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Monday, October 13, 2008

Web 3.0, Web 4.0 and Personal Agents: Will They Open or Restrict Choice?

With Web 4.0 and personal software agents that track and register your purchases, your movements, your professional, commercial and recreational activities the future seems to promise a truly brave new world of targeted and meaningful information. Your past behaviors and activities will be considered predictors of future behavior, and the information streamed to you will be based on patterns that you have established. In theory, the information will help you do a better job in whatever you want to do. However, will you be held hostage to your old patterns? Will the information actually restrict your options?

Some would argue that by anticipating and playing to your patterns, you are essentially held captive to the past. Sometimes the past is a predictor of the present and the future. However, human choice is not necessarily confined to such tight patterns. This is essentially the problem with an over-reliance on long-tail marketing. If you liked one book, does it always and necessarily follow that you'll like a book in the same genre or on the same pattern?

I am reading a recently released psycho-biography of Bill Clinton, written by a psychiatrist who is focusing on Clinton's family, his formative years, his family environment, and the presumption that Clinton has displayed hypomanic behavior essentially all his life. Does it follow that I would be interested in other biographies about Bill Clinton? Needless to say, has already recommended many to me. Amazon has already emailed me books that cover subcategories of hypomania, bipolar disorder, and other psychological disorders. All have left me cold. One book was enough. I am ready to move on. My next purchase was a collection of gothic tales by early Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell.

My reason for mentioning my resistance to purchasing more biographies on Bill Clinton or books on people exhibiting hypomania is point out that sometimes I don't necessarily want to follow the pattern. My behavior, as it manifests on the surface, is perhaps an outlier and a one-time event. I don't want to be influenced or swayed in subtle ways to constantly repeating the past. While I realize that patterns are a reality of all our lives, and that deeper correspondences happen after a few iterations of an algorithm a la neural networking, or a few derivations, I still like to think that there is the potential for random choice and activity.

Perhaps the idea of being able to deviate from a dull, predictable pattern was what was so appealing about the fractals and obsession with chaos theory and randomness that so characterized the 90s. Chaos theory was deeply liberating. Fuzzy logic seemed to give us ways to create algorithms to at least see how vagueness and approximations may manifest in everyday activities. The nice thing is that both chaos theory and fuzzy logic embraced a certain intellectual and ontological openness that would resist the notion of feeding our behaviors into a computer and spewing out predictive patterns and then, shaping our information flow so that we're consigned to repeat the past.

Will all of this change with Web 3.0 and Web 4.0? If what I'm reading about Web 4.0 is accurate, we are in for a very constricted future. Privacy issues aside, what does it mean when all our behaviors are harvested, classified, processed, and then spewed back to us? Will it be a situation where everything we are given is some sort of skewed echo of the past?

The thought leaders on Web 3.0 and Web 4.0 are not very comforting. Nova Spivack at Radar Technologies has mapped out what he views as the evolution of the Web (

We're at Web 2.0, he argues, with the "semantic web" just around the corner as Web 3.0. Some argue that Web 3.0 is already here, as new versions of browsers (Mozilla, Google Chrome, IE) allow one to type in search questions in the browser navigation bar. Further, the mashups that are supposed to characterize Web 3.0 are already here. It's quite easy to create your own mashup on your own start page, especially if it brings together Google Maps and something from a database (news archives, yahoo directories, etc.).

Unfortunately, Web 3.0 and Web 4.0 seem doggedly deterministic, and committed to mapping us and creating a full identity about who / what behaviors we exhibited -- as though they were all done as expressions of freedom of will and without influence of groups or friends (which are, despite the underlying and never quite articulated "friends-forever" wish underlying the collection of contact in a social network).

Granted, we're never quite liberated from our patterns. But -- why lock them down in tighter and tighter, ever narrowing circles?

I'm all for the promise of Web 3.0. Many aspects, such as mashups and social networking are here. For example, some social networking sites such as Bebo have made creating customized mashups quite easy, with copy and paste code that you can insert right into your site. Other Web 3.0 services and features include social media sharing, lightweight collaboration, and social networking. These, too, have expanded dramatically (see overview of listings below).

Web 4.0 will, in theory, include an array of sensors that will gather information from one's environment and use them to create a deep profile of your behaviors and activities. While this may seem convenient, and it makes our real world a virtual world -- we will be going in and out of virtual and "real" realities -- the implications are rather unnerving. Here's a rather satirical / tongue-in-cheek view (

How does this apply to e-learning? Clearly, the tendency in the future might be to simply repeat and reinforce what one already knows, with expansions, revisions, and tightening focus. The ability to branch out and think about obscure, unrelated, even random things can and will be seriously constricted in the world of Web 4.0 as envisioned now.

Since this will not be too appealing to many people (thought-leaders, programmers, innovators), Web 4.0 will probably be deconstructed, undermined, and subverted even as it evolves.

One can only hope...

Social Media Sharing Resources


* Blogs: Blogger, Livejournal, TypePad, Wordpress, Tripod
* Mobile blogging and alerting: Twitter
* Social networking: MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Orkut, Skyrock


* Wikis: Wikispaces (personal)
* Social bookmarking:, StumbleUpon
* Social News Sites: Digg, Mixx, Reddit
* Opinion sites: epinions, Yelp, CitySearch, CultureMob


* Photo sharing: Flickr, Photobucket, SmugMug
* Video sharing: YouTube, Google video
* Livecasting: Ustream,, Stickam
* Audio and Music Sharing: imeem, The Hype Machine,, ccMixter


* Virtual worlds: Second Life,
* Online gaming: World of Warcraft
* Game sharing:

Stephen Downes on "Why the Semantic Web Will Fail"

Strange Days (d. Katherine Bigelow, 1995)

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