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The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0

On the people-powered net, you're just another number

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Column Imagine a world in which parents read to their children in the evening, not because it was a pleasurable and meaningful activity, but as an investment in the child's future earning potential. Or consider a close-knit neighbourhood in which people clubbed together on social events not so as to enjoy a sense of community, but so as to reduce the risk of their property being damaged.

This "rational choice" view of society is most closely associated with the work of Gary Becker, one of the world's most celebrated and also most controversial living economists. Since the 1950s, his work has pushed the boundaries of economics ever further into foreign territories, using economic methods to analyse such seemingly non-economic phenomena as drug addiction, families and crime. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992, and he is in many ways the godfather of the recent fad of pop economics, exemplified in the best-selling Freakonomics.

Strange as it might sound, not least to Becker himself, he may also be considered the closest thing Web 2.0 has to an ideologue. The same spirit of adventure that characterises Web 2.0 is present in Becker's work. But the two also share the same delusions about human beings, and it's these that may be more consequential.

Humans as selfish equations

Along with many colleagues at the legendary Chicago School of Economics, Becker's achievement was to see that economics needn't confine itself to studying markets. Economics, for Becker, was simply a particular way of understanding any social behaviour. What distinguished it from other social sciences was not its domain of study, but its guiding assumption that individuals will always act rationally to maximise their own satisfaction.

The implications of this are stark. All altruistic, moral, cultural or emotional behaviour becomes reconceived as the outcome of individual calculation. It is no longer just businessmen and traders whose behaviour can be understood in terms of rational self-interest, but that of politicians, parents and neighbours.

This is a novel and unsettling way of viewing society. But what has it got to do with Web 2.0?

The first dotcom boom was principally about putting the internet to work in increasing the efficiency of existing services. There was already a market for books, but Amazon found a way of cutting out the inefficiency of the high street. The government already obliged car owners to pay tax on their vehicles, but the web offered a way of avoiding the tedium of post office queues when doing so. This became known as disintermediation.

While these sorts of efficiencies aren't necessarily limited to markets situations (as the car tax example demonstrates), they are all one-to-many services. They feature an organisation that resembles a 'producer' offering something to individuals who resemble 'consumers', who usually have some choice about whether or not to accept it. To apply efficiency criteria in such situations can be controversial, as arguments about reform of the NHS demonstrate, but even traditionalists have to accept there are financial constraints which have to be taken into account.

The significance of the new Web 2.0 services is that it abandons this conventional one-to-many model of service provision, and sets about exploiting the many-to-many potential of the internet. Rather than using the web to connect producers to consumers, it is used to connect individuals to each other.

The examples are familiar. Last.fm aggregates and organises the musical tastes of its users to provide personalised music recommendations to them. Facebook offers endless new ways to connect individuals around existing friendships, shared interests or events. In the civic sphere, Pledgebank provides a mechanism to get new voluntary movements or group activities off the ground without central organisation.

Of course many-to-many communication precedes even the internet we know today. Email mailing lists and message boards were features of the first Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), and migrated to the internet. They are both examples of individuals grouping together in a self-organising fashion.

What has changed is that these otherwise secluded and organic realms of social interaction are now the focus of obsessive technological innovation and commercial interest. The same technological zeal and business acumen that once was applied to improving the way we buy a book or pay our car tax is now being applied to the way we engage in social and cultural activities with others.

In short, efficiency gains are no longer being sought only in economic realms such as retail or public services, but are now being pursued in parts of our everyday lives where previously they hadn't even been imagined. Web 2.0 promises to offer us ways of improving the processes by which we find new music, new friends, or new civic causes. The hassle of undesirable content or people is easier to cut out. We have become consumers of our own social and cultural lives.

It's here that the connection with Gary Becker becomes plain. Where Becker took the utilitarian assumptions of economics and pushed them into areas of society seemingly untouched by rational self-interest, Web 2.0 takes the efficiency-enhancing capabilities of digital technology and pushes them into areas of society previously untouched by efficiency criteria.

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