WHAT'S ONLINE

[ Fri. Jun. 9. 2006 ]

Correction Appended

THE Web has given airline customers more convenience and more power. The ability to compare prices instantly at several airlines — something that was previously available only to travel agents — can't help but keep prices down.

But the airlines are still in control. The complicated algorithms they employ to analyze demand, competitors' prices and other data are the reason the same flight costs $350 one day and $550 the next. Here, online travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity aren't much help. That's because "Expedia's real customers are the travel companies — not you," writes John Battelle of Searchblog (battellemedia.com).

Farecast, a new Web service still being tested, monitors and analyzes price data and gives probabilities on when and by how much future fares might rise or fall. The "when" is crucial. Fares tend to fluctuate, but the trick is to know when they will hit their low point. Farecast is designed to predict it for you.

For Mr. Battelle, Farecast represents a potential return to the Web's early promise of shifting power to consumers. That was thwarted, he writes, when merchants began to collude with one another and with aggregators. "If you think AutoByTel or Expedia is on your side, you're kidding yourself."

One problem with Farecast is that it doesn't include Southwest Airlines, which doesn't supply information to aggregators. For Michael Arrington, that's a deal breaker. "Farecast is a nice solution that distills useful information from complete pricing chaos by the airlines," Mr. Arrington writes in his TechCrunch blog. But without Southwest, "the lowest and most understandable prices are excluded from the service."

The Trouble With Wikis There is nothing wrong, per se, with Wikipedia, writes Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist, artist and author, in a provocative essay on the Web site Edge: The Third Culture (edge.org). Rather, he says, the problem is how Wikipedia is used and the way it has been elevated to such importance so quickly.

Is it a good idea to rely on an encyclopedia that can be changed on a whim by any number of anonymous users? Is relying on the "hive mind" envisioned by the former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly the way to go about using the Web?

Usually not, Mr. Lanier writes. Doing so amounts to taking techno-utopianism to its extreme — favoring the tool over the worker, and the collective over the individual.

The kind of "foolish collectivism" represented by Wikipedia — as well as "meta" sites like Digg, Reddit and popurls, which aggregate sites based on popularity-driven algorithms — grinds away the Web's edges and saps it of its humanity, he argues. "The fallacy of the infallible collective" gives such sites more credibility than they deserve, he writes.

Often, he acknowledges, the hive mind is smarter than any individual — in determining prices, for example. "The collective is good at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial performance parameters," he writes, "but it is bad when taste and judgment matter." Often, he says, it is best to combine the strengths of the hive mind with those of the individual — as with open-source software.

"The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first," he concludes.

Luminaries like Mr. Kelly, Douglas Rushkoff, Esther Dyson, Howard Rheingold and Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia, reacted to the essay, "Digital Maoism," on Edge.

On Wikipedia, Mr. Kelly said, there is "far more deliberate design management going on than first appears."

The "bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal," he adds. "We are too impatient. So we add design and top-down control to get where we want to go."

Monkey Chow Diaries "Imagine going to the grocery store only once every six months," paying less than $1 a meal, Adam Scott, a blogger writes. His imaginings led him to experiment with a diet of nothing but Monkey Chow. It is "a complete and balanced diet for the nutrition of primates," he says. Track his — um, progress? — at angryman.ca/monkey.html. DAN MITCHELL

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