Is Web 2.0 anything more than just postmodernism?

By Dr Paddy Byers

In a post several weeks ago on the AppExchange devnet blog, parallels were drawn between Web 2.0 and the postmodernist philosophy. Put simply, postmodernism is the prominence of chance over design, anarchy over hierarchy, participation over distance. The commentary in that post asserted that Web 2.0 is to Web 1.0 as postmodernism is to modernism; and we can learn lessons from history and be on the lookout for the eventual backlash that will occur if the anarchic element becomes a barrier to effective exploitation of the fruits of community effort.

In fact, none of these parallels with postmodernism are new. In 1990 an HP executive likened the “appliance culture” that HP had been so successful in cultivating to postmodernism, in contrast to centralised procurement and administration of technology of earlier years. The runaway success of the fax machine, for example, took the phone companies completely by surprise, purchased as an information appliance by individual consumers and office managers under delegated budgets originally intended for stationery. There was no phone directory for fax; the modernist, centralised and controlled systems of the telecommunications industry had been bypassed by individual participation. Other technology developments over the years have been successful based on distinctively postmodernist principles – PGP, and the PC itself, for example.

Web services and WSDL are an excellent example of the power of this. In the modernist era there were substantial, centrally coordinated standardisation efforts that attempted to define formats and semantics for data interchange to support B2B data transfers of all types. These efforts were based on the view that a centrally coordinated definition was the only effective way to achieve a common standard that met all known requirements and guaranteed interoperability. This agenda foundered by failing on all fronts – the standards defined were too narrowly focussed, too complex, and too late to be useful. The postmodernist approach taken by web services and WSDL shattered that entire world view – any unilateral definition is good enough provided that it can be defined unambiguously, generic mechanisms exist to arrange for interoperability between competing unilateral efforts ex-post, and a (centrally provided) mechanism exists to allow namespace and other issues to be dealt with in a decentralised way. By doing this, the real problem owners can make the specifications, ensure they actually deal with the problem in hand, and are timely.

So what’s the difference between that and Web 2.0? Postmodernism, in technology, is characterised by unilateralism and decentralisation of architecture and specification; de facto instead of de jure; taking unilateral action where there is no central provision of what’s needed; and recognition that diversity of requirements needs to be embraced and catered for, not stifled. However, Web 2.0 is more than that; its distinctive characteristic is not unilateralism but collectivism – the way that collective effort and intelligence are harnessed.

Much of the discussion of Web 2.0 confuses these two philosophies, swept up in the excitement of the power of collectivism and failing to spot that the postmodernist idea has been changing the landscape for a lot longer. You could argue that anywhere there’s a URI, there’s a postmodernist principle underlying what’s going on.

So, which of the Web 2.0 “principles” below to which philosophy?

Harnessing collective intelligence: collectivism

Data is the next Intel inside: collectivism

Meeting the needs of the long tail: postmodernism

Postcasting, narrowcasting: postmodernism

The perpetual beta: (arguably) postmodernism

Why is any of this relevant? Because now, when faced with a problem, you have to ask two questions:

- what is the postmodernist solution to this problem; and

- what is the collectivist solution to this problem?

When these questions have different answers, you then have to decide which one is right. It’s not necessarily the case that the collectivist answer is the right one. (What happens if neither is right?) Nick Carr’s amorality of Web 2.0 is a provocative take on it that makes the difference quite stark.