More Flat World Stuff !

Posted November 7th, 2005 by Harry Baya

More about the Flat World.

The new world order into which we are entering, the new social fabric that is emerging, seems to me to be most different, most new, in the opportunities it gives to individuals. Before now, it seems to me, only very rare individuals could have a big impact. These were leaders or geniuses or very lucky individuals. The big changes were implemented by the masses, but they were lead by a tiny percentage of the population, the movers and shakers of their generation. I think that’s changing. I think the new world will allow individuals to act in such a way that they can contribute to significant changes through their collective actions rather than through the actions of their leaders. I will try to give a few examples.

What’s new is that the individuals now have a more direct influence on what happens next. Take Amazon.com for example. It might seem that the power of this institution is in its product and its ability to allow people to find what they want and get it efficiently. Of course that’s important, and it’s new in some ways.. but the aspect of what they are doing that seems to me to be part of my new social fabric is the way in which Amazon.com is paying attention to what people buy in such a way that they can tell me that I might like a particular product because others who bought things I bought seem to like something that I had not heard of. It’s a sharing of prefences. It means that instead of waiting for my local store to notice that a product is starting to sell and, if we are lucky, exposing others to it, I am informed quickly of new things of interest. The energy that excites me is not from Amazon.com. Rather Amazon.com has found a way to tap into the energy that it’s customers bring to it.

Blogs can be the same. On the one hand it may seem that what’s exciting about blogs is the software and the distribution opportunities that the internet provides. Yes, that’s true, but it can be viewed differently. Blogs are another opportunity for individuals, not just leaders, but many many individuals, to share with others in a way that did not exist before. A really good insight, or perspective, or idea, or anything that could be put in a blog, can become global within days. The blog architecture is important because it allows the energy and knowledge of individuals to be have a much broader reach.

In the new social context individuals are able to collaborate with, and compete with, others appropriately selected from a far greater population than in the past. An individual might have found it difficult to collaborate on a project with anyone outside his or her town, or outside of, say, half a days’ driving distance. Now, there are many projects in which the collaborators could easily be on different continents.

Here’s another one coming down the pike. At this point it is somewhat difficult for two or more individuals to collaborate if they do not speak a common language. My best guess is that we will one-day have translation software that will effectively remove language barriers for many kinds of work. That is yet another step toward opening the way for individuals to collaborate with, and compete with, others drawn from a much larger ocean.

This is a kind of extreme democracy – in which a far greater number of decisions are made by a mass vote. There will be far fewer intermediaries in the decision making process. Bureaucracies will spend far more of their resources enabling and supporting communications between individuals, and within groups of peers, and far less on weeding things out and pushing them up the hierarchical power structure to be handled. Human organizations will become far more like peer to peer networks, and far less like hierarchically controlled and centralized networks.

I have a strong sense that I am on to something here, that I am seeing something important emerge, yet I am frustrated that I can’t seem to verbalize it adequately, that I can’t communicate what I sense… because I don’t really understand it… I just feel it.

As long as this gong keeps going off in my mind telling me that something important is happening and that I need to pay attention, I will keep trying to capture the message in words.

Years ago I read an article that said that when something, such as the amount of horsepower available to a culture, or the speed in which a message can be delivered, changes by an order of magnitude of seven or more, then the thing changes in nature, not just in kind. The choice of ‘seven”? was kind of arbitrary, but the idea was that when something doubles, it can still be seen as just more of the same, a change, but not a change in kind. However, when something changes by an order of ten, or 20, then something entirely new comes into being. It’s a powerful thought and I have enjoyed thinking about it. Examples abound in technology from steam engines, to telescopes, to computers. My sense is that the changes I am trying to describe in these “flat world”? essays are of that nature. They are difficult to see because those in the middle of them will see them as just more, not different. What they can’t see is that in many cases there is enough “more”? to be different in kind.

A second part of this perspective, which I have not seen described as clearly as the “order of seven/different kind”? model above has to do with synergy, with two or more changes interacting in a way that brings something new into being. A good example of that is the internet. Computers were speeding up and networks were growing. At some point there was a fairly robust network connecting quite a few computers all over the U.S. The synergy was there. Onto that synergistic platform stepped Mosaic, and it’s heirs, the World Wide Web. I think that the growing computer speeds, communications speeds, number of nodes on the world communication network, and growing data storage capacity are a platform supporting a huge range of innovative software applications and approaches to using computing power and communication power. In many cases two apparently unrelated software innovations hit some kind of synergistic space warp that connects them and brings something entirely new into being. Google, Ebay, Amazon.com, Blogs, …and on and on.

Google is another great example of what intrigues me. On the one hand, what is exciting about Google is the power and efficiency of its search engines. It searches billions of sources, and searches smartly in many situations. The power is growing daily. It is indeed very impressive. However, the side of this picture that is so exciting to me is the field in which it is searching. Where did all that information come from? How did their get to be so much searchable stuff on-line so fast? How can that information base grow so quickly? It seems to me that much of this is the work of individuals, people who chose to put things on the web, for profit, for fun, for whatever reason. Millions of small institutions, local libraries, colleges, clubs, families, alumni groups, special interest groups and on and on have put their data on the web. The most exciting part of Google is not the search engine, it’s the ocean of data that’s available to search. As these search tools evolve they will rely more and more heavily on the choices made by individuals. A billion caring people trying to find something interesting are going to be, as I see it, a search tool that no computer can duplicate. The computer can harness that power, it can enable it to do exciting things, but the real power and energy is coming form individuals making informed choices.

Information is to a search engine what steam was to early locomotives. The more organized and useful the information is, the more energy it contains. Think of raw data as being like oil in the ground, and usefully structured information as being like gasoline at the pump.

I’d like to think that everything I am trying to say in these two absurdly lengthy Blog posts will someday be sayable in a paragraph or two, using well understood concepts and metaphors that don’t even exist now. What I am trying to do now is roughly equivlant to Alan Turing, who died in 1954, trying to envision and describe the World Wide Web. He might have sensed the possibility, but the vocabulary to describe it had not been invented yet. Even the word “software”? was apparently not used in the way we use it now till 1960. (here’s a web page on that).

The gong is still ringing in my mind. I’ll probably give this another shot one of these days. Of course, once I read beyond the first chapter of “The World is Flat”? I may not be able to say much without feeling that my thoughts are derivative. For now, I feel they are original. Harry Baya Nov 7, 2005

2 Responses to “More Flat World Stuff !”

  1. Matt

    I think the new world will allow individuals to act in such a way that they can contribute to significant changes through their collective actions rather than through the actions of their leaders.

    “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ? — Margaret Mead

  2. Harry Baya

    Matt,
    Good quote. I kind of sensed that point of view while I was trying to verbalize my thoughts… and that was part of the difficulty I experienced. I kept feeling that the words I was putting down could be interpreted as just “more” of what was already so of our world.. .. when my sense is that something very important is changing and that the changes will be huge and noticeable in the fairly near future. Both I and Margaret Mead are focusing on the way in which some changes come into being rather than the changes themselves. My sense, which I am trying to articulate, is that we are witnessing a radical change in the way in which changes come into being. The process that Margaret Mead described will still exist, and will still be a huge player in the game, but another player, a hot rookie, is coming on the field.