The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016)
Bill Gates once derided advocates for free software with the worst epithet a capitalist can muster. These folks demanding that software should be free, he said, were a “new modern-day sort of communists,” a malevolent force bent on destroying the monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream. Gates was wrong on several points: For one, free and open source software zealots are more likely to be political libertarians than commie pinkos. Yet there is some truth to his allegation. The frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone all the time is quietly giving rise to a revised technological version of socialism.
Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide. Wikipedia is just one notable example of an emerging collectivism. Indeed, not just Wikipedia but wikis of all sorts. Wikis are a set of documents that are collaboratively produced; their text can easily be created, added, edited, or altered by anyone, and by everyone. Different wiki engines operate on different platforms and OSs with various formatting abilities. Ward Cunningham, who invented the first collaborative web page in 1994, tracks nearly 150 wiki engines today, each powering myriad sites. Widespread adoption of the share-friendly copyright license known as Creative Commons encourages people to legally allow their own images, text, or music to be used and improved by others without the need for additional permission. In other words, sharing and sampling content is the new default.
There were more than one billion instances of Creative Commons permissions in use in 2015. The rise of ubiquitous file sharing sites such as Tor, where one can find a copy of almost anything that can be copied, is another step toward collaboration since it makes it very easy to begin your creation with something already created. Collaborative commenting sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Pinterest, and Tumblr enable hundreds of millions of ordinary folks to find photos, images, news items, and ideas drawn from professional and friends’ sources, and then collectively rank them, rate them, share them, forward them, annotate them, and curate them into streams or collections. These sites act as collaborative filters, promoting the best stuff at the moment. Nearly every day another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness community action. These developments suggest a steady move toward a sort of digital “social-ism” uniquely tuned for a networked world.
We’re not talking about your grandfather’s political socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school political socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now.
The type of old-school communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of shared software, such as Linux or Apache, was born in an era of centralized communications, top-heavy industrial processes, and enforced borders. Those constraints from early last century gave rise to a type of collective ownership that tried to replace the chaos and failures of a free market with well-thought-out scientific five-year plans devised by a politburo of all-powerful experts. This type of government operating system failed, to put it mildly. The top-down socialism of the industrial era could not keep up with the rapid adaptions, constant innovations, and self-generating energy that democratic free markets offered. Socialistic command economies and centralized communistic regimes were left behind. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, this new digital socialism runs over a borderless internet, via network communications, generating intangible services throughout a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing picks and shovels, we share scripts and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of free government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free commercial goods and services.
I recognize that the word “socialism” is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms “communal,” “communitarian,” and “collective.” I use “socialism” because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely on social interactions for their power. We call social media “social” for this same reason: It is a species of social action. Broadly speaking, social action is what websites and net-connected apps generate when they harness input from very large networks of consumers, or participants, or users, or what we once called the audience. Of course, there’s rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organizations under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available in this realm of sharing, so we might as well redeem this most direct one: social, social action, social media, socialism. When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that new socialism.
What they have in common is the verb “to share.” In fact, some futurists have called this economic aspect of the new socialism the “sharing economy” because the primary currency in this realm is sharing.
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In the late 1990s, activist, provocateur, and aging hippy John Perry Barlow began calling this drift, somewhat tongue in cheek, “dot-communism.” He defined dot-communism as a “workforce composed entirely of free agents,” a decentralized gift or barter economy without money where there is no ownership of property and where technological architecture defines the political space. He was right about the virtual money since the content that Twitter and Facebook distribute is created by unpaid contributors—that is, users like you. And Barlow was right about the lack of ownership, as explained in the previous chapter. We see sharing economy services such as Netflix and Spotify move audiences away from owning anything. But there is one way in which “socialism” is the wrong word for what is happening: It is not an ideology, not an “ism.” It demands no rigid creed. Rather, it is a spectrum of attitudes, techniques, and tools that promote collaboration, sharing, aggregation, coordination, ad hocracy, and a host of other newly enabled types of social cooperation. It is a design frontier and a particularly fertile space for innovation.
In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, media theorist Clay Shirky suggests a useful hierarchy for sorting through these new social arrangements, ranked by the increasing degree of coordination employed. Groups of people start off simply sharing with a minimum of coordination, and then progress to cooperation, then to collaboration, and finally to collectivism. At each step of this socialism, the amount of additional coordination required enlarges. A survey of the online landscape reveals ample evidence of this phenomenon.
The online public has an incredible willingness to share. The number of personal photos posted on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, and other sites is an astronomical 1.8 billion per day. It’s a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of these digital photos are shared in some fashion. Then there are status updates, map locations, half-thoughts posted online. Add to this the billions of videos served by YouTube each day and the millions of fan-created stories deposited on fanfic sites. The list of sharing organizations is almost endless: Yelp for reviews, Foursquare for locations, Pinterest for scrapbook pieces. Sharing content is now ubiquitous.
Sharing is the mildest form of digital socialism, but this verb serves as the foundation for all the higher levels of communal engagement. It is the elemental ingredient of the entire network world.
When individuals work together toward a large-scale goal, it produces results that emerge at the group level. Not only have amateurs shared billions of photos on Flickr and Tumblr, but they have tagged them with categories, labels, and keywords. Others in the community cull the pictures into sets and boards. The popularity of Creative Commons licensing means that in a sense your picture is my picture. Anyone can use an uploaded photo, just as a communard might use the community wheelbarrow. I don’t have to shoot yet another photo of the Eiffel Tower, since the community can provide a better one than I can take myself. That means I can make a presentation, a report, a scrapbook, a website much better because I am not working alone.
Thousands of aggregator sites employ a similar social dynamic for threefold benefit. First, social-facing technology aids a site’s users directly by letting them individually tag, bookmark, rank, and archive a found item for their own use. Community members can manage and curate their own collections easier. For instance, on Pinterest, plentiful tags and categories (“pins”) enable a user to make very quick and specific scrapbooks that are super easy to retrieve and add to. Second, other users will benefit from an individual’s tags, pins, and bookmarks. It makes it easier for them to find similar material. The more tags an image gets in Pinterest, or likes in Facebook, or hashtags on Twitter, the more useful it becomes for others. Third, collective action can create an additional value that can come only from the group as a whole. For instance, a pile of tourist snapshots of the Eiffel Tower, each taken from a different angle by a different tourist at a different time, and each one heavily tagged, can be assembled (using software such as Microsoft’s Photosynth) into a stunning 3-D holistic rendering of the whole structure that is far more complex and valuable than the individual shots. In a curious way, this proposition exceeds the socialist promise of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” because it betters what you contribute and delivers more than you need.
Community sharing can unleash astonishing power. Sites like Reddit and Twitter, which let users vote up or retweet the most important items (news bits, web links, comments), can steer public conversation as much, and maybe more, than newspapers or TV networks. Dedicated contributors keep contributing in part because of the wider cultural influence these instruments wield. The community’s collective influence is far out of proportion to the number of contributors. That is the whole point of social institutions: The sum outperforms the parts. Traditional socialism ramped up this dynamic via the nation-state. Now digital sharing is decoupled from government and operates at an international scale.
Organized collaboration can produce results beyond the achievements of ad hoc cooperation. Just look at any of hundreds of open source software projects, such as the Linux operating system, which underpins most web servers and most smartphones. In these endeavors, finely tuned communal tools generate high-quality products from the coordinated work of thousands or tens of thousands of members. In contrast to the previous category of casual cooperation, collaboration on large, complex projects tends to bring the participants only indirect benefits, since each member of the group interacts with only a small part of the end product. An enthusiast may spend months writing code for a subroutine when the program’s full utility is several years away. In fact, the work-reward ratio is so out of kilter from a free-market perspective—the workers do immense amounts of high-market-value work without being paid—that these collaborative efforts make no sense within capitalism.
Adding to the economic dissonance, we’ve become accustomed to enjoying the products of these collaborations free of charge. Half of all web pages in the world today are hosted on more than 35 million servers running free Apache software, which is open source, community created. A free clearinghouse called 3D Warehouse offers several million complex 3-D models of any form you can image (a boot to a bridge), created and freely swapped by very skilled enthusiasts. Nearly 1 million community-designed Arduinos and 6 million Raspberry Pi computers have been built by schools and hobbyists. Their designs are encouraged to be copied freely and used as the basis for new products. Instead of money, the peer producers who create these products and services gain credit, status, reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly new about collaboration per se. But the new tools of online collaboration support a communal style of production that can shun capitalistic investors and keep ownership in the hands of the producers, who are often the consumers as well.
Most people in the West, including myself, were indoctrinated with the notion that extending the power of individuals necessarily diminishes the power of the state, and vice versa. In practice, though, most polities socialize some resources and individualize others. Most free-market national economies have socialized education and policing, while even the most extremely socialized societies today allow some private property. The mix varies around the world.
Rather than viewing technological socialism as one side of a zero-sum trade-off between free-market individualism and centralized authority, technological sharing can be seen as a new political operating system that elevates both the individual and the group at once. The largely unarticulated but intuitively understood goal of sharing technology is this: to maximize both the autonomy of the individual and the power of people working together. Thus, digital sharing can be viewed as a third way that renders irrelevant a lot of the old conventional wisdom.
The notion of a third way is echoed by Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, who has probably thought more about the politics of networks than anyone else. “I see the emergence of social production and peer production as an alternative to both state-based and market-based closed, proprietary systems,” he writes, noting that these activities “can enhance creativity, productivity, and freedom.” The new OS is neither the classic communism of centralized planning without private property nor the undiluted selfish chaos of a free market. Instead, it is an emerging design space in which decentralized public coordination can solve problems and create things that neither pure communism nor pure capitalism can.
Hybrid systems that blend market and nonmarket mechanisms are not new. For decades, researchers have studied the decentralized, socialized production methods of northern Italian and Basque industrial co-ops, in which employees are owners who select management and limit profit distribution independent of state control. But only since the arrival of low-cost, instantaneous, ubiquitous online collaboration has it been possible to migrate the core of those ideas into diverse new realms, like coding enterprise software or writing reference books. More important, the technologies of sharing enable collaboration and collectivism to operate at much larger scales than ever before.
The dream is to scale up this third way beyond local experiments. How big can decentralized collaboration go? Black Duck Open Hub, which tracks the open source industry, lists roughly 650,000 people working on more than half a million projects. That total is three times the size of the General Motors workforce. That is an awful lot of people working for free, even if they’re not full-time. Imagine if all the employees of GM weren’t paid, yet continued to produce automobiles!
So far, the biggest online collaboration efforts are open source projects, and the largest of them, such as Apache, manage several hundred contributors—about the size of a village. One study estimates that 60,000 person-years of work have poured into the release of Fedora Linux 9, so we have proof that self-assembly and the dynamics of sharing can govern a project on the scale of a town.
Of course, the total census of participants in online collective work is far greater. Reddit, the collaborative filtering site, has 170 million unique visitors per month and 10,000 daily active communities. YouTube claims 1 billion monthly users; they are the workforce that produces the videos that now compete with TV. Nearly 25 million registered users have contributed to Wikipedia; 130,000 of them are designated active. More than 300 million active users have posted on Instagram, and more than 700 million groups participate in Facebook Groups each month.
The number of people who belong to collective software farms or work on projects that require communal decisions still fall short of a nation. But the population of people who live in socialized media is gigantic and still increasing. More than 1.4 billion citizens of Facebook freely share their lives in an informational commune. If it were a nation, Facebook would be the largest country on the planet. Yet the entire economy of this largest country runs on labor that isn’t paid. A billion people spend a lot of their day creating content for free. They report on events around them, summarize stories, add opinions, create graphics, make up jokes, post cool photos, and craft videos. They are “paid” in the value of the communication and relations that emerge from 1.4 billion connected verifiable individuals. They are paid by being allowed to stay on the commune.
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One might expect a lot of political posturing from folks who are constructing an alternative to paid labor. But the coders, hackers, and programmers who design sharing tools don’t think of themselves as revolutionaries. The most common motivation for working without pay (according to a survey of 2,784 open source developers) was “to learn and develop new skills.” One academic put it this way (paraphrasing): “The major reason for working on free stuff is to improve my own damn software.” Basically, overt politics is not practical enough. The internet is less a creation dictated by economics than one dictated by sharing gifts.
However, citizens may not be immune to the politics of a rising tide of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, and collectivism. The more we benefit from such collaboration, the more open we become to socialized institutions in government. The coercive, soul-smashing system that controls North Korea is dead (outside of North Korea); the future is a hybrid that takes cues from both Wikipedia and the moderate socialism of, say, Sweden. There will be a severe backlash against this drift from the usual suspects, but increased sharing is inevitable. There is an honest argument over what to call it, but the technologies of sharing have only begun. On my imgainary Sharing Meter Index we are still at 2 out of 10. There is a whole list of subjects that experts once believed we modern humans would not share—our finances, our health challenges, our sex lives, our innermost fears—but it turns out that with the right technology and the right benefits in the right conditions, we’ll share everything.
How close to a noncapitalistic, open source, peer-production society can this movement take us? Every time that question has been asked, the answer has been: closer than we thought. Consider Craigslist. Just classified ads, right? Craigslist is far more than that. It amplified the handy community swap board until it reached a regional audience, then enhanced the ads with pictures. It let the customers do all the work of inputting their own ads and, more important, kept the ads in real time with real-time updates, and to top it off it made them free. National classifieds for free! How could debt-laden corporate newspapers compete with that? Operating without state funding or control, connecting citizens directly to citizens, globally, daily, this mostly free marketplace achieved social good at an efficiency (at its peak it had only 30 employees) that would stagger any government or traditional corporation. Sure, peer-to-peer classified undermines the business model of newspapers, but at the same time it makes an indisputable case that the sharing model is a viable alternative to both profit-seeking corporations and tax-supported civic institutions.
Every public health care expert declared confidently that sharing was fine for photos, but no one would share their medical records. But PatientsLikeMe, where patients pool results of treatments to better their own care, proves that collective action can trump both doctors and privacy scares. The increasingly common habit of sharing what you’re thinking (Twitter), what you’re reading (StumbleUpon), your finances (Motley Fool Caps), your everything (Facebook) is becoming a foundation of our culture. Doing it while collaboratively building encyclopedias, news agencies, video archives, and software in groups that span continents, with people you don’t know and whose class is irrelevant—that makes political socialism seem like the logical next step.
A similar thing happened with free markets over the past century. Every day someone asked: What can markets do better? We took a long list of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and instead applied marketplace logic. For instance, governments traditionally managed communications, particularly scarce radio airways. But auctioning off the communication spectrum in a marketplace radically increased the optimization of bandwidth and accelerated innovation and new businesses. Instead of a government monopoly distributing mail, let market players like DHL, FedEx, and UPS try it as well. In many cases, a modified market solution worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in recent decades was gained by unleashing market forces on social problems.
Now we’re trying the same trick with collaborative social technology: applying digital socialism to a growing list of desires—and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn’t solve—to see if it works. So far, the results have been startling. We’ve had success in using collaborative technology in bringing health care to the poorest, developing free college textbooks, and funding drugs for uncommon diseases. At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the sharing is bigger than we imagined.
The power of sharing is not just about the nonprofit sector. Three of the largest creators of commercial wealth in the last decade—Google, Facebook, and Twitter—derive their value from unappreciated sharing in unexpected ways.
The earliest version of Google overtook the leading search engines of its time by employing the links made by amateur creators of web pages. Each time an ordinary person made a hyperlink on the web, Google calculated that link as a vote of confidence for the linked page and used this vote to give a weight to links throughout the web. So a particular page would get ranked higher for reliability in Google’s search results if the pages that linked to it were also linked to pages that other reliable pages linked to. This weirdly circular evidence was not created by Google but was instead derived from the public links shared by millions of web pages. Google was the first to extract value from the shared search results that customers clicked on. Each click by an ordinary user represented a vote for the usefulness of that page. So merely by using Google, the fans themselves made Google better and more economically valuable.
Facebook took something that few people thought was valuable—the web of our friends—and encouraged us to share it, while making it easy for us to share notes and gossip with our newly connected circles. This was a minor benefit to individuals—but immensely complex to accomplish in aggregate. No one had anticipated how powerful this unappreciated sharing would be. Facebook’s most powerful asset turned out to be the persistent online identity it needed to create for us in order for this sharing scheme to work. While futuristic products such as Second Life’s virtual reality made it easy to share an imaginary version of yourself, Facebook made a lot more money by making it easy to share the authentic version of yourself.
Twitter took a similar tack in exploiting the underappreciated power of simply sharing a 140-character “update.” It built a surprisingly huge business in enabling people to share quips, and to collect loose acquaintances. Before then, this level of sharing was not considered worthwhile, let along valuable. Twitter proved that what was merely common glitter to an individual could be made into shared gold when collected and processed in the aggregate, and then organized and disseminated back to the individual and sold in analytic clumps to corporations.
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The shift from hierarchy to networks, from centralized heads to decentralized webs, where sharing is the default, has been the major cultural story of the last three decades—and that story is not done yet. The power of bottom up will still take us further. However, the bottom is not enough.
To get to the best of what we want, we need some top-down intelligence too. Now that social technology and sharing apps are all the rage, it’s worth repeating: The bottom alone is not enough for what we really want. We need a bit of top-down as well. Every predominantly bottom-up organization that lasts for more than a few years does so because it becomes a hybrid of bottom up plus some top down.
I came to that conclusion through personal experience. I was a co–founding editor of Wired magazine. Editors perform a top-down function—we select, prune, solicit, shape, and guide the results of writers. We launched Wired in 1993, before the web was invented, and so we had a unique privilege to shape journalism as the web emerged. In fact, Wired originated one of the first commercial editorial websites. As we experimented with newly possible ways to create and disseminate news on the web, a key unanswered question was: How much influence should editors wield? It was obvious that new online tools made it easier for the audience not only to contribute writing, but also to edit content as well. The recurring insight was simple: What happens if we turn the old model inside out and have the audience/customers in charge? They would be Toffler’s prosumers—consumers who were producers. As innovation expert Larry Keeley once observed: “No one is as smart as everyone.” Or as Clay Shirky puts it: “Here comes everybody!” Should we simply let the “everyone” in the audience create the online magazine themselves? Should editors step back and just approve what the wisdom of the crowd creates?
Howard Rheingold, a writer and editor who had been living online for a decade before Wired, was one of many pundits who argued that it was now possible to forget the editor. Go with the crowd. Rheingold was at the forefront of the then totally radical belief that content could be assembled entirely from the collective action of amateurs and the audience. Rheingold would later write a book called Smart Mobs. We hired him to oversee HotWired, Wired’s online content site. HotWired’s original radical idea was to harness the crowd of readers to write the content that other readers would read. But it was even more radical. The shouts from the back of the bus grew loud declaring that finally an author no longer needed editors. No one needed to ask permission to publish. Anyone with an internet connection could post their work and gather an audience; it was the end of publishers controlling the gates. This was a revolution! And since it was a revolution, Wired published “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” announcing the end of old media. New media was certainly spawning rapidly. Among them were the link aggregators such as Slashdot, Digg, and later Reddit that enabled users to vote up or down items and to work together as a collaborative consensus filter, making mutual recommendations based on “others like you.”
Rheingold believed that Wired would get further faster by unleashing people with strong voices, lots of passion, and the willingness to write without any editors to thwart them. Today we’d call those contributors “bloggers.” Or tweeters. In this sense Rheingold was right. The entire content that fuels Facebook and Twitter and all the other social media sites is created by users without editors. A billion amateur citizens unleash libraries of text every second. In fact, the average person online today writes more words in a year than many professional writers of the past. This torrent is unedited, unmanaged, completely bottom up. And the attention given to this immense corpus of prosumer content is significant—it was sold to advertisers for $24 billion in 2015.
I was on the other side of this revolt. My counterargument at the time was that the work of most unedited amateurs was simply not that interesting or consistently reliable. When a million people were writing (or blogging or posting) a million times a week, some intelligent guidance to this flood of available text would be worth a lot. The need for some top-down selection would only increase in value as the amount of user-generated content expanded. Over time, the companies that served user-generated content would have to start to layer bits of editing, selection, and curation to their ocean of material in order to maintain quality and attention to it. There had to be something else beside the pure anarchy of the bottom.
This is true for other types of editors as well. Editors are the middle people—or what are called “curators” today—the professionals between a creator and the audience. These middle folk work at publishers, music labels, galleries, or film studios. While their roles would have to change drastically, the demand for the middle would not go away. Intermediates of some type are needed to shape the cloud of creativity that boils up from the crowd.
Yet, in 1994, who knew? In the spirit of a great experiment, we launched HotWired, our online magazine, as a primarily user-generated content site. It didn’t work. We quickly began adding some editorial oversight and editorially commissioned articles. Users could submit material, but it needed to be edited before publishing. Every decade since then a few commercial news organizations tried this experiment again. The Guardian tried to harness readers’ reports on a news blog, but it died after two years. OhMyNews in South Korea did better than most and ran a reader-written news organization for years before it was returned to editors in 2010. The veteran business magazine Fast Company signed up 2,000 blogging readers to report articles sans editors, but closed the experiment after a year and now relies again on readers to suggest ideas for editors to assign. This hybrid of user-generated and editor-enhanced is quite common. Facebook has already started to filter, via intelligent algorithms, the bottom-up flood of news to your feed. It will only continue to add layers of intermediation, as will other bottom-up services.
If one looks hard and honestly, even the supposed paragon of user-generated content—Wikipedia itself—is far from pure bottom-up. In fact, Wikipedia’s open-to-anyone process contains an elite in the back room. The more articles someone edits, the more likely their edits will endure and not be undone, which means that over time veteran editors find it easier to make edits that stick, which means that the process favors those few editors who devote lots of time over many years. These persistent old hands act as a type of management, supplying a thin layer of editorial judgment and continuity to this open ad hocracy. In fact, this relatively small group of self-appointed editors is why Wikipedia continues to work and grow into its third decade.
When a community cooperates to write an encyclopedia, as it does in Wikipedia, no one is held responsible if it fails to reach consensus on an article. That gap is simply an imperfection that may or may not get fixed in time. These failures don’t endanger the enterprise as a whole. The aim of a collective, on the other hand, is to engineer a system where self-directed peers take responsibility for critical processes and where difficult decisions, such as sorting out priorities, are decided by all participants. Throughout history, countless small-scale collectivist groups have tried this decentralized operating mode in which the executive function is not held at the top. The results have not been encouraging; very few communes have lasted longer than a few years.
Indeed, a close examination of the governing kernel of, say, Wikipedia, Linux, or OpenOffice shows that these efforts are a bit further from the collectivist nirvana than appears from the outside. While millions of writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of editors (around 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the editing. Ditto for collectives that write code. A vast army of contributions is managed by a much smaller group of coordinators. As Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the Mozilla open source code factory, observed, “Inside every working anarchy, there’s an old-boy network.”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some types of collectives benefit from a small degree of hierarchy while others are hurt by it. Platforms like the internet, Facebook, or democracy are intended to serve as an arena for producing goods and delivering services. These infrastructural courtyards benefit from being as nonhierarchical as possible, minimizing barriers to entry and distributing rights and responsibilities equally. When powerful actors dominate in these systems, the entire fabric suffers. On the other hand, organizations built to create products rather than platforms often need strong leaders and hierarchies arranged around timescales: Lower-level work focuses on hourly needs; the next level on jobs that need to be done today. Higher levels focus on weekly or monthly chores, and levels above (often in the CEO suite) need to look out ahead at the next five years. The dream of many companies is to graduate from making products to creating a platform. But when they do succeed (like Facebook), they are often not ready for the required transformation in their role; they have to act more like governments than companies in keeping opportunities “flat” and equitable, and hierarchy to a minimum.
In the past, constructing an organization that exploited hierarchy yet maximized collectivism was nearly impossible. The costs of managing so many transactions was too dear. Now digital networking provides the necessary peer-to-peer communication cheap. The net enables a product-focused organization to function collectively by keeping its hierarchy from fully taking over. For instance, the organization behind MySQL, an open source database, is not without some hierarchy, but it is far more collectivist than, say, the giant database corporation Oracle. Likewise, Wikipedia is not exactly a bastion of equality, but it is vastly more collectivist than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The new collectives are hybrid organizations, but leaning far more to the nonhierarchical side than most traditional enterprises.
It’s taken a while but we’ve learned that while top down is needed, not much of it is needed. The brute dumbness of the hive mind is the raw food ingredients that smart design can chew on. Editorship and expertise are like vitamins for the food. You don’t need much of them, just a trace even for a large body. Too much will be toxic, or just flushed away. The proper dosage of hierarchy is just barely enough to vitalize a very large collective.
The exhilarating frontier today is the myriad ways in which we can mix large doses of out-of-controlness with small elements of top-down control. Until this era, technology was primarily all control, all top down. Now it can contain both control and messiness. Never before have we been able to make systems with as much messy quasi-control in them. We are rushing into an expanding possibility space of decentralization and sharing that was never accessible before because it was not technically possible. Before the internet there was simply no way to coordinate a million people in real time or to get a hundred thousand workers collaborating on one project for a week. Now we can, so we are quickly exploring all the ways in which we can combine control and the crowd in innumerable permutations.
However, a massively bottom-up effort will take us only partway to our preferred destination. In most aspects of life we want expertise. But we are unlikely to get the level of expertise we want with no experts at all.
That’s why it should be no surprise to learn that Wikipedia continues to evolve its process. Each year more structure is layered in. Controversial articles can be “frozen” by top editors so they can no longer be edited by any random person, only designated editors. There are more rules about what is permissible to write, more required formatting, more approval needed. But the quality improves too. I would guess that in 50 years a significant portion of Wikipedia articles will have controlled edits, peer review, verification locks, authentication certificates, and so on. That’s all good for us readers. Each of these steps is a small amount of top-down smartness to offset the dumbness of a massively bottom-up system.
Yet if the hive mind is so dumb, why bother with it at all?
Because as dumb as it is, it is smart enough for a lot of work.
In two ways: First, the bottom-up hive mind will always take us much further than we imagine. Wikipedia, though not ideal, is far, far better than anyone believed it could be. It keeps surprising us in this regard. Netflix’s personal recommendations derived from what millions of other people watch succeeded beyond what most experts expected. In terms of range of reviews, depth, and reliability, they are more useful than the average human movie critic. EBay’s swap meet of virtual strangers was not supposed to work at all, but while not perfect, it is much better than most retailers believed was possible. Uber’s peer-to-peer on-demand taxi service works so well it surprised even some of its funders. Given enough time, decentralized connected dumb things can become smarter than we think.
Second, even though a purely decentralized power won’t take us all the way, it is almost always the best way to start. It’s fast, cheap, and out of control. The barriers to start a new crowd-powered service are low and getting lower. A hive mind scales up wonderfully smoothly. That is why there were 9,000 startups in 2015 trying to exploit the sharing power of decentralized peer-to-peer networks. It does not matter if they morph over time. Perhaps a hundred years from now these shared processes, such as Wikipedia, will be layered up with so much management that they’ll resemble the old-school centralized businesses. Even so, the bottom up was still the best way to start.
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We live in a golden age now. The volume of creative work in the next decade will dwarf the volume of the last 50 years. More artists, authors, and musicians are working than ever before, and they are creating significantly more books, songs, films, documentaries, photographs, artworks, operas, and albums every year. Books have never been cheaper, and more available, than today. Ditto for music, movies, games, and every kind of creative content that can be digitally copied. The volume and variety of creative works available have skyrocketed. More and more of civilization’s past works—in all languages—are no longer hidden in rare-book rooms or locked up in archives, but are available a click away no matter where you live. The technologies of recommendation and search have made it super easy to locate the most obscure work. If you want 6,000-year-old Babylonian chants accompanied by the lyre, there they are.
At the same time, digital creation tools have become so ubiquitous that it requires very few resources, or special skills, to produce a book, or a song, or a game, or even a video. Just to prove a point, recently an ad agency shot a very slick TV commercial using smartphones. Legendary painter David Hockney created a popular set of paintings using an iPad. Famous musicians use off-the-shelf hundred-dollar keyboards to record hit songs. More than a dozen unknown authors together have sold millions of self-published ebooks, using nothing more than a dirt-cheap laptop. Speedy global interconnection has produced the largest mass audience yet. On the internet the biggest hits keep getting bigger. The Korean pop dance video “Gangnam Style” has been watched 2.4 billion times and is still going. This size audience has never been seen on the planet before.
While the self-made bestsellers get all the headlines, the real news lies in the other direction. The digital age is the age of non-bestsellers—the underappreciated, the forgotten. Because of sharing technologies, the most obscure interest is no longer obscure; it is one click away. The fast-flowing penetration of the internet into all households, and recently into all pockets via a phone, has put an end to the domination of the mass audience. Most of the time, for most creations, it’s a world of niche fulfillment. Left-handed tattoo artists can find each other and share stories and esoteric techniques. People who find whispering sexy (and it turns out many do) can watch whispering videos produced and shared by like-minded whispering folks.
Each of these tiny niches is micro-small, but there are tens of millions of niches. And even though each of those myriad niche interests might attract only a couple of hundred fans, a potential new fan merely has to google to find them. In other words, it becomes as easy to find a particular niche interest as to find a bestseller. Today we are not surprised by a microcommunity sharing an unlikely passion; we are surprised if there is not one. We can head out in the wilds of Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, or Google with pretty good confidence that we will uncover someone who has anticipated our most remote interests with a finished work or forum. Each niche is just one step away from a bestselling niche.
Today the audience is king. But what about the creators? Who will pay them in this sharing economy? How will their creative acts be financed if the middle is gone? The surprising answer is: another new sharing technology. No method has been as beneficial to creators as crowdfunding. In crowdfunding the audience funds the work. The fans collectively finance their favorites. The technology of sharing enables the power of one fan who is willing to prepay an artist or author to be aggregated (with little effort) together with hundreds of other fans into a significant pool of money.
The most renowned crowdfunder is Kickstarter, which in the seven years since it was launched has enabled 9 million fans to fund 88,000 projects. Kickstarter is one of about 450 crowdfunding platforms worldwide; others, such as Indiegogo, are almost as prolific. Altogether, crowdfunding platforms raise more than $34 billion each year for projects that would not have been funded in any other way.
In 2013, I was one of about 20,000 people who raised money from fans on Kickstarter. A few friends and I created a full-color graphic novel—or what used to be called a comic book for grown-ups. We calculated we needed $40,000 to pay writers and artists to create and print the second volume of our story, called The Silver Cord. So we went onto Kickstarter and made a short video pitch for what we wanted the money for.
Kickstarter runs an ingenious escrow service so that the full grant (in our case $40,000) is not handed over to the creators until and unless the total amount is raised. If the drive is even a dollar short at the end of 30 days, the money is returned immediately to the funders and the fund-raisers (us) get nothing. This protects the fans, since an insufficiently funded project is doomed to fail; it also employs the classic network economics of turning your fans into your chief marketers, since once they contribute they become motivated to make sure you reach your goal by recruiting their friends to your campaign.
Occasionally, unexpectedly popular fan-financed Kickstarter projects may pile on an additional $1 million above the goal. The highest grossing Kickstarter campaign raised $20 million for a digital watch from its future fans. Approximately 40 percent of all projects succeed in reaching their funding goal.
Each of the 450 or so fan-funding platforms tweak their rules to cater to different groups of creatives or to emphasize different results. Crowdfunding sites can optimize for musicians (PledgeMusic, SellaBand), nonprofits (Fundly, FundRazr), medical emergencies (GoFundMe, Rally), and even science (Petridish, Experiment). A few sites (Patreon, Subbable) are engineered to supply continuous support to an ongoing project like a magazine or video channel. A couple platforms (Flattr, Unglue) use fans to fund work that has already been released.
But by far the most potent future role for crowdsharing is in fan base equity. Rather than invest into a product, supporters invest into a company. The idea is to allow fans of a company to purchase shares in the company. This is exactly what you do when you buy shares of stock on the stock market. You are part of a crowdsourced ownership. Each of your shares is some tiny fraction of the whole enterprise, and the collected money raised by public shares is used to grow the business. Ideally, the company is raising money from its own customers, although in reality big pension and hedge funds are the bulk buyers. Heavy regulation and intense government oversight of public companies offer some guarantee to the average stock buyer, making it so anyone with a bank account can buy stock. But risky startups, solo creators, crazy artists, or a duo in their garage would not withstand the kind of paperwork and layers of financial bureaucracy ordinarily applied to public companies. Every year a precious few well-funded companies will attempt an initial public offering (IPO), but only after highly paid lawyers and accountants scour the business in an expensive due diligence scrub. An open peer-to-peer scheme that enabled anyone to offer to the public ownership shares in their company (with some regulation) would revolutionize business. Just as we have seen tens of thousands of new products that would not have existed except by crowdfunding techniques, the new methods of equity sharing would unleash tens of thousands of innovative businesses that could not be born otherwise. The sharing economy would now include ownership sharing.
The advantages are obvious. If you have an idea, you can seek investment from anyone else who sees the same potential as you do. You don’t need the permission of bankers, or the rich. If you work hard and succeed, your backers will prosper with you. An artist might use fans’ investments to build a company that sold her works over the long term. Or two guys in a garage with an amazing gizmo might be able to leverage that into an ongoing enterprise process that makes more gizmos instead of having to Kickstart each one. The disadvantages are obvious as well. Without some kind of vetting, policing, and enforcement, peer-to-peer investing would be a magnet for huskers and scams. The con artists would offer some kind of glorious returns, take your money, and plead failure. Grannies might lose their life savings. But just as eBay used new innovative technology to solve the old problem of fraud between invisible strangers selling to invisible strangers, the dangers of equity crowdsharing can be minimized with technical innovations such as insurance pools, escrow accounts, and other types of technologically induced trust. Two early attempts at equity crowdfunding in the U.S., SeedInvest and FundersClub, still rely on rich “qualified investors” and are awaiting a change in U.S. law that would legalize equity crowdfunding for ordinary citizens in early 2016.
Why stop there? Who would have believed that poor farmers could secure $100 loans shared from perfect strangers on the other side of the planet—and pay them back? That is what Kiva does with peer-to-peer lending. Several decades ago international banks discovered they had better repayment rates when they lent small amounts to the poor than when they lent big amounts to rich state governments. It was safer to lend money to the peasants in Bolivia than to the government of Bolivia. This microfinancing of a few hundred dollars applied many tens of thousands of times would also jump-start a developing economy from the bottom. Loan a poor woman $95 to buy supplies to launch a street food cart and the benefits of her stable income would ripple up through her children, the local economy, and quickly build a base for more complex startups. It was the most efficient development strategy invented yet. Kiva took the next step in sharing and turned microfinancing into peer-to-peer lending by enabling anyone, anywhere to make a microfinance loan. So you, sitting at Starbucks, could now lend $120 to a specific individual Bolivian woman who plans to buy wool to start a weaving business. You could follow her progress until she paid you back, at which time you could relend the money to someone else. Since Kiva’s launch in 2005, over 2 million people have lent more than $725 million in microfinance loans via its sharing platform. The payback rate is about 99 percent. That is a strong encouragement to lend again.
If that works in developing countries with Kiva, why not install peer-to-peer lending in developed countries? Two web-based companies, Prosper and Lending Club, do that. They match up ordinary middle-class citizen borrowers with ordinary citizen lenders willing to loan their scheme at a decent interest rate. As of 2015, these two largest peer-to-peer lending companies have facilitated more than 200,000 loans worth more than $10 billion.
Innovation itself can be crowdsourced. The Fortune 500 company General Electric was concerned that its own engineers could not keep up with the rapid pace of invention around them, so it launched the platform Quirky. Anyone could submit online an idea for a great new GE product. Once a week, the GE staff voted on the best idea that week and would set to work making it real. If an idea became a product, it would earn money for the idea maker. To date GE has launched over 400 new products from this crowdsourced method. One example is the Egg Minder, an egg holder in your refrigerator that sends you a text when it’s time to reorder your eggs.
Another popular version of crowdsourcing appears, at first, to be less about collaboration and more about competition. A commercial need prompts a contest for the best solution. A company offers a payment prize to the best solution selected among a crowd of entrants. For instance, Netflix announced an award of $1 million to the programmers who could invent an algorithm that recommended movies 10 percent better than the algorithm they had. Forty thousand groups submitted very good solutions that improved the performance, but only one team achieved the goal and won the prize. The others had worked for free. Sites such as 99Designs, TopCoder, or Threadless will run a contest for you. Say you need a logo. You offer a fee for the best design. The higher your fee, the more designers will participate. Out of the hundred design sketches submitted, you pick the one you like best and pay its designer. But the open platform means that everyone’s work is on view, so each contestant is building upon the creativity of others and trying to outperform them. From the client’s point of view, the crowd has generated a design that is probably way better than the one they could have got from just one designer in that price category.
Can a crowd make a car? Yep. Local Motors, based in Phoenix, employs an open source method to design and manufacture low-volume customized performance (fast) cars. A community of 150,000 car fanatics submitted plans for each of the thousands of parts needed for a rally car. Some were new off-the-shelf parts hijacked from other existing cars, some were custom-designed parts made in several microfactories around the U.S., and some were parts designed to be 3-D printed in any shop. The newest car from Local Motors is a fully 3-D-printed electric car, also designed and manufactured by the community.
Of course, there are many things that are too complex, too unfamiliar, too long term, or too risky to be financed or created by the potential customers. For example, a passenger rocket to Mars, a bridge spanning Alaska and Russia, or a Twitter-based novel are probably out of reach of crowdfunding in the foreseeable future.
But to repeat the lesson from social media: Harnessing the sharing of the crowd will often take you further than you think, and it is almost always the best place to start.
We have barely begun to explore what kinds of amazing things a crowd can do. There must be two million different ways to crowdfund an idea, or to crowdorganize it, or to crowdmake it. There must be a million more new ways to share unexpected things in unexpected ways.
In the next three decades the greatest wealth—and most interesting cultural innovations—lie in this direction. The largest, fastest growing, most profitable companies in 2050 will be companies that will have figured out how to harness aspects of sharing that are invisible and unappreciated today. Anything that can be shared—thoughts, emotions, money, health, time—will be shared in the right conditions, with the right benefits. Anything that can be shared can be shared better, faster, easier, longer, and in a million more ways than we currently realize. At this point in our history, sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value.
• • •
In the near future my day will follow a scenario like this: I work as an engineer in a co-op with other engineers from around the world. Our group is collectively owned and managed not by investors, nor by stockholders, but by 1,200 engineers. I earn money for my engineering tweaks. I recently designed a way to improve the efficiency of the flywheel for a regenerative brake on an electric car. If my design is used in the final manufacturing, I get a payment. In fact, anywhere my design is used, even if it is copied for a different car or another purpose, payments still flow back to me automatically. The better the car sells, the higher my micropayments. I’m happy if my work goes viral. The more it is shared, the better. It’s the same way photography now works. When I post a photo onto the net, my credentials are encrypted inside the photo image so that the web tracks it and the account of anyone who reposts the photos will pay me a very miniscule micropayment. No matter how many times the picture may be recopied, the credit comes back to me. Compared with last century, it’s really easy to make, say, an instructional video now because you can assemble the available parts (images, scenes, even layouts) from other excellent creators, and the micropayments for their work automatically flow back to them as a default. The electric car we are making will be crowdsourced, but unlike decades earlier, every engineer who contributes to the car, no matter how small her contribution, gets paid proportionally.
I have a choice of 10,000 different co-ops I can contribute to. (Not many of my generation want to work for a corporation.) They offer different rates, varying benefits, but, most important, different sets of coworkers. I try to give my favorite co-ops a lot of time not because they pay more, but because I really enjoy working with the best folks—even though we’ve never met in real life. It is actually hard sometimes to get your work accepted into a high-quality co-op. Your previous contributions—all trackable on the web, of course—have to be really top-notch. They prefer active agents who are contributing to several projects over the years, with multiple streams of automatic payments, as a sign you work well in this sharing economy.
When I am not contributing, I play in a maxed-out virtual world. This world is entirely built by the users—and controlled by them too. I’ve spent six years constructing this mountaintop village, making every stone wall, every mossy-tiled roof exactly right. I got a lot of cred points for the snow-covered corner, but more important to me is to have it fit perfectly in the greater virtual world we are making. Over 30,000 different games of all types (violent/nonviolent, strategy/shooter) are running on this world platform without interference. In surface area it’s almost as big as the moon. There are now 250 million people building the game, each one tending a particular block in this vast world, each one processing on his or her own connected chip. My village runs on my smarthouse monitor. In the past I’ve lost work to host companies that went out of business, so now I (like millions of others) work only on territory and chips I control. We all contribute our small CPU cycles and storage to the shared Greater World, linked up by a mesh network of rooftop relays. There is a solar-powered mini-relay on my roof that communicates with the other relays on nearby rooftops so that we—the Greater World builders—can’t be kicked off a company’s network. We collectively run the network, a network no one owns, or rather everyone owns. Our contributions can’t be sold, nor do we have to be marketed to while we make and play games within one extended interconnected space. The Greater World is the largest co-op in history, and for the first time we have a hint of a planetary-scale governance. The game world’s policies and budget are decided by electronic votes, line by line, facilitated with lots of explaining, tutorials, and even AI. Now over 250 million people want to know why they can’t vote on their national budgets that way too.
In a weirdly recursive way, people create teams and co-ops within the Greater World to make stuff in the real world. They find that the tools for collaboration improve quicker in the virtual spaces. I’m contributing to a hackathon that is engineering a collaboratively designed and crowdfunded boomerang probe to Mars, with the goal to be the first to return a few Mars rocks to Earth. Everyone, from geologists to graphic artists, is involved. Just about every high-tech co-op is contributing resources, even man-hours, because they long ago realized the best and newest tools are invented during massively collaborative endeavors like these.
For decades we have been sharing our outputs—our stream of photos, video clips, and well-crafted tweets. In essence, we have been sharing our successes. But only in the last decade did we realize that we learn faster and do better work when we share our failures as well. So in all the collabs I work with, we keep and share all the email, all the chat logs, all correspondence, all intermediate versions, all drafts of everything we do. The entire history is open. We share the process, not just the end product. All the half-baked ideas, dead ends, flops, and redos are actually valuable for both myself and for others hoping to do better. With the entire process out in the open it is harder to fool yourself and easier to see what went right, if it did. Even science has picked up on this idea. When an experiment does not work, scientists are required to share their negative results. I have learned that in collaborative work when you share earlier in the process, the learning and successes come earlier as well. These days I live constantly connected. The bulk of what I share, and what is shared with me, is incremental—constant microupdates, tiny improved versions, minor tweaks—but those steady steps forward feed me. There is no turning the sharing off for long. Even the silence will be shared.