Andrew Keen on New Media
The ancient city of dreaming spires embraces the internet generation
Monday 02 June 2008
The knowledge business is getting wikified. Last week I was at Balliol College at Oxford University with Wikipedia co-founder Dr Larry Sanger to debate the proposition that "the internet is the future of knowledge". And we agreed that today's open-source internet – with its user-generated wikis and blogs – was indeed radically democratising the way in which knowledge is now being created and distributed.
It was ironic, of course, to discuss the democratisation of knowledge in medieval Oxford. That crooked city of narrow doorways, iron gates and ubiquitous walls, after all, is about as democratic as the House of Lords. The old university is a protected, protective community of elites who have, for centuries, monopolised wisdom. Oxford represents the ivory tower business model for knowledge and it's been pretty much the only privileged game in town since 1263 when a wealthy landowner, Lord John de Balliol, founded Balliol, Oxford's founding College.
The two founders of Wikipedia, the erudite Dr Sanger, an epistemology scholar, and his entrepreneurial sidekick, Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales, were neither wealthy nor landowners when they founded their revolutionary digital knowledge site in 2001.
Their inclusive Wikipedia turns exclusive Oxford on its aristocratic head. With its absence of narrow doorways, high walls or locked gates, the open-source Wikipedia – with its 10 million articles in 253 languages created by hundreds of thousands of contributors – is the architectural and pedagogical antithesis of Balliol College.
In contrast with Balliol, any digital citizen can enter the Wikipedia site, anyone can join its intellectual community, anyone can edit anybody else's mistakes. Yes, the knowledge business is getting wikified. Almost 750 years after John de Balliol founded his eponymous college, Sanger and Jimbo Wales might have founded something of equally revolutionary historical significance. Sites like Wikipedia and Sanger's current digital project Citizendium are radically democratising the knowledge business. The peer-to-peer production of open-source information is increasingly becoming mainstream. Even traditional knowledge companies are integrating Web 2.0 tools like wikis, podcasts and blogs into their business and media strategies.
Take, for example, the deal announced in April between the German publisher Bertelsmann and the German language edition of Wikipedia. The Bertelsmann subsidiary Wissen Media are planning to publish 50,000 of Wikipedia's most frequently searched keywords in Wikipedia in a physical book. To be called the "Lexical Yearbook", it will sell for €20 (£16) and should be available in German bookshops by September.
Whereas the Germans are adapting Wikipedia to their own market, the French think that they can outwiki Wikipedia by creating their own version of the open-source knowledge website. Last month, the French publisher Larousse announced its intention to publish a French language open-source with free access to its dictionary and tools to enable users to create their own entries. In America, Google has introduced its own wannabe Wikipedia killer called Knol. And even Britannica, the British born but now US-based encyclopedia, is just about to introduce a seductively interactive new website which includes new editing tools that allow users to suggest updates and revisions to Britannica's content.
The Aussies are getting into the wiki action too. Beginning from the next academic year, high school students in New South Wales will be able to take a course exclusively dedicated to studying Wikipedia. It will become an official part of the "Global Village" elective in the school curriculum and will be designed to familiarize Australian students with using the Wikipedia site for academic research.
But what about Oxford itself? Will the digital trumpets bring down the walls of the ancient university? Perhaps. My discussion with Sanger was held in Oxford Internet Institute – a kind of hi-tech Trojan horse cleverly embedded inside the ancient brick walls of Balliol.
And our audience of Oxford faculty and students was anything but snooty in their enthusiastic appreciation for the democratic potential of the Web 2.0 knowledge revolution.
Even Balliol's powers-that-be seem to get Wikipedia's historical significance. After the debate, Sanger and I had the honour of eating in Balliol's cathedral-like dining hall – one of those Brideshead-style inner sanctums that most ordinary mortals never get to see. After dinner, the robed Master of Balliol spirited Dr Sanger off to illuminate the rest of the Balliol community with the secrets of wiki business. I wonder why. Perhaps Balliol is planning to wikify itself. Perhaps it is planning to make anyone with an internet connection into a college Fellow.
Dance music is beating digital Darwinism law
One of the great ironies of the new media age is that in an environment of digital ubiquity, the physical acquires more and more value. This is particularly true in the music business where, in the midst of the collapse of sales of recorded music, the concert side of the business is extremely healthy. Artists may be struggling to sell copies of their music on plastic, vinyl or digitally, but they are cashing in on gigs and the myriad of spin-off merchandising opportunities.
This truth was underlined to me last week when I attended the International Music Summit (IMS) on the island of Ibiza, an industry get-together of club scene notables in the dance music business. Whereas the traditional music industry is in the doldrums, electronica is experiencing a golden age. This is because the electronica business is less focused on hits than on artists working week-in-week-out as DJs on the dance music circuit.
Also, because the dance music community is more closely knit than the hits-driven music business, digital consumers tend to be more respectful of the intellectual property rights of artists.
Internet piracy, then, tends to be much less of a problem in electronica than it is in mainstream music.
I sat on a panel entitled "Digital Darwinism" at IMS. But the good news is that the struggle for survival is much less Darwinian in electronica than elsewhere in the music business. Examples of flourishing and profitable dance music websites include DJDownload.com and Beatport.com.
Electronica has much to teach the rest of the music world and mainstream labels need to take note of the club scene. Like me, they might even subject themselves to the hardship of a late May trip to Ibiza to do some primary research on the one sector of the music business where things remain incredibly exciting.
Rumour and innuendo without delay
Fancy assembling your own raw broadcast news? A new American website, LiveNewsCameras.com, gives internet viewers direct web feeds from 150 television stations from America and overseas including ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. So now you'll get the breaking news of car crashes, terrorist bombs and homicides at the very same moment as the networks.
Borrowing words from Seneca's version of Oedipus, LiveNewsCameras.com's motto is "veritas odit moras" which translates as "truth hates delay". Is that really true though? I suspect, instead, that truth actually depends on delay for verification and clarification from trained journalists who are able to contextualise breaking news. Without delay, I fear, truth will be replaced by rumour, innuendo and confusion.
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