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There's a piece in the Guardian about the rise of crowdfunding, and how it shifted from a medium for art projects to a means of decentralised organisation of practical endeavours requiring money, and turned into a means for circumventing market failures:
Kickstarter itself is changing under the influence of digital culture. At first it was about making established forms of art. Film was big – documentaries about organic community vegetable gardens were not uncommon. Now that is changing. It is becoming a land of gadget makers and gamers.
This new communal instinct can do amazing things like route around the warping influence of capitalism and digital platform wars. Look at projects like Open Trip Planner. This takes a bit of unravelling but basically the benefit of good maps on smartphones became endangered by Apple's titanic battle for market supremacy with Google. Apple are attempting to strip Google products like maps from iPhones and this left users with crappy transport info – Open Trip Planner is the communal answer to a hierarchical fall out.The article mentions OpenTripPlanner, an open-source alternative to trip planning systems which seems to be doing for trip planning what OpenStreetMap did for geodata, and the Pebble watch, a Bluetooth-enabled smart watch designed without the backing of a large electronics corporation, and the fact that Kickstarter is expanding to the UK.
In other crowdfunding news, Matthew Inman, who runs The Oatmeal web comic, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise US$850,000 buy Nikola Tesla's old laboratory (put on the market by AGFA and expected to be bought by property developers); the campaign met its target in under a week and has since raised over a million dollars.
The onward march of the internet age has taken a historic casualty: yesterday, Encyclopaedia Britannica has announced that it is giving up printing encyclopaedias; those solidly shelf-filling expanses of dead information bound in leather and gold ink, which many a parent paid handsomely for their children to have access to, will soon be as dead as the Pony Express. The last edition of the Britannica to appear is the 2010 edition, whose new entries included global warming and the Human Genome Project.
In the 1950s, having the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, a possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. Buying a set was often a financial stretch, and many families had to pay for it in monthly installments.
Sales of the Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. But now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of the Britannica’s revenue. About 85 percent of revenue comes from selling curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language; 15 percent comes from subscriptions to the Web site, the company said.The Britannica is a casualty of the shifting economics of information, the rise of the internet, and more specifically, the rise of Wikipedia; now that collating information no longer requires an expensive infrastructure (such as a business with dozens of editors and experts) but only some servers and the good will of countless volunteers across the world, traditional encyclopaedias have found their raison d'etre diminishing. The Britannica fought against this tide, pooh-poohing the Wikipedia approach, with its lack of formal authority, and asserting that nothing good can possibly come of it, only to find itself losing market share to something good enough; orders of magnitude broader in subject matter, almost instantaneously up to date, and not so catastrophically unreliable as to negate these points (and, in fact, according to some studies, not significantly more error-prone than the Britannica). Soon, the price of encyclopaedias crashed, with Craigslist being littered with second-hand sets whose owners no longer have a need (or space) for them; meanwhile, of the 12,000 copies of the 2010 Britannica printed, 1/3 languish unsold in a warehouse.
The Britannica company will keep publishing an online edition, accessible by a $70 annual subscription fee, in the hope that enough people will find its conservative editorial approach a selling point rather than a liability.
The USA, the usual cliché goes, is the country without a political Left. The leftmost party in its duopoly, the Democrats, are somewhere vaguely to the right of the Tories/Christian Democrats in European terms; a universal welfare state is dismissed as immoral lunacy, state-funded universal health care is unthinkable and even public transport is treated in much of the country as a stigmatised welfare system for the unworthy poor. There are various theories about why this is so; from the US having been founded by that anomalous subset of people bold and/or crazy enough to leave their countries and travel to an unknown land and tough and/or lucky enough to have survived through to speculations about cultural transmission. John Steinbeck, author of the Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, once stated that socialism never took hold in America because there the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and given how many of the American working poor are vehemently against measures that would materially benefit them (though might cramp the style of their future wealthy selves), there could be some truth in that.
Now, however, it seems that the US progressive movement, unconstrained as it is by having any sort of established record to stand on, may be leapfrogging the more established European Left, taking advantage of the decentralised, network-oriented mindset of the internet age.
In December, a poll by the Pew Research Center found support for socialism now outweighs support for capitalism among a younger generation of Americans. In 2012 so far, in a spectacular series of victories, American progressives have taken on big oil, Hollywood and (some people's version of) God, winning every time.(Mind you, the renewed popularity of “socialism” might not so much suggest Americans embracing Marx and thinking that a five-year plan might not be so bad after all as the Republican Party, Fox News and right-wing talk radio having defined any reasonably humane idea, from universal health care to questioning whether hedge-fund managers really are our betters, as “socialism”.)
Today's American left is where the old world of community organising and the new world of social media meet. The dismal official European left, by contrast, has neither invested in their past, nor in their future, discarding their history, ignoring new technology. Our only hope, if Obama, as looks likely, is re-elected, is that he might perhaps consider a new Marshall plan, to rebuild a left in Europe that's everywhere in ruins.
Meanwhile, it looks like OpenStreetMap may be on the verge of doing to commercial, closed mapping services (such as Google Maps and Microsoft's Bing Maps) what Wikipedia did to Encyclopaedia Britannica's previously unassailable position. Wikipedia's David Gerard suggests that mapping and geodata may be the next dinosaur to sink into the tarpit; now that Google are moving to squeeze more revenue out of their popular Maps product, some businesses are finding that it makes more sense to use OpenStreetMap, and invest in improving it where it falls short:
I think that someone at Google got their pricing wrong by an order of magnitude. Large companies might be willing to pay that kind of licenses, but this is not the CMS market in 1998, where people would pay half a million for a Vignette license and another million for Oracle. There are so many open source options out there that the value of proprietary solutions has come down dramatically.And no less a publication than Wired has an article on switching to OpenStreetMap:
Since Nestoria made the switch to OSM, he says, the company has received almost no complaints about the change in its map background. Some users in remote areas of Europe, he adds, have even praised the new interface for the details it provides on their little towns. What’s more, in making the switch to OSM, Nestoria gained some flexibility it never had with Google.Among the takeaways from the article: old-school mapping company MapQuest (remember them? they were around in the ancient NCSA Mosaic days when slideable maps didn't exist, and you had to click on one of eight arrows to move to the next square), once vanquished by Google Maps, having been reborn as a frontend and contributor to OSM. Which suggests that OSM has achieved the sort of critical mass that going it alone to compete with the dominant vendors makes as little sense as Google's in-house Wikipedia competitor Knol (which they euthanased a year or two ago).
Google may not be taking the market for their mapping product being commodified lying down: there are reports of someone polluting OpenStreetMap data, coming from the same IP addresses belonging to a Google unit in India who were earlier caught trying to rip off a Kenyan crowdsourced business directory. (Given that Google have in the past contributed to OpenStreetMap, this seems somewhat out of character; unless the gloves have come off and "don't be evil" has been declared a non-core promise.)
In the light of Wikipedia disappearing for a day in protest against the SOPA law, an article by an assistant professor comparing the philosophy of Wikipedia with that of traditional paper encyclopaedias:
Reading the high-quality, professionally edited entries in my library’s encyclopedias was an eye-opener and a guilty pleasure — you could learn so much with so little effort! And you don’t have to work as hard untangling the entries the way you do with Wikipedia! But this is exactly the problem with closed, for-profit encyclopedias: they require no work. In fact, they require just the opposite: submission to authority. The writing guidelines for my encyclopedia entry insist that there be no quotations or citations — just a short list of additional readings. Encyclopedias give us no reason to believe their claims are true except the arbitrary authority of those who write them. They are the ultimate triumph of the authoritarian impulse in academics.
It is this refusal of arbitrary authority that really scares encyclopedia types, not worries about accuracy. Wikipedia is a place where you must learn to think for yourself, encyclopedias are places where you are told what to believe.It's interesting that the authoritarian underpinnings of the encyclopaedia, necessary for the purposes of aggregating broadly accepted knowledge within convenient reach, went all but unnoticed (and, had anybody noticed and criticised them, they would have sounded like some kind of hopelessly idealistic hippy Arcadian) until the disintermediating power of the internet demonstrated that another world is possible.
Read: White Barbarian, an essay by a French Wikipedia contributor, vividly defending Wikipedia's culture:
I'm ten. Every week for French class we are required to select a book from the class library. I already can't stand the classics, so I reach for a gamebook. The searing glare from my teacher confirms that just because I'm allowed to take the book does not mean I can. I take it anyway.
I'm fourteen. A colleague of my father spots me as I'm idly tapping keys on a demo synthesizer at the local department store. He takes his time to explain how this is worthless; such instruments warrant nothing but contempt and true music requires no amplifiers. I suddenly develop an interest for electronic music.
I'm twenty-eight. I discover on Wikipedia that tons of people share my unusual knowledge. Some try to convince me that the method is flawed and you can't treat all topics as equal. By nature incapable of listening to such arguments, I ignore the bores. So does everybody else, anyway. The bores get annoyed at this fact and proceed to announce they are Right and everybody else is Wrong. I'm not sure I get that logic.And it concludes...
I am a barbarian. A well-educated barbarian, mind you, who has read and listened to all the right things, but a barbarian nonetheless. Left to my own devices I will always develop completely nonstandard interests, and experience taught me that, no matter what, people expect me to acknowledge what I like to be intrinsically inferior. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that the world is full of people like me. I can't tell you about the rest of the universe, but to those here that expect me to give way again, I say this: go take a stroll in another encyclopedia.
Wikipedia's Rome wasn't invaded by barbarians. It was built by them. Oftentimes I go for a walk on the city's Forum and hear an orator trying to rally the crowd to his cause and explaining that the barbarians are at the city's doors. I'm still laughing.The original French, by the way, is here.
(via David Gerard)
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