How the Internet will stop climate change

And if you believe that, there's a Web 2.0 virtual bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.

Published October 25, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Introducing the Web 2.0 app to top all Web 2.0 apps, an online-discussion forum described by its envisioners as "simultaneously, a kind of Wikipedia for controversial topics, a Sims game for the future of the planet, and an electronic democracy on steroids." It's called the "Climate Collaboratorium" and it will enable "experts, policy analysts, legislators, and concerned citizens ... to collectively develop and debate scenarios to respond to global climate change."

Goodness knows, the world needs something like this. Who could disagree with the following observation by Thomas W. Malone and Mark Klein, set forth in "Harnessing Collective Intelligence to Address Global Climate Change," an article published in the Summer 2007 issue of the MIT journal Innovations:

Today's on-line discussion forums, blogs, and chat rooms do a good job of encouraging lots of people to express their opinions and share them widely. But these systems are not very good at supporting evidence-based, logical deliberation: the quality of contributions can vary enormously.

Which is kind of like saying nuclear bombs do a good job when employed for purposes of mass destruction, but are not so great for handcrafting quality woodwork.

So yeah, sign me up! Just one problem: The Climate Collaboratorium doesn't yet exist. There are a few kinks to be worked out, among them, write the authors, the development of appropriate online argumentation systems, integrated computer simulation capability, and collective decision-making tools. So maybe it's Web 3.0, or Web 2001.0.

But, oh, what a dream. Malone and Klein, both affiliated with MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence, present five fantasy scenarios in which citizens of the future log on to the Collaboratorium to upload new data, do a little fact finding, engage in debate, contribute some open-source software or rate competing proposals for how to address climate change. Mutual rating by participants allows good ideas and good data to trump bad -- kind of like a Slashdot moderation system combined with a Digg-style voting system ... on steroids.

It's something that would have made Doug Engelbart happy, a melding of networks, computers, and the general public into a tool for decision-making that will benefit the greater good.

But wait a sec, run that by me once more, slowly: a Wikipedia for controversial topics. Isn't that kind of like the square root of negative 1, or what happens when matter meets anti-matter? Doesn't Wikipedia maintain its policy of political neutrality for the very good reason that it is physically impossible for a volunteer-run, open-to-all-comers community where no one is allowed the final word, to reach consensus on controversial topics?

Politics and ideology aside, there is also the not insignificant problem of designing a system that can withstand co-optation by the instruments of capital. Klein and Malone dream of a system that would "facilitate reasoned and evidence-based collective decision-making about highly complex issues." But should any such system actually start to work, you can bet your last stock option nickel that it would soon be besieged by representatives of corporate interests who would do their best to skew every debate and every decision in directions that serve their paymaster's bottom-line needs. And if they failed to co-opt it, they'd build their own and fill it with their own scientists and "concerned citizens."

The fundamental belief that underlies projects such as the Climate Collaboratorium is that humans can devise tools that will enable them to transcend their intrinsic nature. The same faith has suffused no end of pronouncements about the Internet. But by this point most people recognize that the Internet is a tool that can be employed in the service of any ideology or faith, that it is essentially value neutral. The problem of actually changing the world for the better is not going to be finessed with clever "online argumentation" software. To pull off that trick you have to get your hands dirty capturing, and wielding, political power.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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