Business, Featured - Written by Anthony D. Williams on Tuesday, January 6, 2009 23:54 - 4 Comments
Will the spirit of Wikinomics survive in harsher times?
Edge.org recently posted a collection of 151 thoughts from leading thinkers on the “game-changing scientific ideas or developments” they think will “change everything” within their lifetimes. Having co-authored a book about how mass collaboration will change everything I was particularly intrigued by their answers.
There are many good entries, but artist, composer and producer Brian Eno’s short piece really struck a chord, mostly because it made me question some of the fundamental assumptions underlying our assertion that mass collaboration is not just a new business model that harnesses openness and participation; it’s a fundamentally new model of human organization and a new way to orchestrate our collective ingenuity to address the growing number of global challenges that may well overwhelm our traditional institutions.
Eno’s premise is that the game-changing development is more of a feeling than an idea—a creeping and insidious feeling that the world is getting worse rather than better, that the Earth’s natural capital is being pillaged rather than replenished, that war is more fruitful than peace, that your neighbor is more likely your rival than your friend. In this new world, fear, secrecy and mistrust reign. They replace optimism, openness and social cohesion as our dominant social operating principles. We will have reached the end of progress and then perhaps even the end of civilization.
The implication is that an end to optimism and a return to baser instincts would annihilate the conditions that make wikinomics possible–conditions such as high levels of social trust, a culture of openness and idea sharing, a deeply-ingrained sense of entrepreneurialism, not to mention a healthy dose of leisure time.
Here’s an excerpt from Eno:
Many of us grew up among the reverberations of the 1960′s. At that time there was a feeling that the world could be a better place, and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. Why did this take root? Probably because there was new wealth around, a new unifying mass culture, and a newly empowered generation whose life experience was that the graph could only point ‘up’. In many ways their idealism paid off: the better results remain with us today, surfacing, for example, in the wiki-ised world of ideas-sharing of which this conversation is a part.
But suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world not in that way but instead as something more closely resembling the nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion described in Cormac McCarthy’s post-cataclysm novel The Road. What happens then?
The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere. There isn’t time for them. Long term projects are abandoned—their payoffs are too remote. Global projects are abandoned—not enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility is seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism rules. Might will be right.
I think Eno provides us with some food for thought–though I’m more of an optimist than he. We probably underestimate the importance of how much our collective faith in progress and ever-increasing prosperity has shaped the way the world has evolved, particularly over the last century. Now things have hardly turned out as well as they might have, but what might have happened if that broadly accepted notion that there will be continuous improvement in the human condition was rejected in favor of much more distopian worldview? And what about the future? There is no doubt in my mind that we will need new institutions for governance if the human species is to survive the 21st century. I still think wikinomics could be part of the solution-set. But what prospect will we have to build these institutions in an environment of scarcity, conflict and mistrust.
Thanks to much social research, we know quite a bit about how people’s expectations of the future profoundly shape their behavior in the present. It’s probably time to start thinking more about how people’s behavior will change if and when our collective expectations of the future take a sharp turn for the worse. Will the spirit of wikinomics survive in harsher times? I don’t know yet. But before the world ends I’m going to enjoy giving this more thought.
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