Miles and I wandered along to The Future of Collaboration last night, there to meet up with 50% of the local digital/software/whatever community to hear a panel discussion with Nico MacDonald, Michael Bull and Cory Doctorow. It's an event being run as part of the Battle of Ideas season, by the Institute of Ideas. Good speakers, a hot topic: expectations were high. I took a few patchy notes.
Cory kicked off with the first in a volley of excellent soundbites, observing that predictions of the future tend to say more about the predictor than they do about the future. The internet is "the worlds best copying machine". It's become so important to businesses and governments that it can't be shut down, even during events like the Myanmar riots of last year - because large influential corporations like oil companies aren't, in fact, oil companies, they're IT companies that happen to move oil around. I didn't find this analogy particularly helpful; given that all IT companies need people (even Google have sysadmins), isn't it just as accurate to say they're all HR companies that happen to shift XYZ around?
Michael Bull was up next - I've wanted to see him speak for some time. If you've not heard of the guy he's been christened "Dr iPod" after spending a long time looking at how the device affects us - and writing a book on the topic. Michael's been looking at things more from a consumption point of view - comparing the rise of universal collaboration to the collapse of communism leaving nothing but capitalism as an option: collaboration is all there is. He clearly has some doubts over the fundamentally positive view of this technology which Cory was promoting, referencing a UNESCO report which found that use of communications technology in children was both inversely proportional to their happiness, and led to their difficulty in determining who to trust. "The more you use technology to mediate a community, the more multisensory experience you lose", said Michael, and despite being an enthusiastic digital over-sharer myself I found it hard to disagree. I'm not alone, apparently we each spend on average 27 hours a day using technology (if you double-count hours where we simultaneously use more than one device, e.g. mobile and TV - yes, my pedantrometer was tingling at this point, but I saved it for later). "We're all existentially alone together", Michael ended, noting that most people talk to on average 8 others with any regularity, and that seeing others talking when you're not leads to feelings of isolation. Michael took a circumspect view of things, and whilst I didn't feel he presented as attractive a case as Cory, I was left wanting to dig into his book and understand the points he was making better - they felt like they had some depth which couldn't be easily explored in this format of discussion.
Nico was up last, and as one might expect from a Register journalist, deftly cut into a few of the earlier points made - particularly those by Cory. He laid into the inappropriate reuse of terminology: applying the label "open source" to things which are merely broken and which you want to make better, e.g. politics, is both unhelpful and does an injustice to the nuances of the original idea. Beneath my calm exterior, I transformed, Manimal-style, into a sea-lion and started yelping and clapping in an uncontrolledly excited fashion. There's a lot of hype around sharing and collaboration, said Nico, because the industries most affected by it are the media, publishing and software: we got this stuff first and have a tendency to talk it up, but many people live predominately in the physical world and have a different set of concerns. He then made what I thought was a comparitively weak point about open source being fundamentally contributed to by people who should either be doing their day jobs, or spending time with friends and families in the evenings. I found this unconvincing, given the resource that companies like IBM, Oracle, Intel and Firefox are putting into open source projects. Similarly, he talked about open source replicating what's already out there rather than doing anything new, and being poor for work that can't be readily tested like user interface. Cory made a good rebuttal later on this point: all UI is pretty awful with the exception of two or three (cough Apple cough). I'd extend Cory's point to apply to replication: very little software from any source is doing anything truly new, and I could think of a few examples of open source innovation (Quicksilver and the web itself spring to mind).
Nico talked about sharing through social media being a form of affirming ones existence publicly - "I share, therefore I am", and ended his speech with what I felt was a very interesting point: that historically the friction in communications gave ideas time to develop, and that losing this friction might be a Bad Thing. I wonder if, just as Dopplr digitally conjures serendipity, we might end up producing digital artifacts which deliberately introduce or simulate friction. The closest example I can think of to this is the GMail "undo sending" function - where Google essentially lies to you, telling you your email has been sent when it hasn't, such that you can then postpone sending with for a short window of time. It's cheap and dishonest (not traditionally the characteristics of good software), but it's all for your own good - and it's a tremendously useful feature.
The panel debated a little from this point, with a few questions from the audience (fewer than I'd have liked, compared to the number of sometimes-vague points the audience chose to make). My notes and memory get hazy here, but Cory talked about the breadth of blogging content dwarfing the size of the publishing industry; Michael snugly pointed out that "we get the technologies we deserve and incorporate them into existing patterns of behaviour"; and Nico talked about our love of open source perhaps stemming from a societal distrust of authority, and pointed out that most social services don't succeed in giving people the self-actualisation they seek in using them. Instead they're used for showing off, rather than contributing to a collaborative work.
Cory again delivered a few excellent (and valid) soundbites: we have a temptation to treat everything as a destination, not a journey - which is like judging sex by what's left on the sheets afterwards: writing fan fiction can be more fun than reading it. He then spoke about the wrenching pace of technical change, and the need for business models than can last 3 months and then be revised. I found this last point really quite naive - as if the only thing that affects a business is the technology that enables or assists it, and as if inertia doesn't also come from how said business presents itself to the structures around it (customers, competitors), and engages with them over time. I'm sure some businesses may be able to reinvent themselves rapidly, but I don't see how it's necessary for all of them to do this. Perhaps this is the moment I shall look back on in 20 years time and murmur wistfully, "That was when I got too old, and Stopped Getting It". I hope not.
Michael drew some analogies with Czech writers in the 70s and 80s who transmitted their ideas in novels wrapped up and concealed inside paper bags; with communism gone they had nothing to write about, and there's a nostalgia for this time in a world where information flows so freely and easily. He talked about universities who had started giving pupils iPods as educational tools stopping the experiment, as public spaces in schools turned from areas of conversation and discussion into the areas where individuals chose to cocoon themselves with music. And he gave some examples from his own experience around digital media: when they podcasted lectures at Sussex University, attendance dropped 20% without any evidence that the podcasts were being listened to.
Nico popped onto the innovation bus briefly, opining that bringing together the best of what's out there is not innovation (though Apple seem to have done a very good job of just that, and get showered with the I word as a result). Mindful of predictions of imminent (or even current) wrenching technological change, he pointed out that our great-grandparents lived through the move from agrarian to industrial civilisation - surely a much more profound change than the Internet has delivered? And he talked about British culture, in particular, not yet understanding the profundity of having canonical information available in one place.
I left the event early, pausing only to embarrass myself in a pathetic display of pedantry; but I ended up feeling that maybe the panelists were having discussions along different axes. No-one seemed to be arguing that the scale of collaboration hadn't gotten larger as a result of the Internet, the points from Nico seemed to be fundamentally "yes it has but it doesn't make as much difference as the media likes to say", Michael said "yes it has but maybe that's not all good", and Cory "yes, and you'd better hold on because it's going to be an amazing and scary ride".
Were I to be sat on this imaginary rollercoaster with one of the panelists, I'd choose Cory, because fairground rides are more fun in enthusiastic company - but I suspect that his enthusiasm might not be too comforting to someone like myself, who's scared shitless on rollercoasters (even metaphorical ones, sometimes). The opportunity for global collaboration seems to be there, but even the poster child for online collaboration, Wikipedia, doesn't seem to have taken advantage of this scale:
Wales decided to run a simple study to find out: he counted who made the most edits to the site. “I expected to find something like an 80-20 rule: 80% of the work being done by 20% of the users, just because that seems to come up a lot. But it’s actually much, much tighter than that: it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users … 524 people. … And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.” The remaining 25% of edits, he said, were from “people who [are] contributing … a minor change of a fact or a minor spelling fix … or something like that.”
By comparison, the Apollo moon landing programme - predating the Internet - employed 400,000 people. I wonder what it is that Wikipedia is not fit to hold the sandals of, and can't help but be a teensy bit excited.