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The Virtual Revolution

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Africa, the birthplace of mankind. But it's not the past that brings me here, it's the future. Africa has just been plugged into broadband, and as the worldwide web grows and spreads across the continent, it's transforming all that it touches. The small town of Abiriw in Ghana is just one of the latest to be hooked up to the globe. I'm travelling with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the web. It's 20 years since he made his breakthrough and now, the divide between the digital haves and have-nots is shrinking fast. I think the web is about connecting humanity. Now that we've got to the point that 20-25% of the world are using it, then suddenly the question is what about the other 80%? This community centre may not look like much, but it's the new frontier of this virtual revolution. It was a little bit like going back in time to when people first came across the web. We wouldn't in the early days have been anything like as presumptuous as to say, "How can we make sure this gets to the furthest reaches of rural Africa?" But what exactly is it that we've created over the last 20 years? What does it mean? Is our wired digital world a blessing or a curse? If the web does take root in Africa, as it has done elsewhere, then this will be the next continent to be reshaped by the digital revolution. But how has the web affected us in the 20 years since it was created, and what does that mean for the future of the people here and the majority of the world who aren't yet connected? The web is the defining technological revolution of our lifetimes. Almost two billion of us are now online. And in the 10 years that I've been studying the web and writing about it as a journalist, I've seen it take our world and shake it apart. The web has created unimaginable wealth, yet encouraged millions to work for nothing. It's challenged authority, yet allowed regimes to spy and censor as never before. And it's been blamed for creating a generation of web addicts, yet opened up new realms of knowledge. In this series, I'll be meeting all the pioneers and key players, everybody from Google to Facebook, Twitter to Amazon. The people who've helped bring about this seemingly unstoppable levelling of power, culture and values that's having such an impact on all of our daily lives. Well, the web is how mankind communicates nowadays. The internet has become a brain, the smartest brain in the world. It is an empowering tool that has more potential than any other that human civilization has ever developed. The world is just going to keep getting more and more open, there's going to be more information about everything. This is astounding technology, and we should just take a moment to celebrate the power and the reach that it gives us. And so this is the story of the web. But it's more than that. This is also the story of how the web is remaking our world. It's been more than two centuries since we last witnessed anything of the same scale and speed as the upheaval now being ushered in by the web. The industrial revolution was powered by what was then a radical new technology - steam. And now the web heralds the next great revolution. Why? Well, because it does for information what steam once did for physical force. It supercharges it. The web allows anyone to publish and to distribute words, images, videos and software globally, instantly and virtually for free. A quarter of the planet now uses the web. On any given day in the British Isles, over 35 million of us will log on. For the first time on television, using a unique data sample of eight million of those people, we can track exactly how we are in the grip of the web. The web is where we spend our money. Around a billion pounds a week. Britain's most active e-shoppers? In Swansea. With Kirkwall in the Orkneys in second place. It's where we fall in love, with five million of us using a dating website every month. Manchester and Central London have proportionally the most online lonely hearts. It's where we get our sexual kicks. Surveys have suggested up to 40% of British men view web porn. The highest density of visits to adult sites is in Harrogate, with Bromley close behind. And the web is where we express opinion. 18 million of us read blogs. Dumfries the least, West London the most. The web is a revolution. It's been hailed as the great levelling of humanity. A new frontier that gives us all equal access, equal voice, equal potential. The pioneers who paved the way for the web thought of it as the ultimate empowering tool and so, it came wrapped in an attitude, an online ideology that wants to give power to the people. The internet is a kind of rebellion. These people were opposed to the notion of hierarchy and authority. The people who originally created the internet were by and large social misfits who wanted to go on being social misfits. In a way the libertarians have found their way to a space that is perfect for them to play out their ideas. It has completely blown apart and levelled access to communications and collaboration. The web is a great leveller, of course, it's one of the goals of the web. In this film, I want to explore how the dream of levelling is playing out through the web. How it's overturning long held notions of ownership, value and expertise. How it's challenging business models and how the equality promised by the web clashes with human nature, our innate desire to profit and control. It's about the meaning of this conflict and about how that has helped to create the web, this messy, beguiling and hugely powerful phenomenon that we know today. The ultimate claim for the web as an empowering tool is that it blows open access to knowledge. To find out how, I've come to one of the new pillars of the American educational establishment. No, not an Ivy League college like Harvard or Princeton, but the town of Dixon, New Mexico, where they're celebrating Labor Day. I'm here to meet Einar Kvaran. Today, he's playing drums in his band. But at home, he's a quiet revolutionary. Einar is part of a remarkable endeavour that uses the web to allow ordinary people to create something extraordinary. He's a legendary and prolific contributor to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that's becoming the most important information source in the world. When I first heard about it, I thought this is the craziest thing, this can't possibly even happen. How can you have, have something that anybody in the world can edit? How can you trust it? What's even the point of it? More than 65 million people around the world use Wikipedia each month. And instead of just accessing knowledge, they can author and edit it. The site's 14 million articles are the result of anonymous contributions from people like Einar, who don't need any formal qualifications. I have a list of something over 1,000 articles. If anyone makes an edit in that article, it will appear on my checklist. And if I disagree with it, I will undo it, and then if they disagree with my undoing they can undo it. That's kind of the basic premise, that anybody in the world who has access to a computer can get on and edit the information. The idea is that instead of truth, knowledge and accuracy being agreed on by experts and handed down by an elite from above, it will slowly emerge from the masses and come up from below. But by challenging centuries of scholarship, this new form of people power has ignited a huge argument. I despise Wikipedia. I loathe Wikipedia. I'm appalled by Wikipedia. I use it throughout the day. I think that the web... It's greatest miracle is of convenience, but the price they pay for being so speedy and available is in accuracy. I challenge anybody to find a better, faster source of perfectly acceptable knowledge for almost all purposes that you would require as a normal citizen. Wikipedia is a prime example of how the web seems to empower each and every one of us. It offers something for free, it undercuts authority, and it enables ordinary people to shape knowledge together. In other words, it fulfils the levelling dreams of the web's founding fathers. To understand how the web gave rise to Wikipedia, we have to understand the web's roots in a culture of free will and self expression that can be traced back 40 years. # There's something happening here # What it is ain't exactly clear... # The levelling ambitions of the online world can be traced back to the counter culture of the 1960s. And the epicentre of this hippy idealism? San Francisco. # Stop, children, what's that sound? # Everybody look what's going down... # ALAN WHICKER: No-one really knows what's happening in San Francisco, but this is where it's at. Traditional home of the way-out, today Mecca of happy hippies who are cracking the smooth silhouette of America's materialism with that ultimate weapon, with love. # Stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's... # Amidst the ferment, a particular strand of a philosophy known as libertarianism began to take root. It was a mix of both left and right wing ideas and rejected state control, the legal system and censorship, while emphasising the importance of individual free will. And while the counter cultural dream would fade away in the real world, in the 1970s, it found an unlikely place where these ideas would flourish. Previously, computers had been the preserve of governments, the military and large corporations. But now, for the first time, smaller, cheaper models began to put the technology in the hands of the people. And something remarkable happened. This counter cultural libertarianism found a new home on what was the early internet. The most concrete legacy of the counter culture is the internet. The values, the organisation, the rebellion, the resistance to authority were all encapsulated in the internet. Cheaper computers allowed the first online communities to develop. The longest surviving and also the most influential was called The Well. Over in the corner, that actually is The Well, right now. It was set up in 1985 near - where else? - San Francisco. And without The Well, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and all the other web communities may never have existed. A lot of people see The Well as kind of a place where they live and exist in a... not really intellectually, but in an information kind of sense. I met a member of The Grateful Dead on The Well. There's a certain percentage of people in The Well, who are what I would call intelligent misfits, who've made it work for ourselves. It was The Well that took libertarianism online. No-one was more influential in driving this extraordinary transition than the man who founded it. Stewart Brand once published the counter culture's bible, The Whole Earth Catalogue. He took part in a legal study of LSD and hung out with The Black Panthers. This is where The Well began and what went on here has helped define the entire online world. At the time, a fraction of 1% of the planet had encountered the internet. The Well gave many people their first taste of cyberspace. What was it like? There must have been a sense at that time that you wanted to change things, that you wanted to revolutionise communication, knowledge, community, the whole shebang? I think the assumption we were working on was that the revolution was in progress and we didn't have to push it. And mostly what was drawing us was a sense of curiosity - What happens if you poke this, try that and think of the other thing? And part of what we were doing was basically making a scene and so you just had this overlap of people who weren't rich yet, weren't powerful yet, but knew how much juice they had and what a huge opportunity space was opening up in front of us. Usually I check in news first to see what kinds of interesting things are happening, and then I go to wherever there's a controversy brewing. If it's lunchtime at the office and I don't feel like going out, I'll log into The Well and go into The Pets Conference and talk about my cats. If I've have a particularly stressful day, I go to the Weird Conference, which is where everybody lets it all hang out. There was three or four different flavours of sex conferences, from pretty hardcore to very gentle. There was the True Confessions Conference, where nobody said a bad thing to anybody else, no matter what they did and they were fessing up to. Many people credit The Well with infusing the early online world with an anything goes attitude, and it did. But for me what really stepped up the challenge to the established order was when one particular Well member took this attitude and developed it into a radical constitution for online freedom. This would be a key moment in creating the web that we know today. Cyberspace had found a prophet. John Perry Barlow, the lyricist of cult '60s group The Grateful Dead. He took the vague libertarian ideas espoused by many on The Well and started to give them real shape. And he also caused The Well's membership to rocket. When news leaked out that by joining The Well you could chat online with a member of The Grateful Dead, fans of the band rushed to join. Deadheads had been online since the very early days of the internet. What they spent most of their time doing was arguing with one another about our deficiencies. Ah, the internet! Right, you know. Barlow came to believe that the internet was a challenge to traditional authority, and by setting information free, it would help set us all free. You know, you don't have to control people much if you can control what they believe. And you can control what they believe if you control what they have access to. If you can control what they can know, the rest of it is a very simple matter. Barlow helped start the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation that campaigns for freedom online. It's based on beliefs he distilled in his Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace. "Governments of the industrial world, "you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace. "The new home of mind. "On behalf of the future, "I ask you of the past to leave us alone. "You are not welcome among us. "You have no sovereignty where we gather." It wasn't so much as, "Let the people go," it was a statement saying, "Hey, we're already gone, dude." You know. You're going to have a helluva time trying to catch us. "Your legal concepts of property, "expression, movement and context do not apply to us. "We will create a civilisation of the mind in cyberspace. "May it be more humane and fair "than the world your governments have made before." Barlow's manifesto argues that self expression should have no limits, and he believes that this free flow of information would confront authority. Today the world of blogging, online diaries and opinionated takes on the news shows that the revolution in freedom of expression can just as easily revert to mindless trivia. But some of the world's estimated 130 million blogs ARE stimulating a new and important kind of global conversation. The web allows people to express themselves, receive ideas, discuss them with others, reflect on them and then come up with what seem to them better ideas. That's a very exciting and revolutionary prospect. And, used in the right way, the web can fundamentally alter the political landscape. Ory Okolloh began as a blogger, campaigning for civil rights in Kenya. But soon she developed a dramatic new way to use the web to document reality and harness the power of the crowd. She was driven by the horrific violence in 2008 following elections in Kenya. At the time, I had gone home to vote for the election. It was my first time voting actually. And so, for me, it was a very emotional moment and I was also covering on my blog the period leading up to the campaign. It was a very contested election. I think none of us anticipated the fallout. The results of the elections were disputed, amidst allegations of ballot rigging. Tribal violence broke out between supporters of rival candidates. The official media struggled to cover the spreading crisis. So the people were getting information from their families and sending it to me and people locally, and I realised what I was seeing from the citizens was not being captured when I turned on the TV, what I was seeing. I mean, I thought, clearly if this is just me, one individual who's getting all this, there must be a lot of stuff going on that we're not seeing in the news. Ory pulled together a team and created a website called Ushahidi. Ushahidi means witness in Swahili and it allowed ordinary people to report attacks and create a minute-by-minute snapshot of the turmoil. By giving them a voice, it put pressure on the Kenyan authorities to take action to stem the violence. The attention was phenomenal, something we didn't anticipate. And what we quickly grew to realise was that there was a need for this kind of platform. And so we realised that we need to turn this into a tool that anybody can use. Ushahidi reminds me of the early days of the web. It seems to me that with sites like these we're actually realising the potential of the technology and that the world is grappling with what that all means. The web's ability to harness the power of millions of individual voices is unprecedented in human history. This appears to be the dream of the great levelling made real, a paradigm shift on a par with the invention of the printing press. We talk about the web and the internet as if they're the same thing, but they're not. The web is simply the links, information and web pages delivered to us over the infrastructure known as the internet. The roots of the internet can be traced back to early 1960s America, when military and university mainframe computers were hooked together via the telephone system. E-mail was born in 1965, and common standards began to allow files to be transferred between networks. But getting to information was still extremely difficult. Users had to know exactly where it was stored and how to tell their computer to find it, in effect, by phoning up another computer. The web as we experience it today, where anyone can access almost anything, just didn't exist. In this world before websites, if you went online, you were walled into small corners of cyberspace. To create the web as we now know it would take someone to write a common language that would link the data stored on computers around the planet. A man who would invent the worldwide web. I invented the web just because I needed it, really, because it was so frustrating that it didn't exist. Only by creating a global information network that anyone could access would the web become a levelling technology. The story of its development begins deep underground more than half a century ago. This is CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, only yards from the French frontier. In 1954, 12 European countries began collaborating on a project to smash the atom and unravel the mystery of the tiny particles that form its nucleus. Tim Berners-Lee began working there in 1980. It was an exciting environment, people coming from different countries, people coming from different universities, working for different people. And because they didn't all work for the same company, they weren't all told to buy the same software and buy the same computer, so they came with different sorts of computer, different sorts of software. So their documentation was all in different systems. You wouldn't be able to bring up the information from one thing at the same time as the other. You'd have to bring up the information from one and write it on the back of an envelope and then go onto the other system and maybe type it back in. Berners-Lee began to develop a radical new system to try and link all of the different computer systems that were being used by CERN's multinational workforce. He submitted a paper in 1989 with the deceptively mundane title Information Management: A Proposal. I wrote a memo about the idea and I put it around. It turned out that my boss had written, "Vague but exciting" in the top corner of his copy. And that was perhaps why he let me do the project in my spare time. Berners-Lee took some already existing software tools and created something revolutionary. His "vague but exciting" idea would become the worldwide web. And at CERN, on the 6th August 1991, the first website went online. I know that you'd love me to say that, well, I got it all wired up and then there was a big switch and we threw the switch and the lights dimmed for a moment, but then there was this incredible high-pitched whine and that was the web taking off, all across the world people starting to log on and type in hypertext, and we could feel the power of all these links spreading across the planet. And we just had to hold on tight and then the calls came in from the BBC and the New York Times and The Economist about what it was that was happening to the world as the stock market sort of took this incredible uptake. And then we turned it off. No, it was, uh... It started off in a very small way. Berners-Lee's system has become the universal means of connecting all computer content. His critical breakthrough was to marry an existing idea called hypertext, a way of linking between documents, to the infrastructure and protocols of the internet. To do this, he assigned documents a unique address - or URL. These were the first web pages, created and formatted in a new universal language called html, that could link to other web pages on any networked computer, anywhere. By solving a specific technical problem, the web opened up an entire universe of information to anyone with a computer. It seemed like a brave new world. It seemed like a new democracy, it seemed like a new way of people coming together. It seemed the most fantastic, radical and extraordinary development since Guttenberg in 1450 produced his bible and his first pieces of print. The dream that everybody wanted to be connected, you know, that goes way, way back. It's about letting people share information. Built into the web's design is an ability to connect individuals without great wealth or power. Today, all around the world, being connected is empowering people. Like Kudjo Agbevi, a Ghanaian farmer. First I was illiterate in the use of the internet. But a friend introduced it to me and then he taught me after this how to browse and find out all these things. Kudjo uses the web to learn how to grow crops more efficiently and to compete with much bigger farms. I use the internet to find the prices of the commodities and then the market where it can easily and cheaply be bought. But the management and the marketing of the produce has greatly been changed. I feel more connected to the world. But the web is more than just an empowering tool. It's deliberately structured in a way that resists authority. The web was designed to give all users equal access. You don't need permission to visit a website, or to create one. And when you are on the web, there are no governments generating rules and regulations. There is no centre and no controlling authority. It is the ultimate levelling. What we had with the development of the worldwide web was a technological solution built at CERN that meshed with the hippie dream. Little wonder, then, that the web was set on a collision course with conventional notions of social order and hierarchy. The revolutionary thing was that it let people be very free, be constrained as little as possible. It allows you to publish anything you like, it allows you to publish in any format. But the really important thing was it could be done on a server without asking anybody else, without having to register. For most of Western history, you had an authority framework that was vertical, God on top and you on the bottom, and Dad and the Pope and the King, and whomever, you know, somewhere, in that great white column. And suddenly authority, as a technical matter and as a political matter, was horizontal. When you listen to people like Berners-Lee and all the rest of the crowd, they idealise this notion for the first time in human history we have created something without a centre, it can't be controlled. But the reason we created it is because these people were opposed to the notion of hierarchy and authority, so it wasn't an accident. They created their ideological wet dream. And there was one final thing that turned the web into a kind of Kryptonite, threatening to subvert society and the 20th-century economic model. It was given away for free. Tim Berners-Lee is somebody who invented something of unbelievable power, but has turned his back on any kind of profiting from it, really. And I think we should celebrate him, not just his ingenuity but the worldwide web worked because he opened it up, because it was free for all to use. It is a true open source, in that sense. And he should be daily thanked by everybody who gets any pleasure or profit out of the worldwide web for that supreme act of generosity, selflessness and idealism. Tim created a kind of set of tools if you like, which he gave away to the world and said, "I've created this tool box, "I'm not quite sure what to do with it, "but see what you can do with it." And by giving that away rather than controlling it, he started a whole process of huge social and cultural innovation. But the very success of the web would rouse a giant. The idea that it was a creative space, where all could participate equally, would quickly be confronted by a very different model that saw the web as a place to buy and sell rather than to share. This kick-started a constant cycle of revolution and counter-revolution that still shapes the web today. And to understand the nature of this conflict, we have to jump back in time. The year was 1975, Pink Floyd was on the radio, Jaws was at the cinema and the Vietnam War had just finished. But it is also the year that a young Harvard dropout named Bill Gates arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gates had come to New Mexico to work for a small company called MITS. And 30 years ago, some of MITS's biggest customers were amateur rocket enthusiasts. We wanted to be able to do something more than just shoot them up and have them come back down. And then this corporation created the first really small instrumentation packages so that we could take data, much like you take data and plug it in to your computer today. MITS soon moved on to more sophisticated electronics, creating the earliest affordable home computer, the Altair 8800, and helping to set in train the revolution which would lead to the wired world of today. The personal computer was the template on which the web had to be created, you had to have millions of these common machines in order for it to make any sense. Bill Gates was developing BASIC, a programming language for the Altair. He saw the potential to make big money from software at a time when most personal computer users were hobbyists who gave it away for free. He ended up at the West Coast Computer Fair and I remember this fellow, we were all trading software back then, and I remember this fellow in a suit and telling everybody, hey, you shouldn't be giving away software to one another, you should be paid for your development. And we all laughed at him. Did you? And now how do you feel? I think he is a very rich man! Gates had negotiated a royalty from each copy of the Altair software that was sold. So, when he found out that hobbyists from the Homebrew Computer Club in California were making pirated copies, he was furious. Well, we had one copy of the tape that our club library had bought, purchased. And one member of the club took that tape and borrowed it for two weeks. And when he came back he brought back, like, four copies. Then we got a letter from Bill Gates, all upset, copyright, you are copying software and you shouldn't because it was basically, you know, hey, you have to pay for what you use. When we started Microsoft and some people were copying the BASIC tape, I said in a letter, hey, we will write more software if more people pay us. Some things should be free, and some things should be paid for. 20 years later, Bill Gates and Microsoft would return to restage this battle online. The software for the worldwide web had been given away for free because Tim Berners-Lee, like earlier pioneers, believed the online world should be about an ideal of sharing. For Bill Gates, and others like him, it was simply the biggest business opportunity of the century. The early internet felt like a radical departure from business as usual. There was this other dimension to human experience, which is really hard to relate to today, that had nothing to do with money. When business came on to the internet, the object of the game was to monetise this thing. Before the web, the internet was administered by a public body, and business was banned. This was only overturned in 1994, and these two opposing ideologies would slug it out in a battle for the soul of the online world. The most significant conflict began in 1995, when Microsoft launched Internet Explorer, and set out to beat all competition. They effectively forced computer manufacturers to sell machines with it preinstalled. From nowhere, Microsoft ended up with more than 90% of the market. Hey, this is software. We can do anything. Only legal action by governments prevented total domination, and the risk of the web becoming a kind of branded Microsoft experience. Microsoft is a monopolist, and it engaged in massive anti-competitive practices that harmed innovation and limited consumer choice. But the legal battle wasn't just about Microsoft, it was about two completely different ideas of what the web should be. I think, right from the beginning, there are kind of two competing views about the web playing out, which still play out now. One is that the web is this home for collaboration, for sharing, for allowing information to be free, for people being able to create things together in open platforms and sharing ideas. And that is embedded in the kind of geek hippie culture of the Homebrew Computer Club, right at the start of all this in the 1970s. And then there is another, which is the kind of Bill Gates Microsoft corporate view, which is, wait a minute, how do you pay the mortgage? The legal ruling meant Microsoft had had its wings clipped. But the commercial ideology it represented was in the ascendant. And in this, the era of the dot com boom, it seemed the web was ripe for business exploitation. But soon the balance of power would shift once more. As Internet Explorer popularised the web, bringing millions online, people began to learn what the web could do, for better and for worse. Its potential, and our potential, would pose a particular challenge to traditional notions of ownership, creativity and power. The Web's anti-business levelling potential was about to re-emerge in a shocking new way. It would undermine centuries-old notions of copyright and property. The story begins with an 18-year-old in a college dorm room. I started it just because I thought it was exciting. It was just sort of a small project. It ends a few years later with a multi-billion dollar industry on its knees, and more in the firing line. Real people downloading Metallica songs. They want to sue everyone between the ages of, say, 13 and 30? I don't think so. I guess I would be lying if I said that I didn't have any, or didn't fear, you know, going to jail. The music industry would be just the first of many to discover the web could destroy established business models. In 1999, Shawn Fanning released a small piece of software on the web called Napster. He first had the idea for the software at college. I got paired up with a room mate who loved obscure rap music and it was, you know, around that time that I started envisioning an idea where people could install a piece of software that would let them share their music collections, as well as access other people's collections. Napster took advantage of the shift in music from CD to digital formats, like MP3s, that were easy to copy and swap. It allowed web users anywhere in the world to share music illegally with one another for free rather than buy it. The software pooled information about the music on every computer that linked to it. Users could search this giant database, hunting for tracks. When they found what they were looking for, Napster hooked up the computer storing the file with the person who wanted it. At the click of a mouse, music piracy had gone global. The levelling sharing dream of the web had produced a more sinister outcome, encouraging thousands of people to break the law for the very first time. The band Metallica became the music industry's unlikely mouthpiece. Their music is wild and anarchic, but to top band Metallica, it is serious business. When fans download it for free, Metallica gets angry. If you have the right to download my music for free, then let's say that you are a plumber or a car mechanic, or whatever, then I have the right to call you up and demand that you come over and fix my plumbing for free, or fix my car next time it is not functioning for free. I never imagined at the outset that Napster would change the music industry at the level that it did. But they certainly felt the pain of being forced in to a world of digital distribution. After two years of legal battles, in 2001, Napster was restricted then shut down. But other more sophisticated services simply took its place. Today in Britain, the entertainment industry claims 95% of music exchanged online is unpaid for. And lost revenue from illegal downloads of films, software, TV and music is worth £531 million. Our computer technology lets us copy everything instantly. It is very scary, it means a new world, a new world to hit. And it may take decades, it may even take centuries before we actually get to the final ending point. So the web has threatened the way any traditional industry based on information and communication does business. But this dramatic shift involves more than just theft and piracy, it also is a way in which the web appears to be staying true to its anti-authority levelling ideals. The web's essential design, the ability to share information globally and instantly at virtually no cost, wrenched control from the traditional middle man, the agents, the publishers, the newspaper editors. It allowed people to connect directly with one another, so everyone could have an audience or a following. In this brave new connected world, you didn't have to be anybody to be a somebody. When the web first came, it felt like a whole new world opening up, because you had a way to be a publisher that you never had before. There were only very few discreet sources, the publishers of the world, "I can go here and go there," you were limited. Now someone with an iPhone can post a video, make a podcast, connect to someone else. Anyone with the means of communication, through a computer, can have access, potentially, to a vast audience. User-generated content is the jargon for this creative revolution. It is estimated a fifth of all the material on the web is now made up of content created by amateurs. All human and animal life is there. One of the biggest distributors is YouTube, a website that allows anyone to put videos online. That means everybody has a chance to be seen. I think in the past, again, the traditional models would survive around scarcity. Which I don't think necessarily is healthy for society - for ultimately a few people to have the control of the creation of all the content within the world, and then have the control of all the distribution. YouTube posted its first video in 2005. Now the site is viewed more than a billion times a day, and has created its own new stars. I always tell people we are the stage and they are the performers. But I don't look at us as a service that's trying to exploit that. What we are trying to do is just provide the opportunities that didn't exist before. Superficially, sites like YouTube, with its promise of five minutes of badly shot fame, appear to be proof of the web's levelling power. But for many users, the web is less about old revolutionary ideals, and more about a new way to work within the system. For people like Master Shortie, who was recently nominated for a MOBO award, it's the perfect promotional tool. Now, you are promoting yourself, you are marketing yourself? Yes. How has the internet made that possible in a way that you wouldn't have done before? I think that is what the internet is, what made it possible. I use the web a lot. From promoting my music to finding producers to actually make the music, and in terms of promoting and marketing, I think that is the main resource that I am using. Probably the internet is full of, you know... It is music lovers, in general. And so it is like a big community online with up-and-coming rappers, singers, musicians, producers. I'm able to reach loads of people at one specific time quickly, at the drop of a hat. Looked at coldly, this user-generated, self-promoted world can seem less a challenge to established industries, and more a kind of feeding ground. A way for new voices to be discovered and incorporated. You can shatter hierarchies, the hierarchies of the music business, for example. But in the end, once you become known, you have to sign up with one of the recording studios, as in American Idol. The old hierarchies are still there, they are just scrambling to adapt themselves to this new situation. The web does make it easier to produce and to share, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is democratising creativity. Examined closely again, something more intriguing, more disturbing even, begins to emerge. And it can be seen most clearly in the world of the blog. Once blogging was the preserve of those who couldn't be heard any other way, now it has gone mainstream. This shift tells us something critical about the cycle of revolution and counter-revolution working through the web today. I am on my way to meet a key player in the new media. Arianna Huffington likes to think of herself as one of the biggest cheerleaders for the democratising power of the web. Oh, I'm a huge optimist about the web. I think the way that it has provided a forum for millions of people who otherwise would have been locked out of the conversation is incredibly significant. But the reality of the website Arianna launched seems more about taming the web's millions of sprawling voices than embracing its democratic potential. The Huffington Post is what is known as an aggregation site, it collates and filters other people's work from across the web for free. And, ironically, as it has become more influential, it increasingly resembles an old-fashioned newspaper. I feel that we are moving towards a hybrid future where we combine the best of traditional media, accuracy, fairness, and the best of new media, transparency, immediacy, accountability. But in this hybrid world, instead of everyone having an equal say, increasingly editors are filtering and excluding opinion. The hybrid future that I am envisioning is going to include millions of voices, but it's not going to eliminate editors, in fact, editors will be more important than ever. The web's pioneers hoped it would liberate millions of fresh new voices. Instead, people like Arianna Huffington are the new gatekeepers, re-establishing the old hierarchies. I think it reflects the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of the internet, that someone like Arianna Huffington should have come to symbolise the supposed revolutionary qualities of it. She is an interesting woman, but she is about as revolutionary as my dog. And while the web's promoters constantly talk up its restless, promiscuous, creative energy, the facts suggest this is not always the case. The world of blogging, for example, is going through a crisis. Of the more than 130 million blogs active since 2002, it is estimated over 90% are now dormant. This power shift is no isolated example. It is a consequence of the web's unique design. Its early supporters believed that a space without rules and regulations would be more equal. But it seems to me that as the web has grown a paradox has emerged, and the opposite is happening. The very lack of regulation means that those with the most resources can shout the loudest, and can impose their brands and their authority. To grasp the real distribution of power on the web, imagine cyberspace as space. Seen here for the first time is a mathematically accurate model of web traffic in Britain. This is a galaxy dominated by a handful of mega brands. Each month, we search Google more than 38 million times. One in three of us now have a Facebook page. Ebay gets 21 million visits a month. Amazon, 16 million. The web has one search engine, one marketplace, one bookshop and one social network that matter. I think you can see it in companies like Google and YouTube. The massive aggregation of new wealth and power are the tiny elite of people from mainly Silicon Valley. When you think about it, it is odd that there are no competitors to Facebook. There is competition for everything in a capitalist society, the way Honda competes with Toyota, you know, the way Pepsi competes with Coke. Does that fact demonstrate, in fact, that the internet is a limited place for all of its rhetoric about entrepreneurial and cultural freedom? You see with the internet a very pure manifestation of the way in which power works. It lends itself to oligarchy, it lends itself to a very narrow elite. And the internet is a perfect reflection of that. And now, 20 years on, with much of the developing world beginning to come online, the man who invented the web is worried about its future. The concerns that I have are that there will be some sort of central control. And in some countries it is the government, and in some countries it's the companies. And I think we have to be always vigilant about this, these threats, or the whole web will become too frightening to use. So does the emergence online of these new power blocks mean the web's levelling days are over? Is the idealistic vision of it as a unique space where we are all equal simply a nostalgic memory? This is the man who had the most ambitious levelling dream of all. My journey has come full circle, returning to Wikipedia. Its creator wanted to unleash the power of the crowd to democratise all of human knowledge. Jimmy Wales is the man behind the world's user-generated information source. Wikipedia in many ways does break down a lot of hierarchical assumptions that people have. It turns out that it is easier to get quality when you have more people participating, and when you judge the quality of someone's work on its own merits rather than paying too much attention to their credentials. But as Wikipedia has grown, it has struggled to keep its dream of empowerment alive. It has been forced to toughen up its rules to prevent pages being hijacked. Instead of truth emerging by consensus, increasingly it has to be policed. We used to be criticised for being too egalitarian, now we're criticised for being too elitist. And somewhere in the middle we passed the day when everything was fine, and no-one noticed. A whole system has evolved that attempts to reconcile open access to Wikipedia with the need for accuracy and authority. Editors can lock pages, a few thousand administrators can delete them. 12 members of the arbitration committee adjudicate on disputes. And at the top of the tree, there is Jimmy Wales himself. We are actually more structured like the British system than anything else. You know, where we have this very interesting mix of democracy and aristocracy and checks and balances. So do you think that it is human nature for elites and hierarchies to emerge? Um, I don't even like the terms that you are asking the question. Because I think when we talk about elites and hierarchies, people are thinking, or they will tend to think in terms of top down structures, authoritarian type structures. Whereas what I see happening is that communities can come together, create norms and standards and institutions for dealing with those things. But it also involves drawing some lines, saying at some point you are not being constructive and you are not really... We don't want you here. We have seen how the rampant piracy on Napster, the creative freedom offered by blogging and YouTube, and the amateur scholarship on Wikipedia can level the world. But even in these revolutionary web spaces, a counter-revolution has inevitably followed. The web is being colonised by new gatekeepers and new elites. And so the real question for me is whether the web is inherently unequal simply because it mirrors the inequalities and the hierarchies in our world. Somebody has to be in charge, you know. It was what I was taught in the army and I believe it. That there has got to be somebody who is responsible for everything that the system does and fails to do. Hierarchies will emerge. I mean, you know, it's a rare species that doesn't have a pecking order. I think the web will really take on the contours of what culture has always been. There will be hierarchies, there will be elites. Like all technology, the internet is not a cure for human nature, it is an amplification of human nature, both the good and the bad. I have talked about it being open and free in the sense of freedom, and decentralised. But I think it would be very wrong to assume that, if you connect a country, it will become equal. For me, the most important question about the web today is whether its idealistic beginnings have been relegated to history. I don't think so, because I believe the web is more than a simple reflection of our world. Instead, it is endlessly reinventing itself and, by placing so much power in the hands of the people who use it, whenever one part of the web is closed down, colonised and controlled, the technology opens up new frontiers. It is a space of perpetual innovation. No-one can stop it, but we do need to take care of it. This virtual revolution is an extraordinary challenge and responsibility, and an extraordinary opportunity. Watch the interviews we used to make this documentary on our website and follow the links to the Open University to hear more from those reshaping the web and the world. Next time, the web's clash with power and the birth of a dangerous new politics. Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd E-mail: [email protected]

Video Details

Duration: 10 minutes
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
License: All rights reserved
Producer: Stephen Fry
Views: 172
Posted by: nordstern on Feb 22, 2010

The Virtual Revolution Episode 1 Part 1

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