Andrew has been writing Anti Buzz for 4 years resulting in almost 200 articles. For the next several weeks we will revisit some of these just in case you missed it.
The Buzz: A person is smart, but people are stupid.
I’ll openly admit that when I first came here I didn’t quite know what to tell you about social media. The past couple of years have seen business attitudes toward social media move from uncertainty, to frustration, to acceptance, if not complete understanding. Of course, there is a world of difference between what a 20-year old wants from Facebook and what AT&T wants. A simplistic view would be to say that social media represents public-private life, (in the sense that the interactions you have with friends in a theater or restaurant are public-private), and businesses should keep out, or at least not expect to fare better than a canvasser handing out pamphlets; but I think we already know this isn’t quite right either. I have an alternative view to share, given to me in a talk I saw last week: We are the cloud. Social media, or any other crowd-sourcing service that earns the participation of large numbers of strangers, is to people what the cloud is to computers.
So, that’s great. I’ve just explained a buzz word with a different buzz word, violating everything this column stands for. But no, seriously, let’s get after what I’m really trying to say.
Review: What is the cloud?
I don’t mean to talk your ear off about the cloud, at least not this week, but to cut away the generalizations inherent in buzz words, the driest, most straightforward explanation of cloud services is that they facilitate the deferral of computation. The cloud is about delegation and cooperation. If you need a lot of computational power now, and there’s a computer in the other room that isn’t doing anything, why isn’t it helping your computer get the job done? At it’s most ideal, the cloud is about infrastructure that let’s us all worry less and less about which computer is doing the work. It’s about leveraging their connectedness into cooperation, sometimes performing tasks better or faster than any single machine could.
So, now imagine that instead of talking about computers, I was talking about people.
Forget the latest captioned cat photo or how many likes your practice is getting and instead consider the role played by social media in the Arab Spring, and the role it will play in any other oppressed part of the world. Consider how difficult it is to be anti-democratic in a world where everybody talks to each other, (talk being the most democratic institution of all). Admittedly, this is the heavy, dramatic, (and easy to understand), view. But understanding the impact of our connectedness begins with appreciating the power of putting mass communication in everyone’s hands.
Consider now crowd-sourcing efforts like Kickstarter, which have essentially made anything self-publishable. Like a good medicine show, there are hucksters and people who are otherwise undependable, but the story of crowdsourcing is mostly one of success. Products and projects that were not possible in the pre-Internet world are now becoming commonplace.
So, think of the cloud analogy again and remember that the ideal is to do things faster and better than any one of us could on our own.
Working in science, I am reminded of this all the time, as many efforts are helped along by citizen science – the practice of letting large numbers of amateurs gather data. Like the cloud is many processors, each with a small part of the whole problem, citizen science gives, say, every bird watcher in the world a small job to do.
As we have changed how we do things over the past decade – doing things “the Internet way” – a common concern has always been the caliber of the average person. The assumption was that blogging couldn’t challenge news media because it was composed by common people. The assumption was Wikipedia couldn’t work because there would not be enough interest, and it was too susceptible to vandalism, (and we all know how keen on vandalism your average joe is). The assumption was YouTube would never produce anything valuable, that the cacophony of new media would drown out good taste and that most regular folk were just not discerning enough to find and support the diamonds in the rough.
Important leaps in society are never founded on the belief that the common person is terrible.
What’s more, some research suggest that connected groups of amateurs, (“turkers” in this case, named for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace), can actually outperform experts. And if you are dubious of the idea, consider that Wikipedia is the greatest, broadest, most carefully edited encyclopedia in the history of the world, largely thanks to its disassociation with any governor-experts. Consider that twitter is much better at informing you about earthquakes than traditional media ever could be.
If you’re a cynic, then the confounding reality we are facing is that highly connected groups of strangers are, in aggregate, capable of more intelligence and productivity than our best individuals are. And where two decades ago some were predicting an intelligence singularity, a sort of apocalyptic moment where humanity was permanently outclassed by its own technology, recent trends are beginning to suggest that, if anything, we might be headed for a human singularity where we learn just how much we really are capable of.