Hearing others’ visions for the future of the Net can be inspiring. But a lot of the time it’s not. One thing I’m struck by with the explosion of social media, in particular, is the shallow nature of the industry’s ambition. For every person writing about how Twitter can enable political change, five others are preparing slidedecks on how social media can offset your firm’s direct mail budget. There’s a place for that, of course. But one of the great things about the internet is that it invites us to consider more radical possibilities for change.
As I was thinking about this I was reminded of a quote from the end of Steven Weber’s 2004 book The Success of Open Source, and I decided it was worth sharing.
(He’s just finished describing Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s vision of smart objects, priced in real-time.) Weber:
Imagine a smart chair, connected to a lot of other smart things, with huge bandwidth between them, bringing transaction costs effectively to zero. Now ask yourself, With all that processing power and all that connectivity, why would a smart chair (or a smart car or a smart person) choose to exchange information with other smart things through the incredibly small aperture of a “price”? A price is a single, mono-layered piece of data that carries extraordinarily little information in and of itself. (Of course it is a compressed form of lots of other information, but an awful lot is lost in the process of compression.) The question for the perfect market that I’ve envisioned above is, Why compress? My point is that even a perfect market exchange is an incredibly thin kind of interaction, whether it happens between chairs or between people, whether it is an exchange of goods, ideas, or political bargains. I want to emphasize that communities, regimes, and other public spheres can come in many different shapes and forms. The “marketized” version is only one, and it is in many ways an extraordinarily narrow one that barely makes use of the technology at hand.
So there you are. The point of this blog, really, is to take the internet up on its invitation, and to think more creatively about society and its future.