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Beyond X 2.0: Where Should We Go?

Fei-Yue , Chinese Academy of Sciences

Pages: pp. 2-4

Intelligent Readers,

Data mining methods are critical to the era of Web 2.0 and beyond, where people act as data-mining-driven agents or conduct agent-driven data mining. Our special issue on agents and data mining covers key research topics, applications, and resources relating to agent mining research and development. This emerging field could make Web 2.0 even more effective and useful.

The special issue reminds me of an essay I read some time ago in Computer-World (the Chinese version), which stated that Web 2.0 is a great lie in the course of Web history. The author claimed that Web 2.0

  • is an empty concept,
  • is misleading,
  • is unscientific, and
  • takes unjustified credit for past and emerging innovations.

I was surprised not by the author's accusations but by his seriousness in criticizing Web 2.0's academic merit and logic.

While writing this column on my flight across the Pacific, I happened upon "Six Years in the Valley" in the Economist, an article that explained the conceptualization and motivation behind Web 2.0. Toward the end of 2003, two conference organizers, Dale Dougherty and Tim O'Reilly, coined the term in an effort to rally Silicon Valley from its "nuclear winter" after the dot-com burst. The first Web 2.0 conference took place October 2004 in San Francisco and created a stir.

Since then, Web 2.0 has become a wildly popular phrase, so much so that the article states, "Mr. O'Reilly [has] started fretting that it [has] become a cliché, and was being applied to so many things that it was in danger of becoming meaningless." Even worse, the article claims that some fear that "behind the Web 2.0 totem of 'collective intelligence' an insidious 'digital Maoism' [exists] that suppresse[s] individuality." It goes on to describe "an unhealthy trend towards 'continuous partial attention,' as people spent less time focusing on a single thing or person because they were constantly scanning so many other things—from Facebook to email and their phones—for fear of missing out on some social opportunity." The most dangerous aspect is that Web 2.0 derives its principal economic support from advertising, but with today's world financial crisis, advertisement is collapsing. Thus, Web 2.0 could send Silicon Valley to yet "another nuclear winter."

So where do we go from here?

From Web 2.0 to X 2.0

Fortunately, the main value of Web 2.0 isn't its economic worth but its social and cultural contributions, not just in Silicon Valley but also in cyberspace.

In terms of science and technology, there's nothing new or innovative about Web 2.0. It's neither reasonable nor fair to expect two conference organizers to provide a breakthrough in Web technology. However, Web 2.0 has inspired a new attitude toward interacting and sharing through the Internet, cultivating new lifestyles in cyberspace. We've witnessed Web 2.0's impact by watching X 2.0 mushrooming everywhere: Politics 2.0, Government 2.0, Education 2.0, Science 2.0, Business 2.0, Publishing 2.0, Entertainment 2.0, Emergency 2.0, you name it! Barack Obama was dubbed President 2.0, elected in the first real Campaign 2.0. Last year, I wrote an article about Management 2.0 and gave a presentation on Control 2.0 to Chinese Academy of Sciences graduate students.

With X 2.0 all over the place, the world is even more closely intertwined with the Web. As a business model, Web 2.0 might continue to sell negligible advertising, but its grander vision emerges from a rapid, interactive, and dynamic social process governed by a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the Semantic Web dubbed Web 3.0, and perhaps social computing as Web 4.0, the Web's future is proving more and more fascinating. Soon, cyberspace, the virtual space, will be as real as physical space. Like the mathematical concept of complex numbers, which includes both real and imaginary numbers, with each taking 50 percent of the total, our future living environments could become "complex spaces," half physical and half virtual. If you think this is far-fetched, then think back 400 years ago, when no one could conceive of imaginary numbers. Today, they encompass half of all numbers. As the concept of numbers has changed, the concept of spaces will also evolve. I'm sure that it'll take us less than 400 years to realize that cyberspace is as real as anything so that it becomes half of our future world; no more, no less, just half.

Although the progression from Web 2.0 to X 2.0 and beyond is driven by technology, it's essentially a social and cultural phenomenon. Web 2.0 isn't a great lie in the Web's history; rather, its social dimension simply makes a purely academic judgment invalid.

Why X 2.0 Matters: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

X 2.0 is the first step toward an open and primitive complex space that intertwines real and virtual. However, that isn't why it matters; X 2.0 matters because of the unprecedented speed and scale of its social impact.

A vivid example is the "Human Flesh Search Engine," a new phenomenon that is sweeping China: unexpected digital witch hunts of common people with "uncommon" behaviors. Ordinary Chinese netizens can become cybervigilantes, and online communities can turn into the world's largest lynch mobs. Wielding the vast human power behind the Web, netizens comb through every detail of targeted victims, from their private information to their social networks, and publish it on hundreds of forums and chat rooms. With close to 300 million Chinese citizens wired to the Internet, a large number of netizens can easily participate in such a search, and the results are frightfully and uniquely Chinese.

So far, a few local government officials have been arrested for corruption uncovered by the human-flesh search, initiated by their exorbitant use of luxury items. Netizens observed their "crimes," such as smoking expensive cigarettes or wearing expensive watches, during public meetings. How-ever, those who dare to be outspoken or behave eccentrically can also face the wrath of an online mob. A few, including a college girl and an actress, were murdered or committed suicide as a result of the tremendous anger or peer pressure launched by the human-flesh search, all on the basis of insignificant or unproved "wrongdoings." Some Chinese legislators have passed bills seeking to ban the human-flesh search engine. Their actions have sparked a nationwide controversy over an individual's right to privacy versus the public's right to the truth.

On a lighter note, the Internet has produced many Web versions of a modern Cinderella story, as recently demonstrated by Scottish singer Susan Boyle's instant rise to fame, which was possible only through the facilitation of Web 2.0 applications such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Boyle's story has an earlier Chinese version, called "Lotus Sister," where an average girl achieved sudden fame by posting her weird poses on campus forums, and subsequently made a living off her phenomenal Internet success.

Although I'm happy for these instant Web 2.0 stars, I worry about the potential use of such tools by criminals or terrorists for insidious purposes. To them, true or false, good or bad, doesn't matter; the results are what matter. This is why I have called such phenomena "Web tumors." So far they've been benign, but we must be prepared in case they become malignant "Web cancers."

All this convinces me that the Tower of Babel story has an important point. Sometimes, we must curb our ability and slow our desires and pride.

Beyond X 2.0

There must be a balance between the capacities of technology, humanity's adaptability, and nature's sustainability. But we must also move forward.

First, we need a new framework for computational sociology suitable for "complex analysis" in complex spaces that's computable in real time for dealing with issues of cyber/physical interactions. A century ago, studies of particles, the universe, and the speed of light led to theories of physics including relativity, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. These have since become the basis for our current technology, including Web technology. Social studies face the same problem. Although the Web can link individuals (social particles) to the whole population (the social universe) through instant information exchange at light speed, to move forward safely and effectively as a society we must find the laws of Web sociology.

We should also consider the bigger picture and change our attitude toward Web technology and X 2.0 applications. The industrial age was built on natural resources (coal, ore, crude oils, and so on) and greatly extended our physical capabilities. From those resources, we developed the steel, energy, chemical, and other industries. Now we're at the edge of the knowledge age and have the potential to significantly expand our intellectual space and capacity, but where and what are the natural resources and industries for this new age? I believe cyberspace data will become one of the major resources for the construction of this new age and search engines one of its new industries. More knowledge industries can emerge from Web 2.0 and X 2.0. This is where we should go next.

Computers began as simple counting devices that inspired computer science and information technology. Now the Internet, which began as a communication platform, is leading to Web technology and science. I hope that, as a result, our intellectual space and capacity will be enhanced greatly and that the knowledge age will soon mature as much as the industrial or information age. The road to this destination might be cloudy and uncertain, but luckily, we now have cloud computing and fuzzy logic to help. For our readers, one thing is clear: AI and intelligent systems will be critical to our final success.



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