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,, 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 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Wes Brown is sent-off
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager / Financial Services

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 1999, a highly r...

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower