I am convinced that the web will change our society in many ways that we cannot currently grasp. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a book which everybody who is interested in these changes should read. Many books on technology take a very shallow approach. Often they focus on the technology itself or only look at one particular aspect of how technology can be used (e.g. books on “How Wikis can change the way you collaborate”). Shirky’s book is the first one I have read which takes a very deep sociological and often philosophical perspective on the ubiquitousness of the net and its wider implications.
He is not the first author to draw an analogy with the invention of movable type. The social effects of this invention lagged decades behind the technological effects:
Real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B. Rather, they go from A through a long period of chaos and only then reach B. In that chaotic period, the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable.
We are just now entering the chaotic period. We cannot accurately predict the changes that will happen to society now that we have the Internet. It will be many years before we can oversee and look back at the consequences. I can instantly see how the above is true for education. Currently the old institutions are still in full reign, but they are more and more broken (e.g. look at the percentage of students who prematurely quit their vocational tertiary education in the Netherlands). These institutions have not harnessed the new possibilities of technology.
So what are these new possibilities? The book is full of wonderful examples, but Shirky’s main point is that the Internet allows groups of people to self organize without the need for organizations, firms or (governmental) institutions. Traditional communications were always one-to-one (like the phone) or one-to-many (broadcasting, like television). The net enables many-to-many communication which we never had before. E-mail was the first example of this, but IM, (micro-)blogs and social networking sites enable this too. These new tools are “eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination”.
Shirky has a great observation on media:
The twentieth century, with the spread of radio and television was the broadcast century. The normal pattern for media was that they were created by a small group of professionals and then delivered to a large group of consumers. But media, in the word’s literal sense as the middle layer between people, have always been a three-part affair. People like to consume media, of course, but they also like to produce it [..] and they like to share it [..]. Because we now have media that support both making and sharing, as well as consuming, those capabilities are reappearing, after a century mainly given over to consumption.
Social tools are coming into existence that support new patterns of group forming and group production. My personal favourite example is open source software. Clay Shirky attributes the success of this method of producing software to the way that it gets failure for free. For this reason, he considers open source software to be a threat to commercial software vendors:
Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts, but because it is outfailing them. Because the open source ecosystem, and by extension open social systems generally, rely on peer production, the work on those systems can be considerably more experimental, at considerably less cost, than any firm can afford. Why? The most important reasons are that open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.
The overall effect of failure is its likelihood times its cost. Most organizations attempt to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood. [..] The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what will succeed and what will fail. [..] You will inevitably green-light failures and pass on potential successes. Worse still, more people will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea. Given this asymmetry, you will be pushed to make safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the first place.
The open source movement makes neither kind of mistake, because it doesn’t have employees, it doesn’t make investments, it doesn’t even make decisions. It is not an organization, it is an ecosystem, and one that is remarkably tolerant of failure. Open source doesn’t reduce the likelihood of failure, it reduces the cost of failure; it essentially gets failure for free.
Do yourself a favour: If you haven’t read this profound book, please read it as soon as you can.