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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Ashdown Group: Solvency II Project Manager - 10 month contract - £800 p/d

£800 per day: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, global financial services co...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£12500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'