Social bookmarking, tagging, and editing have helped launch Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it. This is a phenomena few if anyone accurately predicted. Except that Vernor Vinge predicted it quite accurately in 1999 with his Hugo Award winning novel A Deepness in the Sky. In the novel, a future race of humans called the Emergents has enslaved the brain by turning many of its citizens into autistic savants. These “zipheads” become so focused on one task that they are unable to take care of themselves. The Emergents make use of these zipheads in an end-to-end system roughly analogous to a grid of networked data centers, complete with pattern-recognition capabilities, redundancy, and low latency (the zipheads speak to each other with their own highly modified and efficient language.)
Although I highly recommend the novel, the “technological enslavement of the mind” depicted made the novel exceedingly difficult for me to get through. There have been several recent and unsettling developments in social technologies that remind me of these zipheads.
Zipheads at Work
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk project, something Amazon is calling “artificial artificial intelligence,” will pay humans to complete tasks for which they are better suited than computers. Many of these tasks depend on repetitive pattern-recognition, something humans are exceedingly good at. This is not enslavement, of course. Instead, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a synthesis of capitalism with Web 2.0. Which I guess some view as a form of enslavement.
Zipheads at Play
First there was Slashdot.org. Then there was del.icio.us. Then there was Digg.com. Now there is Diggdot.us, a website that combines them all while attempting to eliminating redundancy. And of redundancy, there is much redundancy. Not only do the major social bookmarking/tagging/editing sites overlap in their own coverage, they reveal the redundancy so common in the media- and blogosphere to which they link.
A case in point: I follow planetary science and astronomy news very closely. My options are numerous. The sites I visit, many of which have RSS feeds to which I subscribe, include Space.com, SpaceRef, Spaceflight Now, New Scientist: Space, Universe Today, space agency sites, and mission-specific sites. Many of the same stories also show up on news sites, social sites, and blogs.
In true ziphead fashion, I run my own website primarily focused on planetary science news and commentary.
How do we cull through all this news and commentary? Aggregate sites like Diggdot.us and technologies like RSS and CNET’s “The Big Picture” visual tool are helpful. Unfortunately, the number of aggregates sites, RSS feeds, and tools continue to grow until they too become redundant, a result of the lack of coordination between zipheads. Each feels that he, she, or other has something unique to add to the larger conversation. The cream tends to rise to the top, but not without serious information overload.
Zipheads at Death
The ziphead phenomena may be short-lived. What I have not pointed out yet is that all of this activity is part of a larger scale culling of middlemen everywhere. Eventually, automation technologies will feature those techniques now unique to humans and will relegate humans to prosumers. I expect this to occur by 2010, when the first autistic savant software agents emerge to create some sort of order out of cyberspace while feeding the results of their reorganization to new user interfaces that are less dependent on text and web portals. In the process, they will eliminate the need for any media giant, web portal, aggregator, as well as the social aspects of Web 2.0.
The automation of news reporting and editing, of searching, categorizing, bookmarking, and tagging…it begins with human zipheads, but does not end with them.