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Monday, December 11, 2006

The New Online Collectivism

I came across a recent article on, a site whose self-proclaimed objective is to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues”. The article entitled “Digital Maoism: The hazards of the New Online Collectivism” was written by Jaron Lanier, the nature of whose background and biography itself instigated the penning of the article. Lanier’s frustration with his biography on Wikipedia – wherein he is listed as a Film Director – was the starting point for his rant against the false promise of what he calls the “new online collectivism”.

Mao Tse Tung by Andy Warhol

As he points out in the article, his Wikipedia entry identifies him as a film director, even though his only dalliance in the world of film was an awful (his words) experimental short film made over a decade and half ago. He has repeatedly tried to change his details on Wikipedia to reflect reality but has consistently been overruled by an assiduous member of the online collective. Inevitably, his Wikipedia reference has reverted back to its old form and he has had to put up with the not-unflattering, if only untrue, label of being a film director. In fact, he curtly signs off his article with the line “Jaron Lanier is a film director”.

His legitimately argued worry is that the concept of a “hive mind” i.e. the collective networked data of the internet as potential startup memory for an Artificial Intelligence (as some think) clouds the real value of the internet. As he notes, quite profoundly, “the beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.”

In the article, he rails against the de-personalised “meta” intelligence that is being promulgated by online aggregation tools. By removing the constraints of the individual i.e. some sort of editorialising, the collective will throw back up the lowest common denominator. This is the real “dumbing down” that society should fear, because it comes not from the broadcaster, but from the collective itself. This is what happens when the aggregator is valued more then what is aggregated. But that is not to say that he is dismissive of collectivism, or indeed the benefit of using online tools to facilitate collectivism. He just argues that the tools need to value and incorporate the input of the individual intelligence. The guiding hand, so to speak. For example, Wikipedia has being forced to put constraints on those editing the topic “George W. Bush”, for obvious reasons. This wasn’t due to libel – but rather due to the fact that a huge number of individuals were constantly updating it for their own purposes. Thus they limited how many times one individual could change it. This is a smart individual decision providing some constraints to the collective, for the benefit of the collective.

To illustrate further the benefits of a smart collective, he gives an example of a ritual practiced in many business schools for incoming students. A jar of jellybeans is placed in front of the classroom. Each student is asked to guess how many beans there are in the jar. While the guesses vary wildly, the average of all the guesses is demonstrably shown to be accurate to an uncanny degree. This is an example of the “Wisdom of Crowds” – the same smart collective thinking (within constraints) that can be seen in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, Google’s page rank algorithms and Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. However, without constraints this collective “wisdom” becomes hysteria over things like fictitious satanic cults, commies under the bed, alien abductions and Y2K mania. Lanier conjectures that it is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence that is best for a healthy marketplace, engendering competition and nurturing and rewarding entrepreneurs.

In many ways this article throws down the gauntlet for content aggregators and broadcasters as we hurtle blindly into the digital future. Technology is absolutely merciless when it comes to its own effect on society. Should we blindly allow information to be aggregated by the deadened number-crunching “hive mind” of the net? Are we not in danger of replacing one self-regarding bureaucracy with another? Or should we now try to look at how the individual mind can marry with the collective power of technologies and the network to create an even more powerful media landscape – one that is democratic, even meritocratic. Or will be just taken by the sway of the “hive” mind, happy to allow the lowest common denominator infiltrate and have our personalised home pages throwing up the news we want to hear, the images we want to see. If so, then we may well learn that the internet is a much more powerful opium for the collective masses then television ever was.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 11:06 a.m. 0 comments

Games Consoles – The Trojan Horse for Home Entertainment domination?

With Christmas fast approaching, at the top of many Irish consumers wish list would have been the Sony Playstation 3. However, due to manufacturing problems with a blue diode part needed for the High Definition Blu Ray disk player, Europe won’t be seeing the new Playstation this side of Christmas. Bad news for Sony and their fastidiously loyal customers, but great news for Microsoft who are using the opportunity not only to sell more Xbox 360s to the key “floating voter” (i.e. those not loyal to any particular console) but also to beef up their consumer base (as they are attempting to do in the US) by offering TV and film downloads as part of the Xbox live offering. It has yet to be seen whether Microsoft have pulled off a coup by launching their console earlier without a Hi-Def player – the very thing that distinguished (and delayed) the new Sony Playstation. Sony may well have scored an own goal by trying to bundle too much into their console as a unique selling point.

Although there is Playstation fever in both the US and Japan, Microsoft have made huge headway in the market – and in many ways the games console market is beginning to resemble the mobile phone market of the 90s. Both Microsoft and Sony infer that they have subsidised the cost of the console (much like the mobile phone operators did with the phones) in order to hook the customer into an endless revenue stream. However, according to Videogamesblogger PS3 loses up to $306 per unit while, Xbox 360 profits $76 per sale.

Microsoft clearly see their real revenue stream for the future in the games – many retailing at a hefty €69 a pop – as well as on-demand entertainment over broadband. They have also realised the collective power of network gaming and communication as the thing that will galvanise the Xbox users. Likewise, the fact that the Xbox is essentially a PC means that streaming of MP3 and video is made very easy – as Xbox 360 is compatible with the Microsoft Media Centre Operating system.

Although they have a broadband play also, Sony seems to have bet the bank on High Definition – or more specifically, their own proprietary version called Blu Ray. However, to enjoy the full fruits of your Playstation 3 you will require a top of the range high-definition television set. Likewise, Sony are banking heavily on the uniform adoption of their standard by both the Hollywood studios and the increasingly powerful broadcasters (think BBC’s Planet Earth on Hi-Def).

What is clear between these two warring factions is that they have their sights set on becoming integral and central to home entertainment. Although gaming is still the main USP, broadband internet access, communication, Hi-Def DVDs and video on demand will couple your television and games console in ways never imagined before. So one can see how the Games Consoles are becoming Trojan Horses for both Microsoft and Sony to gain dominion in the living room…and the rest of the home.

So let’s look at the merits of each:

Sony Playstation 3

The biggest downsides for the Playstation 3 are the price (considerably more then its rivals) and the fact that it will only be available in Europe in March 2007. However on the positive side (and what might make it worth waiting for), is that it has a sizeable storage of 60Gb, Blu-ray High definition player, USB ports, memory card slots, built-in wireless broadband connectivity and an internet browser with free access to the Playstation network.
It has a new controller – the Sixaxis and a new interface, very similar to that developed for the PSP handheld gaming console. It also supports interesting connectivity between the PSP and the PS3 pairing them in a unique way. The Network – Sony’s counterpoint to Xbox Live – will feature online gaming and downloadable games (for both the PS3 and the PSP), online chat functionality, internet browsing and music and film downloads. Down the line, Sony will be offering a fine array of added value offerings including the so-called HD EyeToy camera which will allow for video chats, user-created content (think Machinima in HD!), TiVo style television recording and online shopping (with Playstation overlord Ken Kutaragi hinting at virtual shopping malls).

Nintendo Wii

Nintendo Wii has played a smart game by being careful not to go head to head with the big players. If it was a mobile phone network, Wii would be 3. It is cheap, cheerful, funky and playing to a distinct demographic. Although it lacks the same integration with its handheld counterpart the Nintendo DS that the Playstaion 3 has with the PSP, it makes up for in terms of its unique and revolutionary Wii remote.
In many ways this is the feature that sets the Nintendo apart from either the Xbox or the Playstation and offers a new gaming experience. It is the kind of feature that will appeal to non-gamers or those who don’t go in for the violent first person type games that tend to define the sector. The Wii controller can allow you to play fishing games or more gentle sporting games. Suprisingly, Microsoft executive Peter Moore in a recent interview even inferred that consumers would buy an Xbox 360 and a Wii – as they are the same price collectively as the PS3.

Microsoft Xbox 360

With the advantage of being a year in the market it is hard to say whether Microsoft has eroded Playstation’s share or if they have simply upgraded their own market. With a price point being significantly cheaper then the PS3, the only differential is a slower processor and the absence of a high definition player. However, the latter is available separately – again as a proprietary HD-DVD player. At present, the early arrival of the Xbox 360 has ensured that it offers a wider range of games. The Xbox Live network (although subscription based) is already offering High Definition video downloads in the US and more intriguingly, smaller game downloads which may well open up the market for smaller game developers. Xbox game programming is near identical to the PC programming meaning that the barriers to entry are significantly lower.

So in terms of which console to buy, it really is a case that there is one for everyone in the audience…at a price. It is undeniable that the processing power of the Playstation 3 (which Ian Pearson, Futurologist at BT claims is 1% of the processing power of the human brain) will mean that the PS3 has real capacity to develop over its life span as programmers get to grips with its true potential. Likewise, those wanting to watch High Definition DVDs, you couldn’t ask for a better deal. However, the price conscious and cautious might well opt for the Xbox 360 which at present seems on par technically with the PS3 offering in terms of gaming. The outcome of the High definition wars will mean that Microsoft can offer a Blu-ray player as optional later down the line (although this is unlikely). Finally, for those looking for an alternative gaming experience – or simply are obsessed with the Legend of Zelda – the Wii certainly provides a much more active experience then the thumb and finger workout that the other two consoles offer.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 11:04 a.m. 1 comments