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Darkness on the Web: Are we awake?

Social business offers businesses a major opportunity for redefining the nature of work and the structure of companies, freeing knowledge workers from organizational-only pressure and defining a new social contract between customers, workers, firms and their ecosystem. On a dark side, it also gives companies novel ways to enforce business-as-usual and to further exploit the outdated legacy of our industrial era. People-centric or IT-centric, the use of social technologies for enterprise is at a crossroad, and it might be time to face it without self-indulgence.

This is how my colleague, Thierry deBaillon, concludes his article on the two faces of social business. It’s not just social business, but the entire model of the Net that we need to critically examine. As Jaron Lanier wrote in You Are Not a Gadget:

The people who are perhaps the most screwed by open culture are the middle classes of intellectual and cultural creation.  The freelance studio musician, the stringer selling reports to newspapers from warzones are both crucial contributors to culture. Each pays dues and devotes years to honing a craft. They used to live off the trickle down effects of the old system, and like the middle class at large, they are precious. They get nothing from the new system.

If you’re not one of the recognized leaders in your field, can you make a living online or are you just part of the long tail, valuable only to aggregators and their advertising revenues? As a content creator are you providing the fodder that lets Google, Facebook and YouTube earn huge market valuations?

Will there be a middle class in the networked economy? Is there a middle class in the social business?

Doc Searls says that the social web is nothing more than the commercial web:

I want liberation from the commercial Web’s two-decade old design flaws. I don’t care how much a company uses first person possessive pronouns on my behalf. They are not me, they do now know me, and I do not want them pretending to be me, or shoving their tentacles into my pockets, or what their robots think is my brain. Enough, already.

We’re definitely reaching a crossroad with net neutrality, open data and personal social networks on one side and usage-based billing, controlled access and gated communities on the other. As I’ve written elsewhere, democracy is our best structure for political governance and I believe it should be the basis of our workplaces as well. As work and learning become integrated in a networked society, I see great opportunities to create better employment models. I know that we can do better than cubicle farms, cookie-cutter job descriptions, generic work competencies and boring, dead-end jobs.

However, I see the darkness creeping in, ever so quietly. It was only one hundred years ago that we had widespread child labour in North America.

Child labour and other inhuman practices haven’t been eradicated but we have made huge strides. Are we letting society and our workplaces slip backwards? Any technology cuts both ways. The Net has the potential for much good.  There is still an opportunity for a workplace reformation, but we have to seize it.

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