The view from Silicon Valley

As I start this column, I face a blank computer document in OpenOffice, the Linux equivalent of Microsoft Office. As I type and save, the hard drive of the machine I'm using (a server belonging to a service called Workspot) begins to accumulate information. When I'm done, my home directory at Workspot will contain more information than when I started. If you charted my progress at intervals, you'd see a rising curve as the information accumulated. You might choose to describe the curve as a gradient: a procession from a time where there's no information, to one where there are some 600 words putting over an idea – that is, information. On the web, there are gradients over time, but also from address to address. But there's a bit of a twist.

Consider Google: relative to, say, gulker.com, or almost any other internet address, Google has a huge amount of information, and therefore a very large information gradient relative to other sites. But in another sense, Google itself doesn't have much of a gradient. The information there is just as easily accessed by one user as another: there are no "secret" enclaves of information accessible only to people who type in the right request. (As far as we know.) Gradients in information space seem to depend both on the amount of information, and its accessibility.

In physical space, a given amount of substance can't be moved without changing a gradient. Not so in information space: the same information can exist in two places at once – say, on my home page and in Google's cache. It is normal for information to increase, and to spread, and thus for information gradients to be relatively flat in open systems such as the web. But steep information gradients are possible, too. Imagine a genius weblogger working in isolation: if no one links to her site, the information is unavailable and the gradient is steep. The first reader to land on her site would have an advantage over others in the use of our genius's work. But once many other sites link to her, the gradient goes away. Everyone can get to the information, and the advantage is widely available. This is how weblogs work: find one that interests you, and you'll quickly find the best and brightest 'blogging in that field.

Put another way, shallow or flat gradients are democratic: everybody has equal access to the benefits that the information may confer. Steep gradients on the other hand, are advantageous to the few at the expense of the many.

Steep gradients might be bad or good, depending on which side you find yourself. (Think of people inside and outside brokerages selling dot.com shares during the boom.) Over time, however, steep gradients are, by definition, bad for the majority, and good for a minority. The rise in prosperity on our planet has tracked the spread of democracy, leading me to believe that shallow gradients are good for all in the long run, and steep ones are bad.

So the web is good, weblogs are good, and Google, as long as it behaves the same for everyone, is good. But projects such as the eavesdropping Echelon and the US's "Total Information Awareness" project are bad, since they represent steep gradients. It doesn't matter how well-intended such projects are: if the gradient is steep, over time they benefit a few at the expense of many.

www.gulker.com

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - City, London

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence