Wednesday, February 21

A turning point in human society

What would get me so excited that I'd write this, as I did to a friend the other day: “Will change dramatically the way humans interact with one another.”

And further, to say we're at “a turning point in human society.”

Would you believe, I've been stimulated by a video – a celebration of Web 2.0.

But what are we celebrating? What is Web 2.0? That's part of the fascination – nobody is really confident of a definition. It's like, “I know it when I see it.”

The World Wide Web, and other services which use the internet, have rocketed ahead in just over a decade. In 1993, only 80 websites existed around the world.

The simple HTML tags conceived by Tim Berners Lee to control how text would display on a computer screen were steadily supplemented and superseded by much more complex coding which can make the tyro's head swim and the website sing and dance – CSS, PERL, Javascript, CGI, MySQL, and all the rest of it.

So, considering the breathtaking history of the WWW's development, what makes Web 2.0 so different that people are numbering it to suggest a whole new generation?

You could define Web 2.0 as a basket of technologies which carry the World Wide Web into a new era. But I feel the excitement comes not from the technologies per se, but from the extraordinary speed at which they are reshaping the Web into a world community which anyone can join without high-level computer skills.

If anything, it's the way that it's now so easy to participate – in two-way traffic – which defines Web 2.0. And this participation is what makes me think we're looking at the one of mankind's biggest social revolutions.

It's a rough analogy, but perhaps we can compare it with what happened after modern nations began extending universal, if rudimentary, education to the lower classes in the 19th century.

Many of the newly and poorly educated people went no further, although they created a mass market for the penny-dreadful press which met their needs – the equivalent of today's readers of "celebrity" magazines.

But others grabbed that basic literacy, then built on it with study in politics, economics and social theories at mechanics institutes, schools of arts and literary institutes.

[To Australia's good fortune, many of them then escaped the ossified class structure of British society – if you were born to a farm labourer's family, you were expected to remain a labourer – by migrating. Check out a biography of Sir Henry Parkes to understand what I'm rabbiting on about. ]

Where once we opened opportunities to entire populations with rudimentary public education plus a self-improvement movement, today we have the Web 2.0 revolution.

As with elementary education, the majority of users will have simple needs – sending news and photos to far away family, or running a Britney fan club. Nothing wrong with that.

Millions of people – idiots, savants, fanatics, as well as sensible people like you and me – are already out there on the playing field. The blog ranking service Technorati ( now tracks almost 60 million blogs. Every day, 10,000 new blogs are created and some 1.3 million entries are posted to blogs. (Puts my little effort into perspective.) Yes, blogging is part of Web 2.0.

I'd like to see a debate about where Web 2.0 may take us. Will we see a mob psychology, or will it deliver the biggest leap in participatory democracy mankind has ever known? Will it encourage a new elite of thinkers and activists to emerge? (I think this is already happening.)

Will an intelligent woman in a Sudanese village, perhaps using a computer costing only a few dollars because of Bill Gates's philanthropy, be able to offer insights into our world because she can connect to like-minded thinkers around the globe?

Will we have to redefine values such as ethics, equity, copyright, love, family, etc? Or, more to my thinking, buttress them against the pressures rising around us all – even if we have to reevaluate the methods by which we sustain them.

Quality and integrity will have to be constantly in our minds, both in evaluating the information we exchange and in our dealings with people who otherwise remain unknown to us. But how do we make sure that happens?

Young people are right on top of the technology, but do we have the right type of teachers and mentors to stimulate and guide their thinking on issues of quality and integrity. (There's more discussion on this in my other blog.)

Who is going to preach literacy, that precious skill which allows civilised people to communicate with precision, with nuanced subtlety or sledgehammer force as the need dictates?

Big questions, worth thinking about. I'm an optimist. I think the answers will emerge along with the technology.

Okay, I've tried to make you read this essay before giving you the link to the video, which is on YouTube (yeah, that's Web 2.0 too). Here's the link. Hope you enjoy it:

If you haven't got your kids around to tell you what to do, this may help. YouTube will open with the video in a small window. You can freeze the video or replay it with the buttons and slider below the image. The button on the far right below the video window will enlarge the video to your full screen

Note: I have an associated blog, Grumpy Old Tutor, in which I have developed some of my ideas about education. You'll find it here.

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