In a provocative essay entitled The Amorality of Web 2.0, Nicholas Carr skewers the idealism of folks like me and Kevin Kelly, both of whom have pointed out the potential of Web 2.0 to harness collective intelligence. Carr makes some good points — even I am getting worried that the Web 2.0 hype is getting out of control — but he does it in a way that I find disappointing, and increasingly common. His method is what Plato described thousands of years ago as sophism, “making the better appear the worse,” not engaging in argument about the substance of what someone else is saying, but framing the discussion with straw men that can easily be demolished, arguments designed to win points rather than elicit truth.
For example, Carr focuses his argument against “collective intelligence” almost entirely on Wikipedia, ignoring all of the other examples described in my What is Web 2.0? article. And even in his discussion of Wikipedia, he makes the now-expected attack on the quality of entries with a few cheap shots rather than substantial analysis. While there clearly are problems with many Wikipedia articles, so too are there problems with traditional media. How can we castigate Wikipedia as flawed when our conservative television news services managed to persuade their viewers that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and that evidence was found linking Saddam Hussein to the Al Quaida attacks on 9/11!
What’s more, Carr’s article demonstrates the utility of Web 2.0 even as it denigrates the idea, displaying trackbacks from all over the web, and a rich tapestry of comments from readers. I’m writing this piece here, knowing that it will also be reflected automatically into the feedback on Carr’s article. How remarkable would that have been only a few years ago, and how mundane today?
It’s too bad that we can’t have a real debate about ideas, rather than cynical rhetoric that creates heat without shedding much light. I agree with Carr’s fundamental premise, about the amorality of technology, and the need to pour cold water on the idea that somehow new tools will change human nature. However, I wish he’d shown a little less amorality in his own writing.