Web 2.0 and "peak waste"

We are at our most befuddling when we, like Tim O'Reilly, decry the waste of Web 2.0 but we also celebrate it.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

Tim O'Reilly writes a thoughtful commentary on the evaporation of false wealth in the technology industry, wealth spawned and eventually spurned by an overindulgent consumer culture. Quoting his son-in-law, Tim writes that perhaps we've reached the "pinnacle of waste in our consumer culture," and can now move on to "[w]ork[ing] on stuff that matters."

I agree, but I'm slightly surprised to see Tim writing off the wasteful technology industry, an industry that he has in part encouraged over the past few years with a heavy emphasis on Web 2.0 and all the superficial "value" that it has created. I'm not suggesting that Tim has explicitly encouraged such waste, but rather that his ideas have sparked an avalanche of rubbish business models and technology and, most importantly, have done little to actually foster the individual's role in creating value.

Tim's emphasis has been on the social web, encouraging lightweight business models and technologies that facilitate content creation and harness others' work but do little to emphasize quality content creation (and may actually do the inverse). I don't fault Tim for not coming up with the answer to the Web's failure to invest in quality, but I'm struck by the discordance between his posts on waste and comments like this. For example, speaking of Chinese factories, Tim writes:

I've often wondered: "What do they think of us, so rich that we can afford to spend money on so much that is useless!" And now we find that perhaps our wealth too was rooted in illusion.) And even when it comes to consumer electronics, we've built a throwaway culture rooted in waste.

But doesn't this also largely describe the rise of the "amateur class" that Nick Carr derides and Tim implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) celebrates? A Web so chock-full of silly, superficial speech that quality content can't rub two dimes together?

Indeed, I would think that if Tim is concerned with discovering value in our post-peak waste world, he'd be investing more time in figuring out how exceptional content will get financed in the Web 2.0 world, rather than in the technologies that make it easy to borrow content but impractical to fund the development thereof.

I'm not suggesting that Tim doesn't "get it." Indeed, perhaps I'm mostly criticizing a world that gets his vision wrong.

But I do believe there's a disconnect between the hype around Web 2.0 and the reality of getting paid. It was horribly telling that one darling of the Web 2.0 crowd - Digg - was recently exposed as gigantic revenue hole: money goes in, but little comes out. The service that elevates raises the least-common denominator of content, and thereby helps to suck money out of quality content creation, can't make money itself.

In other words, Web 2.0 popularity doesn't necessarily mean very much in the real world that requires payment for value.

A favorite passage from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" comes to mind:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand not lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

             If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

Not in the wasteland, and little in much of the Web that Tim has promoted over the years. I'm not suggesting that there can't be, but while we (rightly) celebrate the value that Google and its ilk provide in harnessing collective intelligence, we should also be promoting a Web that actually uncovers and helps to fund ever greater levels of intelligence. Otherwise we risk enduring a technology culture that celebrates the amateur while impoverishing talent.

I don't think that's the world that Tim wants, but I do think that's what the Web has done with his vision.