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Business, Featured - Written by 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.



4 Comments

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Tom
Jan 7, 2009 6:47

Interesting, but let me put this out there. From my experience I’ve found that usually people see things in terms of the big picture (macro, objective) and the small picture (micro, subjective), giving them two perceptions. For example we could think that the “average” person is dumb, selfish, and untrustworthy (macro) while thinking that they themselves or their friends are smart, unselfish, and trustworthy (micro). While this has the potential to create cognitive dissonance, we are usually good at keeping these perceptions separate in our mind.

I think this is the case here, where we have faith in people on the micro level to be civil and collaborative while on the large scale thinking there will be mass panic and survivalism. In short, Tommy Lee Jones said it best in “Men in Black”: “A person is smart, people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” If we want to promote the essence of collective culture, we need to make sure people don’t think about the big picture in a flawed “doomsday” way, but rather at smaller, more communal and managable level.

Mr Luke M
Jan 7, 2009 19:32

Eno in gloom mongering shocker! Much electronic music thrives on the concept of dystopia, so I wouldn’t take his comments to heart Anthony.

As the core actors in your thesis are the science and business communities, and because both are located in broadly optimistic paradigms (ie see themselves as moving deliberately towards truth, better technology and better method), I don’t think wikinomics should fear a Hobbesian trust crunch.

Matt
Jan 12, 2009 9:06

I think Eno struck a CHORD, and not just because he’s a musician.

The beauty of post-internet collaboration is that the payoffs of altruism can be arranged to be immediate (or nearly so), and hence even a dumb panicky herd can be smartened.

Mike Baker
Jan 16, 2009 0:06

Being BORN in the mid-60′s, when Brian Eno was whooping it up, I was raised on optimism. I was four when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on moon. Star Trek was still new, with it’s message of hope that mankind would survive the Cold War, mend fences on Earth and reach for the stars. Even though Vietnam was a daily reminder that we we not there yet, it was contained and a world away.

I fully believe, make that EXPECTED, that I would visit the moon in my lifetime, or at the very least vacation on a space station like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But now I look around, and wonder where’s my space station? Where’s my flying car? Why do I see terror alert levels to keep me vigilant of impending attack while I’m shopping at the mall. What’s this global warming thing and can it be stopped?

The point is that the optimism and predictions of the 60′s didn’t quite pan out. However, we do have cell phones that look for all the world like Star Trek Communicators (web-enabled, no less) and cars that can parallel park themselves.

Look at Eno’s body of work. The All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com) lists the various styles of his music:

“Moods:
Atmospheric
Cerebral
Reserved
Complex
Insular
Pastoral
Circular
Clinical
Quirky
Poignant
Playful
Eerie
Ethereal
Wintry
Soothing
Restrained
Hypnotic
Laid-Back/ Mellow
Melancholy
Nocturnal
Wistful”

It appears Brian is not famous for his optimism. I am not going to get on Eno’s worry train just yet.

Tom’s point about macro / micro perception is quite valid. In America, we say we dislike Congress, but usually we like our OWN representatives. A major disconnect if there ever was one.

My personal experience has been that the people willing to cooperate and collaborate far outnumber those that won’t. I think most people want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and collaboration is a convenient vehicle to meet that need.

Now available in paperback!
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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