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Two identities of Nicholas Carr

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I would like to stress that Nicholas Carr is a gifted writer and the level of polemics present in my article should not overshadow this important fact. While his "in the cloud" adventures in IT were not so interesting (and pretty damaging) when topics are related to the subject in which he has substantial experience like Web publishing and social aspects of  Internet usage he produced several interesting, insightful articles which I highly recommend. Let's discuss some of then in reverse chronological order.

Is Google Making Us Stupid

In July 2008 Carr published the article Is Google Making Us Stupid   (The Atlantic Online July-August 2008). The article raised an important question of influence of search engines like Google on the ability to read and understand books (traditional definition of literacy) and in general of the depth of human thinking. If we assume that reading book in an important activity in a way Web search "perverts it" providing a powerful mechanism of "instant gratification" not that different from chemical stimulants and narcotics.   The resulting lack of debth ("Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."), while partially can be attributed to author's aging (as well as "overproduction of shallow material" -- another sign of aging) is observable in younger generation too and as such is a troubling development. Something superficially similar (I would in a fuzzy way define it as the desire for "low hanging fruit" ???) might also be observable in the other Internet inspired form of human activity -- distributed collaboration (see The Ignorance of Crowds ).

As Carr noted Web not only "... supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought".  But it is unclear to me to what extent this is a direct effect of WEB as the medium and to what extent is  can be attributed to the information overload the WEB immanently associated with. Please note that very similar symptoms  are typical for information overload.

While analogy with Taylor looks unconvincing, the influence of typewriter on Nietzsche style is interesting albeit equally attributable to progressing illness.  Many fiction writers actually preferred typewriters to handwriting with completely opposite results ;-).

Still one supporting example that I know is the fact the Donald Knuth is writing both his books and programs by hand. He claims that typing is too fast for his mental processes and interferes with thinking.  Here are some interesting reactions and commentaries:

The Ignorance of Crowds

In summer 2007 he published the article The Ignorance of Crowds (Strategy+Business Issue 47 | Summer 2007). While Carr observation about open source development are basically secondary, his assessment of Wikipedia is far more interesting:

But for all its breadth and popularity, Wikipedia is a deeply flawed product. Individual articles are often poorly written and badly organized, and the encyclopedia as a whole is unbalanced, skewed toward popular culture and fads. It’s hardly elitist to point out that something’s wrong with an encyclopedia when its entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as its entry on Homer. Eric Raymond himself has become one of Wikipedia’s harshest critics. “The more you look at what some of the Wikipedia contributors have done, the better [Encyclopaedia] Britannica looks,” he told the New Yorker in 2006. If Wikipedia weren’t free, it is unlikely its readers would be so forgiving of its failings.

... ... ...

...The contributions of Wikipedia’s volunteers go directly into the product without passing through any editorial filter. The process is more democratic, but the quality of the product suffers.

Aware of Wikipedia’s flaws, Wales and other contributors have been trying hard to improve the quality of the site’s content. A management team has slowly been taking shape, and it is establishing editorial policies and policing contributions. But even though this nascent hierarchy has already become much more bureaucratic than Linux’s lean managerial structure, it hasn’t yet been able to substantially improve Wikipedia. The failure appears to stem from the makeup of the supervisory group. Whereas the Linux team is a strict meritocracy, Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent. When you move from the bazaar to the cathedral, it’s best to leave your democratic ideals behind.

Here I think he caught an important problem with distributed cooperation (aka "peer production") which contrary to his desire to please Linux crowd is actually applicable to Linux codebase too: the final quality is not stable and in a long time approximates the level of the typical (and sometimes even the weakest) contributor (variant of regression to mean applied to open source).

All too often, a single obstructionist can kill a project which would have benefitted the entire community. If the project was abandoned by the original author one envious person can bulldoze important parts of codebase and dumb them down and destroyed beautiful algorithms. In case of Wikipedia a "vanity-fair" driven editor can replace reasonably written articles with banalities and no one will raises a protest if the original author did not check the article.  Increate of creative destruction we have  variant of book burning in electronic form. also when too many people own pieces of one thing, cooperation breaks down, quality disappears, and everybody loses. This paradox of collectivism is at the center of "peer production" model.  See Fighting Raymondism: Open Source Software Development as a Special Type of Academic Research

Several articles were devoted to analysis of the problems on open collaboration on the example of Wikipedia, including such important and widespread phenomenon as "bogging the information down" and vandalism.

He further develop his critique of Wikipedia in several blog posts:

Article to be incorporated later:

Nicholas Carr The net is being carved up into information plantations Technology The Guardian

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