he encounters a new problem he doesn’t know how to solve. He keeps his mind sharp by solving them, and his reward comes from knowing that he beat it, and will now know enough to beat the same issue in the future. At the end of it all, that’s the intangible profit all programmers get from completing a task: the bragging rights. They want to be able to say “Yup, my boss tangled with that code for a solid week. I finished it up in a day.”

If one were forced to describe the Internet as a society, to sum up the different personalities there and put them into a philosophical framework, the best term to use to describe it might be an Autodidactic Meritocracy. Autodidactic (self teaching) because everyone on it is learning, if not how to use their computer to get on the Internet, then how to use its many functions and resources to find whatever nugget of rare data they need within it. And sites like Wikipedia or Google have changed the way we view information by encouraging autodidactic behavior: on Wikipedia, while researchers might easily find the information they need, they’ll often become interested in a few links along the way that are unrelated yet interest them, prompting an off-topic but educational adventure through the citations.

And on Google, when a searcher casts out their net to find what they’re looking for, sometimes their search will result in links not related to their initial search. But if these pique their curiosity they’ll investigate, perhaps learn something new, maybe even run another search entirely for the new topic.

As a Meritocracy, the Internet rewards those who are smart enough to understand how it works and take advantage of it. While some may insist this is a misnomer, that having intelligence or talent on the Internet doesn’t necessarily translate into merit, one must review the definition of a Meritocracy (coincidentally from wikipedia): “[A] Meritocracy is a system of government or another organization wherein appointments are made and responsibilities assigned to individuals based upon intelligence and ability…”, the key word here being “ability”. Someone can have talent, intelligence, money, a killer website, and all those other things, but if they aren’t able to bring all those elements together in a productive way, an idea will wither and die.

That merit, that ability is what makes the Internet work. You’ll end up with l33t programmers who know how the Web tips and tricks, along with Average Joes who are still having trouble figuring out where the “anykey” is. Result: The Joes watch the l33t, and in following in their footsteps they learn and their merit grows.

Try to keep up, comrades.

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