Monday, 2 March 2009

An era of mass collaboration?

This week's MAC281 Cyberculture lecture raised the subject of 'wikinomics' (Tapscott & Wiliams, 2006; 2008) or crowdsourcing (Howe, 2006; 2008) - the the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call. Different people have called it different things. At one point folksonomy - the social tagging of data that helps large groups of people classify material (eg Furl, Flickr, Digg, Delicious, etc) - was pretty popular.

The general claim was that this form of collaborative production is one which will be come to dominate 21st century organisations, and move us away from what Clay Shirky (2008) identifies as the legacy of the 20th century: large scale projects driven by the efforts of the state or by businesses competing in the marketplace. The slides I used in the session are below:
Several writers have clamoured to talk about this type of behaviour as having the potential to affect change, often for the better. Businesses can harness the power of the crowd and their collective intelligence in order to innovate; culture will benefit from a democratic sense of inclusiveness whereby everyone who has something to contribute to a topic can do so.


In the area of research and development (R&D), the ability to bring in more ideas from a wider community of interested parties may seem attractive. Many companies still rely on internal R&D departments for innovation, which can become hindered or obscured by the bureaucratic processes of established institutional behaviour. Opening up to new ideas can breathe a lot of life into a company. Indeed, Tapscott & Williams (2008: 97-108) identify a number of examples whereby the creation of 'ideagoras' have had a positive impact on a business's growth.

Take Innocentive for example. Founded in 2001, they connect:
"companies, academic institutions, public sector and non-profit organizations, all hungry for breakthrough innovation, with a global network of more than 160,000 of the world's brightest minds on the world's first Open Innovation Marketplace™"
Using an established network of geographically dispersed 'thinkers; they are able to find innovative solutions to a variety of different problems

This kind of behaviour doesn't have to be restricted to the realm of business. A few weeks ago the BBC carried a story whereby the wisdom of crowds were being tapped to sort out data consisting of images of far off galaxies. The project is part of the Galaxy Zoo 2 project - dubbed 'citizen science' - where amateur astronomers can identify different physical features of heavenly bodies. The spacial recognition project is more effectively undertaken by humans than by computers.

This is not the first time humans have been a better alternative to machines - I recall reading how Charles Arthur blogged about humans being used to defeat anti-spam 'captcha' fields on websites back in 2006. Humans can solve visual tasks like this a lot quicker and more effectively than computers.
Many companies have integrated the open source operating system, Linux, into their business work flows. This has saved them money in the guise of expensive enterprise licences for things like Microsoft Vista, but also has the benefit of a huge collective pool of programmers and developers frequently eager to solve problems.

There are also suggestions that the ability to harness the wisdom of the crowd will bring about an era of mass innovation via information exchange, with a reciprocal pay off for democracy.


There may be some perils involved in this type of behaviour. Companies might see the benefits in crowdsourcing and choose to cut their expensive overheads (read: staff) in order to make a greater profit, especially in these economically testing times. Farming ideas or tasks out to the crowd can seem like a cost effective process especially when financial incentives for the crowd may be lower than established methods of getting things done.

Of course, there is a very famous phrase which has become an Internet meme in and of itself: 'Never underestimate the power of very stupid people in large groups'. Theories surrounding public choice suggest that the majority are never as effectively organised as powerful minority interests (eg the RIAA or MPAA versus file-sharers). Some critics of the Web 2.0 revolution such as Andrew Keen are quick to suggest that large scale access to new social tools doesn't always guarantee an enriched cultural domain - how many videos of dogs on skateboards do we need to see?

Whether or not we are living in an era of mass collaboration is contentious. There may well be examples of peer production in many quarters - from the collaborative production of knowledge in the guise of Wikipedia; the creation of products for avatars in virtual worlds like Second Life; the efficient use of empty CPU cycles across distributed computing networks a la folding@home; etc - but to what extent is this truly symptomatic of a sea-change? How inclusive is this 'mass'? Wikipedia may be editable by anyone, but there are indications that a minority of users are regular contributors. This seems to be more like a self-selected hierachy than a 'flat' form of organisation.

In a different context Raymond Williams once claimed, 'There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses'. Is there not a similar thing occurring here? Might there be a broader danger in assuming that what appears to be a mass is not already a form of collective intelligence based on a meritocratic principle? There is no doubt that the Internet has enabled for a variety of different voices to find an outlet for expression, but I have some reservations about group-think activity being a 'new' mode of organisation; might it not resemble other forms of collective behaviour? Groups have, on occassion, been swayed to think along conservative lines. I'm thinking here of focus group studies in audience research whereby certain characters and opinions might come to dominate and sway a session.

This may not seem to happen in contexts such as Linux development where code is written on a functional basis, however that doesn't mean that there aren't philosophical questions to be asked about the relative appropriateness of the decision making process which informed the construction of one aspect of software functionality over another. Form and function are not separate from each other and what works for one might not work for another.


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