Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why Ted Nelson was (almost) Wrong

Most people have never heard of Ted Nelson. I've had the privilege of sitting a few meters away from him as he tried to convince a roomful of us to join the Xanadu project.

I think that was the same day I (briefly) met Tim Berners-Lee, on an escalator, shortly before his keynote at WWW7. Lovely man. Pretty much everything he ever said has turned out to be right, which is why I've never really felt the need to rant about him.

Ted Nelson, on the other hand, causes many people to rant. He pretty much invented the concept of Micropayments, which I'll get back to in a moment, but as with many things, it's not that Ted didn't have the amazing foresight to recognize the importance of the concept, he just has a tendency to grasp the stick by the transverse end, and never let go.

There's a reason I put Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee in the same paragraph, not unrelated to why they were both there that day... it's because they're kind of weird polar opposites of each other. The WWW equivalent of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, although with entirely different personalities.

The first thing to know is that Ted Nelson is very, very bitter that we didn't build the Web the way that he suggested. That alone explains half of what project Xanadu is about.

The second thing to know is that Ted really does have prodigious powers of foresight, especially when it comes to the intersection of technology, content, copyright, digital rights management, and information access. Ted Nelson is a brilliant writer, engaging speaker, and can coin a phrase like few others. "Hyperlink" is actually Ted's word. Yes. Really. He invented that word.

If we'd built the web the way Ted wanted, then all of us would still own the copyright to all our blog entries, and would get paid per view (in 'flecks', a gold-backed digital currency that was a decade before BitCoin) so that, like professional photographers, whoever posted the cutest cat video (in Ted's mind, most interesting article) would get showered with money. Sort of like YouTube has become.

But the third and last thing to know is that Ted is a much better writer than he is an engineer, and that nearly every attempt to realize his grand dream collapsed utterly into a black hole of development hell that took some of the best and brightest down with it. It was legendary.

Tim Berners-Lee, on the other hand, didn't worry about shaping the social impact. He just made the technology work, using what little he had. So now we live in his world.

Then came Samasource, and Mechanical Turk, and Crowdflower. If you don't know what any of those are, go look. I'll wait.

These are technically "Micropayment" services, but they work in the opposite direction from what most people, including Ted, predicted. And they raise serious ethical concerns, although not necessarily the ones you think at first.

For example, is it more ethical to take the money you would normally spend employing one bored teenager in the west for a few hours, and instead employ dozens of Kenyan refugees for days? If you know the teenager has a fallback, and the refugees don't?

Is "digital sweatshop" a bad term? It is better than a "real sweatshop", which already have the ethical concern that they're often better than peasantry and hauling coal. Are we adding rungs to the ladder here (by making education and computer skills a valuable, exploitable talent in the third world...) or is this leading to yet another decimation of the western "middle class" that I'm quite fond of?

What happens when you can hire a thousand people for a fifty cents each, to write letters to your senator? Because that's happened. Or fill the comments sections of a major news outlet with your point of view? That happens too. Or create ten thousand accounts that praise one company's product? Because some less ethical crowdsourcing firms offer that one on their front page!

People are being paid... to be opinionated people. Right now, that's only worth a couple of dollars a day, which will make Ted very sad to hear. To me in the west, that's literally not enough to justify leaving the house. To a hundred million people, that's more than a living wage.

And what's heartbreaking, in some ways, is that sub-saharan African are just like Victorian England cockneys, in terms of pride. The don't want handouts, they want work. We have the opportunity to show them that 'work' can be sitting in front of a computer for a couple of hours a day, typing crap that no-one will read into textboxes. Or playing the "pick the right drop-down menu" game to feed their families, like the rest of us do.

We have databases to clean,  product descriptions to write, companies to hype, and endless comment boards to filter for hate or euphemistic profanity. And that doubles every year. Let's turn each into a "database game" (with pretty graphics and sound effects why not) that earns someone a few cents, and see if we can't empty out the refugee camps that way. Nothing else has worked, possibly because no-one else sees such people as valuable, or able to contribute, stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a smartphone.

I recommend having a very close look at the Crowdsourcing services and seeing if they can be used to help your projects. If nothing else, you might finally understand some of the odd trends you've noticed on the internet lately. (Especially in comments sections.)

If you are reading this, then you are a citizen of the world, with access to technology and resources. And you know how annoying it all can be. Now, you reach out across the Internet and employ hundreds of people who want to fill out forms all day. You can connect the dots, be the magnate of your own global workforce. It's the new Gilded Age, after all.

But should you? I wish I knew the answer to that.

I feel there is a new future here, that none of us really saw coming. People are being paid to be human. Not to act like machines, but to act like humans. (Well, 'writers', which is mostly the same thing.) To have opinions, and express them. To notice things.

We've long had an established 'market' for Popstars and Celebrities to be rewarded for just being themselves, (for their 'performances') and now we've established a bottom to that market. I rather hope there will eventually be a middle.

As Ted foresaw, I would quite like it if all people could get a decent income simply from being alive and typing opinions on the internet.

It's, like, the main thing I do.

No comments:

Post a Comment