These are the ideas that have been buzzing around in my head since reading two books by Clay Shirky that lay out the reasons why the internet and social networks are having such a huge impact on our society.
Here Comes Everybody
How has the internet changed our lives, and why are those changes happening on such a large scale? Those are the questions that this book answers quite thoroughly and effectively. Clay runs through the logic of how the internet could be so fantastically disruptive to the status quo and how entrenched interests, such as journalism and media companies, were blindsided by the seemingly innocent reduction of publishing costs and increase in interconnectedness online. He shows his reasoning through a series of engaging stories and examples that clearly illustrate the power of sharing and connecting on a massive scale.
Not only did he do a great job of story telling, but he constantly had me thinking of the wider implications of his arguments.
"When old costs are shed, the time and money saved can be applied to new things, things that were unpredictable in the old regime."The cost and effort of publication are now near zero, and the explosion of content online is the self-evident result. This change has had a permanent effect on all kinds of media providers, but especially news outlets and research publications. When established channels no longer have control over the flow of information because anyone can publish whatever they wish, new and potentially ground-breaking ideas have a much larger audience. Ideas that thwart conventional wisdom or run counter to mainstream acceptance have a much better chance of wider attention and adoption. The trick is to reach the surface of the growing ocean of noise and get noticed. Luckily, a lot of great ideas seem to have an uncanny ability to do just that when executed well.
"The distinction between communications and broadcast media was always a function of technology rather than a deep truth about human nature."We are inherently social beings. We have always depended on the dissemination of knowledge, first for our survival and then for cultural and technological progress. Historically we were not capable of communicating outside of a small group of family and friends unless it was one-to-one connections via telephone that had no wider audience or one-to-many connections via broadcasting that had no immediate feedback. Suddenly we can have many-to-many connections that are bidirectional and nearly real-time. We are finding fascinating new uses for this capability everyday.
"Communication tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring."At first new technology is seen as an end in itself, and is normally priced beyond the reach of most people. As prices inevitably fall and adoption rates rise, the technology becomes a commodity and real change begins. Smart phones are the obvious example that shows the potential of communication tools connecting billions of people worldwide. Events of all kinds are now being captured, documented, and shared permanently for everyone to witness. The real consequence of this trend is that we are quickly approaching the full realization of the phrase "the truth will out." The information is out there. All we have to do is pay attention and leverage our ability to collectively filter out the noise.
"Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts but because it is outfailing them."When failure is costly, we act to minimize failure and focus on risk aversion. With fixed costs experimentation is stifled by the ability to pay for only a few trials, at least one of which must be moderately successful to yield a profit. But when failure costs are effectively eliminated, we can afford to find the wildly obscure implementation that becomes wildly successful. To compete in such a world, you must first accept that you must increase your failure rate and focus on improving your awareness of successful trials as they are happening.
These are but a few of the excellent observations contained in this book, and I have only scratched the surface of Clay's analysis. You'll have to read it to get the rest because I need to move on to his next book.
Whereas Here Comes Everybody went through the mechanics of social networking tools, Cognitive Surplus addresses the unrealized potential for those tools to effect change within our society. Clay continues with his superb examples and storytelling, and allows the reader's imagination to run wild with the possibilities yet to come.
With so much extra time and effort being harnessed through online sharing, collaboration, and content creation, truly incredible tools and stores of knowledge are being created. Linux and Wikipedia are prominent examples that resulted from only a small fraction of that time and effort. What would be possible if more of that energy could be focused on solving some of the world's critical problems?
"The bigger the opportunity offered by new tools, the less completely anyone can extrapolate the future from the previous shape of society."Clay doesn't have the answers, of course, but he does warn us not to underestimate the power of small contributions.
"The dramatically reduced cost of public address, and the dramatically increased size of the population wired together, means that we can now turn massive aggregations of small contributions into things of lasting value. This fact, key to our current era, has been a persistent surprise. At every turn, skeptical observers have attacked the idea that pooling our cognitive surplus could work to create anything worthwhile, or suggested that if it does work, it is a kind of cheating, because sharing at a scale that competes with older institutions is somehow wrong."I completely agree with that assessment. If anything is certain, more established institutions will be reduced or eliminated through the revolution wrought by the internet. The power of traditional organizations to control the flow of information is quickly succumbing to the torrent of online contributions, and I think in the end, the individual will have a much stronger voice than before. If we are able to protect the independence of the internet, we will certainly all benefit.
There is so much more to Cognitive Surplus than what I have summarized here. Clay covers an amazing amount of ground, touching on so many critical aspects of our new socially connected environment. I highly recommend reading it to get the full effect.
Contemplating the Future
If you haven't already been convinced, I highly recommend both of these excellent books. Either one stands on their own, but together they tell a gripping story of how the internet has and will continue to change our lives, mostly for the better. If you are designing for the web, trying to create an online community, or are at all curious about how the internet is changing all the rules, you definitely need to read these books.
While it is fairly clear that the internet is drastically changing the media and social networking landscapes because of the shift in communication effort and cost, should we even consider that it will change any other major sectors? Well, research and education are already changing in major ways because of the free availability and easy access to information on the internet. Wikipedia alone has permanently altered the way we process and store the entire body of human knowledge, but that will certainly not be the end, only the beginning. As sites develop better organization and filtering of information so that it can be presented in more meaningful and understandable ways, the sharing and learning of knowledge will definitely accelerate. The current state of online education, especially, is only beginning to show the potential of what it could become given the power inherent in the web's interactivity.
How about transportation. We are already seeing websites that help you find carpool partners, do ridesharing, or even car sharing. It's fascinating to see that people are actually finding ways to make these things work relatively safely and cheaply. Some pretty crazy ideas are actually turning out to be fairly effective here. What else could we find that works to make commuting and travel more efficient? The new electric cars that are coming out can potentially benefit from the connectivity of the internet as well. The communities growing up around the Tesla cars and the Nissan LEAF are quite active and passionate, and if the auto manufacturers cultivate those communities well, they could capitalize on all those users' knowledge and experience with these new vehicles.
Then there's energy generation and distribution. Here is where things really get interesting because until now energy generation has primarily been centralized and then broadcast to consumers, much like television. It is starting to become apparent that this configuration is not going to last. There may be large solar and wind farms in the future. But I can easily see the model for energy mirroring that of the internet, with individuals generating, storing, and sharing their own solar or wind energy in a global energy grid. Such a distributed, shared grid would do for energy what the internet has done for communication and information, giving vastly increased freedom to individuals.
Speaking of vastly increased freedom, the internet has the potential to do the same for individuals with respect to government. So far, the recently much more interconnected citizenry has made it increasingly difficult for politicians to get away with lying and corrupt deal-making. That is not to say that such corruption has decreased of late. If anything, it seems to be worse than ever, but I believe it cannot possibly continue under the glaring sunlight that is the internet. I am optimistic that the ubiquitous interconnection of our society will at least result in a drastic transformation of government, if not the emergence of an entirely new form of government, that will improve equality and fairness in our society.
Some of these ideas, like the changes we will see in government, will not happen overnight. Current institutions are benefiting enormously from the way things are and so are stubbornly entrenched. The fear of change is palpable. Yet change is inevitable, and as the old guard retires, new ideas enabled by new technology will take hold. True change will only come when those that grow up with the new technology effect that change. The internet is quickly maturing so we shouldn't have long to wait. We live in exciting times.