Fighting ignorance since 1973 Its taking longer than we thought
PAULINA STREET JOURNAL
My eldest decided the other day it was time I knew about something about Web 2.0 Web 2.0 being broadly understood to mean whatever happens next in the world of the Internet. So he presented me with a couple of books plus an essay, which he felt would get me up to speed. Thinking to indulge the lad, I've now read these learned works, and find myself disturbed. For example, is your idea of diversion an evening plopped in front of the tube? I'm not saying you won't be able to do this in the future. However, you may need to cure a loathesome disease first.
Let's start with the essay. It's entitled "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" by Clay Shirky, a teacher at New York University, a hotbed of advanced online thought. The essay appeared in 2008 and is well known among the cognoscenti, and my bringing it up now will strike some as on a par with getting excited about the Gettysburg Address. My apologies to these cutting-edge individuals. For the rest of you, here's the gist:
The general formulation, then, is as follows: (a) massive societal upheaval produces social surplus; (b) lacking alternatives, we then blow off said surplus in useless dissipation (gin, TV); (c) eventually institutions and/or technology evolve to put the surplus to more productive use; (d) world becomes better place. To illustrate, Shirky calculates that Wikipedia to date has consumed 100 million hours of effort, which seems impressive until you consider that, in the U.S. alone, we spend 200 billion hours every year watching television. If we harnessed those squandered resources, Shirky observes (the common expression is "unused cycles"), we could produce the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedias per year and if that doesn't fill you with guilt, I don't know what will.
We've barely begun to plumb the subject, however. Let's move on.
Next on the reading list was The Wisdom of Crowds (2004). In it New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki argues that groups of people, not all of whom are necessarily geniuses, often get better results than geniuses working alone. He cites some uncanny predictions, which I'd better describe in detail:
By this time the reader is thoroughly freaked out. OK, the first two stories you can rationalize. Perusing the Wikipedia article about the Scorpion, we learn that underwater breakup noises helped the Navy get a fix on the vessel's location. Likewise, in the Galton story we may surmise that the collective wisdom of the knowledgeable farmers swamped the scattered efforts of everyone else.
Correctly assessing the blame for the Challenger disaster, on the other hand there's a miracle for you. Surowiecki cites an analysis by two economists, who wind up conceding they can't explain it there's no evidence anyone had inside information, and the traders had no scientific knowledge. So how did they do it magic? ESP? Did they sense a disturbance in the force? No. Surowiecki explains:
I'm sure you'll join me in agreeing: this is deep.
The last item my kid presented me with, which for me put matters over the top, was Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business (2008) by Wired magazine contributing editor Jeff Howe. Howe describes various successful online collaborations, the best known example of which other than Wikipedia is undoubtedly Linux, the free open-source operating system. He quotes a fellow named Ted Gulley, who runs contests in which programmers compete online to produce the best software:
Here we get down to the guts of the thing, in my opinion. However, some subtleties remain to be grasped. You might think the great big collective brain consists only of the brilliant. Not so. In the Web 2.0 view of things, a pivotal role is played by shlubs. Surowiecki writes:
He quotes organizational theorist James March:
Anybody who follows politics is thinking: no shit. However, there are broader implications. Surowiecki goes on to say:
There you have it. Let's review these key Web 2.0 concepts:
You see where this is headed. Once they get the work assignments figured out, they're going to be after us to cure cancer, probably for free, although maybe we'll get a T-shirt out of it. How and when are we supposed to go about this? I expect they'll be e-mailing us instructions. In the meantime, if you know what's good for you, don't watch sitcoms on TV.
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