Saturday, 20 June 2009

How Participatory Culture and Mass Collaboration are Shaping our World.

In this article, we are privileged to speak to Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and president of Wikia Inc. We speak to Mr. Wales about his latest project, “Wikia” and about how our world is now, and will forever be, remarkably changed by Participatory Culture, Mass-Collaboration and the pace of technological advance.

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Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, June 2009

Humanity is undergoing profound changes, “we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century” Says Ray Kurzweil, “it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)”. In his 2001 essay, “The Law of Accelerating Returns”, Kurzweil describes an exponential growth of the progress of technology in society, explaining we are about to experience, "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."

We can see these changes all around us, and in 1983, Gerald Hawkins gave them a name; “Mindsteps” (dramatic and irreversible changes to paradigms or world views). Hawkins describes inventions such as imagery, writing, mathematics, printing, the rocket, the computer and TV as such steps, and noted (as did Kurzweil), “The waiting period between the mindsteps is getting shorter”. In the past decade, we have seen these mindsteps in action, with advances in telephony, computers, software, and science changing the way we communicate with each other, the way we work and the way we access knowledge and interact with technology. These paradigm shifts have left us more empowered than at any other time in history, with concepts like collaboration and participation leaving theoretical texts, and being a part of our social, commercial, political and economic worlds.

Jimmy Wales is one of the most prolific members of the generation of thinkers who have helped shaped these changes. He is best known for founding Wikipedia, a collaborative encyclopaedia maintained by volunteers, which now contains over 17 million articles, receives over 50,000 page requests a second, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest demonstrations of collaboration in the technological age. Mr. Wales is Chair Emeritus of the not-for-profit Wikimedia foundation (which runs Wikipedia) and co-founder of Wikia Inc, a commercial organisation which allows individuals, groups and communities to create and manage collaborative portals of detailed information on whatever topic they choose “Wikis”

In this privileged interview, we speak to Mr. Wales gaining a unique and detailed insight into Wikia, its technologies, and how participatory culture and mass collaboration are changing our world including the theory of “participatory economics
ON WIKIA:
Q: How would you describe the Wikia concept and its purpose?

[Jimmy Wales] “The concept of Wikia is to provide a platform for communities to build "the rest of the library", everything that doesn't belong in an encyclopaedia. The purpose is to empower the next wave of massive collaboration, and to extend participatory culture beyond just the non-profit educational and reference works of the Wikimedia Foundation.”

Wikia is a successful example of ‘meta design’, which Fischer G. and Giaccardi E. in 2004 described as, “a conceptual framework defining and creating social and technical infrastructures in which new forms of collaborative design can take place”.

Q: How does wikia satisfy the needs of a system which neither falls into the trap where “everything is possible, but nothing of interest is easy” or “operations are easy, but little of interest is possible” ? and how do you design for the “unknown” (i.e. a system which, copes with the need for improvisation, evolution and innovation, often at the hands of its users)?

[Jimmy Wales] “My primary design philosophy involves putting the tools into the hands of the community, and thinking really hard about avoiding bottlenecks which require some "top-down" intervention. I'm not sure that I agree that the trap you identify is really a trap, as long as we keep focussed on the fact that of course reality demands of us a sharp focus if we want to accomplish anything of note.”

Q: What are the technological innovations which you think will have the greatest impact on Wikia’s future?

[Jimmy Wales] “I think the biggest technological innovation that will impact Wikia - and the Internet more broadly - is the continuing progress we are seeing in reducing the costs of communication (Internet) technology, such that it will reach the entire planet in relatively short order. Just think about what happens when the next billion people come online, and the next two billion after that. It's a remarkable thing to consider.”


ON TECHNOLOGY:

Q: Access to the internet has changed from becoming computer based to nearing the goal of ubiquitous access “anywhere, any time, and any device”. How do you think this will change our relationship as humans with the internet as a concept?

[Jimmy Wales] “In a certain sense, when things become ubiquitous, they also become
"invisible". It used to be that the process of "getting online" for me was a separate step, with a noisy and slow process of a modem on a phone line. Now, with WiFi, my laptop often seems to just simply _be_ on the Internet. The process of connection has become much less visible, so that the feeling of "my computer" "connecting" to "the Internet" has changed to a feeling that my computer is the Internet, or is "on" the Internet. Similarly, as the Internet becomes ubiquitous on various kinds of devices, it just starts to be part of the assumed fabric of technology.

This changes how we relate to it, and how we use it. We use it a lot more for one thing. I don't think "Gee, I should turn on my computer and use my modem to connect to my ISP to find out what movies are out right now." I just look in my phone and find out.”


ON PARTICIPATORY CULTURE AND MASS COLLABORATION:

Q: We are rapidly moving towards an environment where the public is acting not just as consumers, but as producers and contributors. What would you see as the key benefits of participatory over consumer culture?

[Jimmy Wales] “Probably one of the most important things is the way participatory culture empowers work in "the long tail". In the past, with consumer culture, economics dictates that most resources go into empowering the "hit makers". So we got a lot of investment in building great popular culture, and some of it really has been great. But some of it has also been really quite awful and bland.

With participatory culture, economics dictates that we pour more resources into building an infrastructure platform that anyone can use, so most resources go into empowering "the long tail". Small groups of people can come together and make use of a powerful infrastructure to enable them to pursue their own passions and interests, without regard for popularity. The result is projects of a much larger scope than ever seen before.”

Q: Are there any weaknesses to the participatory model? and how can the world tackle the impact of a ‘gap’ which is created with billions of people (without access to technology) who are ‘outside the conversation’?

[Jimmy Wales] “There are weaknesses. While participatory culture can create a
Wikipedia, it is not likely to produce something like the Star Wars franchise. I don't think that's a problem, because I don't think we have to choose between participatory and top-down culture - both will thrive.

In terms of the question of the "digital divide," I am optimistic. The price of technology comes down every year, year after year, and I see no immediate end in sight to that process. What this means is that the poorest people in the world will soon have the possibility to access the Internet in some form, and eventually will have “ordinary” access to it.

Here is a joke that I tell, a joke designed to make people think about the cultural implications. If you look at the price of telecommunications alone, it has been in a steady and steep decline for many years. The price is lower every year and there is no obvious end in sight to this trend. If you look at the price of food, it has also been generally in a long-term steady decline - but not that steep of a decline. Those two lines are crossing.

What this means: you know those people starving in Africa? Pretty soon, they are going to be able to call us... to complain. There are people who are likely to have cheap access to reliable International phone calls before they have cheap access to a reliable food supply. That's a remarkable thing to contemplate.”

Q: Looking at participatory media, do you think we are seeing ‘news and media’ becoming a meritocracy? And how do you think the ‘way’ in which individuals interact with their information sources is changing?

[Jimmy Wales] “I do think we have a greater meritocracy in news and media than we did 30 years ago, for sure. There are many problems, though, in the current media landscape. I think that at this moment, due in part to the shock of the financial crisis and recession, we have seen a sudden acceleration in the changes to the news industry, and unfortunately a drop in quality as a result. There simply does not exist right now, the money to fund journalism in the way it was funded in the past, and yet “new” models haven't yet taken up the slack.

This has forced a certain amount of change in the ways that people interact with information sources, some of it good and permanent, and some of it bad and hopefully temporary. When we turn to twitter for news about the situation in Iran after the elections, was that a bad temporary phenomenon caused by cuts in newsroom staff so that we didn't have good reporting of any other kind? Or was it a part of a good long-term trend towards an increased variety of news sources? It is too early to tell (I think) and probably some of both.”

Q: How do you think participatory culture will shape our future?

[Jimmy Wales] “Some of the obvious changes are going to have to do with a much higher degree of self-confidence and self-reliance on our ability to think and understand the world for ourselves. Rather than thinking of history and culture as something which is installed in our brains pre-digested for us, we can think of history and culture as something that we can learn about and know and engage with ourselves.”

Q: Do you think participation will change our democratic environment, and do you think we will see a future with a “theoretical form of government wherein sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate” (citing Kevin St. Onge, mass-collaboration.net)?

[Jimmy Wales] “Well, in western democracies, we already have very much the idea that the people are sovereign, and I think that idea is becoming stronger and stronger even in places that have traditionally not known it. The reasons for this are pretty obvious - if the only outlet for expression is a top-down media controlled by a despotic government, then as an ordinary citizen I feel helpless to change things for good reason - I actually am helpless to change things.

But when I have tools to communicate with my peers in a serious way, if we can get together on Blogs, mailing lists, IM, twitter, Wikis, and start to talk about the state of the world, then we not only "wake up" to the possibilities, we also have for the first time some new possibilities... to organize.”



ON PARTICIPATORY ECONOMICS & GAME THEORY

Turning towards the economics of the participatory environment.

Adam smith argued, in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 that, “when acting in rational self interest, individual actors unwittingly contribute to the general good of humanity” (ergo. Free market economies, even in the absence of government, achieve solidarity and equity in an efficient manner) while Albert & Hahnel (c.1980) criticised the same capitalism as being an “aggravator of prejudice, the most inequitable economy ever devised, inefficient and incompatible with economic and political democracy”.

Q: How do you think a participatory economy would answer these criticisms, and do you think that participatory economies would be able to provide an environment to support incentive, innovation and the creation of wealth?

[Jimmy Wales] “Well, Albert and Hahnel were quite simply and obviously wrong. I don't really have much else to say about that. After a century in which anti-capitalist tyrannies murdered hundreds of millions of people and suppressed the freedoms of billions more, I think the question of whether people have a fundamental human right to engage in free exchange with each other as per their own choices is answered beyond anything other than the most extreme folly.

We can quibble endlessly about the details, but that's the core. I think "participatory economies" are free economies. A culture of participation cannot properly exist in a situation where it is assumed that initiating force against others is a moral way to achieve social goals.”

Q: When modelling economies, we often use game theory to understand the dynamics of social situations. How can we relate game theory to participatory economies?

[Jimmy Wales] “For me, game theoretic thinking - broadly considered - is a great tool for thinking carefully about the dynamics of social interactions. One of the great lessons of economics is that we can't simply legislate for whatever we want to have happen - we have to consider the incentives and costs that people face, and work with those to make sure that whatever rules and social norms we have in place actually do work towards constructive ends.

Let's take a specific example: comment spam in Blogs. We can't deal with this by simple making a rule against it, or even a law against it (though the law can impose real penalties for real damage, and can be a part of the solution) and expect magical results to follow.

Instead we have to carefully analyze the incentives placed before people (even bad people) and think about how those incentives will change things for them in various environments - and also realize that this analysis can't be too simplistic, we have to take into account how various players will change their strategies in a new environment.”

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It is truly remarkable how, in fairly recent history, society has remarkably changed its posture towards technology.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), lived at a time where western society was at the tail of the ‘industrial revolution’ and moving towards a new era of discovery, scientific advance and, of course, great conflict. Thus, a rather cynical Einstein summed up the mood of society at the time (towards technological and scientific change) by famously saying, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

The great advances we have seen since the late 1960’s in our communications and computation ability has, though, brought about a new paradigm in how we exist. Technology no longer sits at the periphery of our human-experience, but has become an intrinsic part of it. John Naisbit commented that “…The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human”.

We are seeing this break-through before our own eyes, as humanity moves from being a theoretical construct to becoming something visible and tangible, empowered by our ability to connect to each other, share knowledge and information, and to behave as a cohesive group. This change has even been noted by some of our greatest living philosophers. “If we look at the situation…” said the Dalai Llama, on technology, “…from various angles, such as the complexity and inter-connectedness of the nature of modern existence, then we will gradually notice a change in our outlook, so that when we say 'others' and when we think of others, we will no longer dismiss them as something that is irrelevant to us. We will no longer feel indifferent.

This is an exciting and game-changing time for society, and as Mr. Wales said above, we are now learning ‘how’ we exist with our new sense of connectedness and empowerment. The generation that follows ours will have a drastically modified view of what it is to be human, and this will invariably impact our political, economic, social and individual landscapes.

I believe Cesar Chavez could sum this up well, taking words relevant to his time as a civil rights activist in the early 20th century, and applying them today.

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.

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