Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Are you kidding me??

I read an article today by Nicholas Carr called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

The gist of it is that we're transitioning from a thoughtful, deep-thinking society (i.e. one that reads books) to one which demands instant gratification and mere soundbites of surface-level knowledge gleaned from skimming our favorite websites as fast as possible. We're somehow losing an important ability to concentrate on and/or appreciate good writing.

My own view is that the internet lets you learn as quickly as you're able; to focus on the things that matter to you and skip the noise. But I'll come back to my own thoughts in a minute.

The article generated some activity on the website for Edge magazine, where extremely smart people discuss thorny issues. I was very happy to see my new hero Clay Shirky there, tearing into Carr's article.

Shirky makes a wonderful point: "The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to *the idea* of reading War and Peace."

George Dyson adds, "We will certainly lose some treasured ways of thinking but the next generation will replace them with something new...Perhaps books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few."

My own take is this: I have learned an awful lot, very quickly, from the internet. In the last year alone, I stumbled onto and become very interested in (and enlightened by) the world of Complex Adaptive Systems and some of the thinking adjacent to it (such as and Without the internet, I'd never have heard about any of this because I wasn't lucky enough to get into it at University. Without the internet, even if I *were* aware of the field, I wouldn't have any way to dig into it because I have a full-time job and a family, which together don't leave me with endless days to spend in the library, hunting for relevant texts and then reading them in one sitting.

The problem is not that the internet makes information available to us too conveniently - that's a feature, not a bug! The problem is that we're missing good tools to organize, retain, and leverage the flood of useful info. More and better information is available to each of us than ever before. It's no surprise that we each eventually hit a limit of what our brains can handle - the need to enlist tools to ride the storm isn't something to be ashamed of, it's something to welcome.

To come full circle, I suppose my bottom line question is this: If Carr thinks that our use of the internet is making us stupid -- why did he put his article there?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Amazing talk about distributed groups vs. hierarchies

Please watch this - a very thought-provoking 20 minutes:

The lecturer, Clay Shirky, discusses distributed organizations and how they are different/better/worse than traditional top-down or hierarchical organizations.

One of the advantages Shirky points out with a distributed organization is that many of the costs of a traditional command & control structure are avoided (such as paying for an office to house your workers and hiring a supervisor to monitor them). Because the cost-per-worker goes way down, the number of workers who can participate goes way up. This means that there's much less risk in letting amateurs & hobbyists participate; if they aren't very productive, well you haven't lost anything because you didn't pay for them in the first place. The distributed organization gains access to a much larger pool of resources: no corporation could afford the cost to hire every amateur out there in a traditional sense, and yet these people have the potential to contribute something of real value to the project.

One of the drawbacks Shirky identifies with a distributed organization is that while you gain access to many more participants, you surrender control over their efforts. If somebody is volunteering their time to work on a project, nobody can really boss them around because they aren't beholden to a boss!

The challenge, I suppose, is figuring out how to take existing problems or efforts such as "let's make a product and sell it for lots of money" or "lets feed all of the starving people in the world" and re-frame them in a distributed manner.

Or put another way: how do you incent masses of people to participate in your project?
The answer (as Shirky points out) is that you can't: it is too costly to provide incentives for all of the individuals who may want to work on your project.

So, for example, Wikipedia and Flickr work because people are self-motivated to publish facts and photos in which they are interested. What has to happen so that large numbers of middle class North Americans become self-motivated to send a meal-a-day to starving people in Third World countries? Problems which are based in the physical realities of manufacturing & logistics seem opposed to distributed solutions.

So it seems to me that a distributed organization of workers will only arise when the individuals have their own incentives to participate. And the unfortunate truth is that most people are *not* self-motivated to work on your project (such as eliminating starvation or developing a product that you can then turn around and sell for profit.)

Do you have any ideas or examples of real-world, distributed problem-solving? Put 'em in the comments section! (Here's one to get you started!)