Walt Mossberg writes technology columns for the Wall Street Journal, and his various writings can be seen online at his All Things Digital web site. In July of this year he addressed “The Ideas Festival” of The Aspen Institute. Here is a YouTube video Mossberg’s speech.
Although his talk was mostly about the development of what he calls “the instrument formerly known as the cell phone,” with specific and laudatory reference to the iPhone, I fixed on an analogy he made regarding the Internet. He predicted our perception of the Internet will be, in the near future, the same as we now perceive the electrical power grid that serves all developed countries. We don’t even think about it; it’s just there every time we plug something into it or turn on something already plugged into it.
I saw this video shortly before I finished reading Wikinomics by Tapscott and Williams. Mossberg’s comment tied in neatly to the message of this book and that of The World is Flat, Release 3.0, by Thomas L. Friedman.
Both books cite a signal event to underscore the thrust of their arguments: the decision, in year 2000, of Rob McEwen, former CEO of Goldcorp Inc., a Canadian company, to share all the highly proprietary geological data of his company over the Internet. He offered a prize of $575,000 to any geologist in the world who could tell Goldcorp where to drill, successfully, on the mining properties it held, based on the information his company’s geologists had developed over years. It was a major success. To quote from Wikinomics, “One hundred dollars invested in the company (Goldcorp) in 1993 is worth over $3,000 today (early 2008).”
To quote further from Wikinomics: “This new mode of innovation and value creation is called ‘peer production,’ or ‘peering’—which describes what happens when masses of people and firms collaborate openly to drive innovation and growth in their industries.” A footnote goes on to say that this term was coined by Yale professor Yochai Benkler. Another term used by the authors, “Mass collaboration”, is used to mean the same thing, as well. (There are many neologisms and much jargon used in each of the two books discussed here).
The major implication of our ability, through the Internet’s information grid, to collaborate in such ways is the “Flattening” of the world, according to The World is Flat. My interpretation of the use of this word in this context is that the organizational hierarchies we are used to in our working lives, our educational lives and even our social lives, is crumbling and restructuring, “sideways.” By this I mean that we, through the World Wide Web and our easy access to it via the Internet, are not constrained from connecting with anyone (with Internet access), anytime, in any part of the world. The power that flows from the possession of information is now shared by those who see the added value of sharing information, rather than hoarding and rationing it.
Another, perhaps the other development that “flattens” (makes more available to everyone) our ability to access and use information, is the development of open-source technology. Anyone and everyone can be part of the development of information platforms that are freely used. Examples are the Linux operating system which competes with Windows and MAC OS, and the Mozilla Open Source Software Project which competes with Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari. Linux and Mozilla are developed, continually, by its users; both entities are non-profit organizations, and the vast majority of their contributors are volunteers.
I recently visited the trade show “World Water Week” in Stockholm. A major presenter at this forum was Akvo, a not-for profit “Open Source for Water and Sanitation.” In its online literature, Akvo describes itself as “… like a Wikipedia, eBay and YouTube for water and sanitation projects, rolled into one.” Its approach to developing and sharing information, and in promoting rapid and efficient deployment of funds and tools to water and sanitation projects around the world for those that do not have clean water or no sanitation, have earned Akvo significant funding from the Dutch government, among other “funding partners.”
Akvo is just one of many such open source projects, of myriad types, that are flattening our world and causing a major restructuring of how we get important work done, collaboratively.
The further implication of this positive trend is that the Internet needs to remain unfettered by government regulation and bureaucratic barriers. Information is power; entrenched organizations, whether governments or business corporations, will want to garner, hoard and ration information, and access to it, for their own organizational purposes.