Why the Next Big Thing Will Be Us

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Google has just agreed to pay a vast sum for YouTube. YouTube, for those who have been living in a cave, is a website that barely existed 18 months ago, does not turn a profit, and that already attracts 100m viewers a day. If ever there was proof that the next big thing is us this is it.

Google’s service itself is based on extracting insight from our collective intelligence: its software comes up with answers to your queries by ranking web pages by the number of links people have made to them. Each link someone has put in is counted like another vote that the page is significant. Google’s software mines this collective intelligence. YouTube meanwhile started with a couple of people trying to share some video of a dinner party online. It has created a way for Pro-Am video makers to publish and share the content they make using camera phones, web cams and digital cameras. Like Google its ethos is democratic: people can vote on what they like. As a result the most unlikely videos – pensioners ranting about the state the world, a man losing his cool on the subway - can become smash hits. On YouTube, as yet, we do not watch stars and celebrities, but ourselves. Viewers are also potential producers and participants. We are the action. The next big thing is us.

Google and YouTube are not alone. Wikipedia an online encyclopaedia created and maintained almost entirely by amateurs attracts more people than the New York Times online, carries more content than most other encyclopaedias combined and threatens to dwarf similar services offered by large publishing companies. Linux, a computer programme started by a wispy Finnish computer science student and initially developed almost entirely by unpaid volunteers is the main challengers to the computer operating system created by Microsoft, one of the world’s largest corporations with the best-funded research teams.

Most of the Internet would be unthinkable without collaboratives, mostly made up of volunteers, who have created free, open source software. If you send and receive email you are probably doing so thanks to one of these open source collectives: most email depends on an free, open source programme called Sendmail which powers perhaps 80% of the world’s mail servers. The system that keeps Internet addresses in order depends on another open soruce programme called BIND. If you saw Lord of the Rings you watched computer graphics made on machines that run Linux. A Google inquiry is answered by thousands of computers all running Linux.

And if you visit websites then you are likely to rely on an open source programme called Apache, which is used on about 65% of active websites. Apache did not get started in the top secret R & D lab of a big computer company. It started with a software engineer called Brian Behlendorf who in 1995 voluteered his server at Hotwired one of the first webzines, to act as a shared resource for eight core developers he was working with. They set up a public email list which on day one attracted 40 other engineers and within three months there were 150 subscribers. By the end of the year this loose collective released a working version of Apache that quickly came to dominate the market, overtaking offerings from mainstream companies.

The world’s record industry has had its business model upended by a hackers creating file sharing systems that have as their common currency the MP3 file, an innovation created by a publicly funded German computer scientist. The main alternative to the might of Wal Mart is not another hypermarket chain but eBay a trading system through which millions of participants buy and sell with strangers, by setting their own prices, advertising their own products, doing their own deals and deciding how to ship their products. The most successful computer games, such as Sim City and its more popular offshoot the Sims, Ultima Online or Everquest outsell Hollywood films because they allow the players to fiddle, tamper and change the action, creating their own characters and storylines. These player-developers then contribute their innovations, for free, back to the larger community playing the game. Computer games generate more revenue than films in part because they mobilise unpaid player-developers in their millions. The next wave of entertainment are entire immersive worlds – the likes of Neopets and Second Life - where people can adopt a character, learn, trade, fight, make love and immerse themselves in an alternative world where they create the action, together. More than 95% of the content of Second Life, a world which has universities, stock exchanges, museums, is created by its inhabitants the 1m plus players. More than 7,000 businesses make real profits by selling through Second Life.

Welcome to the world of We-Think: we are developing new ways to be innovative and creative at mass scale. We can be organised without having an organisation. People can combine their ideas and skills without a hierarchy to coordinate their activities. The philospher Renee Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” Our ability to think on our own was proof of our existence. Well for the next generation “We-Think, therefore we are” might well be a better motto.

The guiding ethos of this new culture and the forms of self-organisation it is promoting is participation. The point of the industrial era economy, was mass production for mass consumption, the formula created by Henry Ford. We were workers by day and consumers in the evenings or weekends.

In the world of We-Think, the point is to take part, to be a player in the action, to have a voice in the conversation. In the world of We-Think the point is not to consume but to take part.

In the We-Think economy people do not just want services and goods, delivered to them, they also want tools so they can take part and places in which they can play, share, debate with others. Workers could be instructed, organised in a division of labour. Participants will not be lead and organised in this way. That is why the dominant ethos of the We-Think economy is democratic and egalitarian. These vast communities of participation are lead by anti-heroic, slight leaders - the likes of Larry Page and Sergy Brin of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Linus Torvalds of Linux – they are the antithesis of the charismatic, self-obsessed, hard driving chief executive in the Jack Welch model.

Crucially these collaboratives change the way people come up with new ideas. Innovation and creativity have been elite activities, undertaken by special people - writers, designers, architects, inventors - in special places - garrets, studies, laboratories. The ideas dreamed up by these special people would flow down pipelines to waiting, passive consumers. Now innovation and creativity are becoming mass activities, dispersed across society. Largely self-organising collaborations can unravel the human genome, create a vast encyclopaedia and a complex computer operating system. Welcome to the world of innovation by the masses not just for the masses.

My book We-Think is an effort to understand this new culture of mass participation and innovation; where these new ways of organising ourselves have come from and where they might lead. They started, as most radical and disruptive innovations do, in the geeky swampland, in open source software, blogging and computer gaming. But these new open forms of organisation are so powerful they will increasingly become the mainstream by challenging traditional, hierarchical, top down and closed organisations to open up. They could change not just the way that the media, software and entertainment works but also the way we organise education, health care, cities and indeed the political system.

As far as education is concerned we know that children spend 85% of their time outside school (sorry, I did not believe the figure so had to compute it! And it looks fine for UK situation of almost 4 months a year holidays - bet it would come as a surprise to lots of readers) . What they learn through computer games and the Internet is thus critical. Innovative approaches to virtual learning, such as the Not initiative designed to encourage children excluded from school to learn online may be a sign of what is to come for mainstream education that seeks to be available anytime and anywhere. Imagine an education system organised along the lines of eBay or Wikipedia, with learners seeking out teachers and materials from a wide range of sources. Put it this way if the computer games industry can get millions of children to see themselves as player-developers, how could we instill some of that culture of disciplined, self help and creativity into the education system. When children play computer games they feel part of the action; when they are at school, too often they feel as if they are being done to.

The Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, which changed the way we think about debt, development and trade, started life with one campaigner working in a shed in South London in the mid-1990s. By the year 2000 it had a petition with 24 million signatures, spawned a network of 69 national campaigns and mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in protest in the UK. At least $36bn of developing world debt has been written off as a result. No mean achievement for a campaign that was largely organised by Pro-Am campaigners, had little formal structure and few professional staff. That spirit of participation is starting to creep through into formal politics, starting with Howard Dean’s failed campaign to win the Democrat presidential nomination in 2004 and taken up by websites such as the Daily Kos, a discussion site for democrats. As Eric Schmidt, the chief executive officer of Google, warned the Conservative party conference a few days ago (need to give date here), politicians had better get used to living in a much more transparent world, in which citizen journalists will nag away at their lies and half truths far more insistently than the traditional journalistic insiders.

At the start of the 21st century this should not be happening. The last decades of the 20th century witnessed the triumph of the market and corporations. Cooperative and collaborative values were in retreat. In an increasingly materialistic and venal world, people do not do things for free: there has to be something in it for them. And if there is nothing in it for them, then they have to be told, instructed what to do by managers. (this seems to be repeat from first or is it second chapter almost word for word)

Yet in field after field we are witnessing the same phenomenon: large groups of committed and knowledgeable amateurs, working without pay, are creating highly collaborative forms of organisation, which operate with little hierarchy and bureaucracy and yet mobilise resources of a scale to match the biggest corporations in the world.

Everything we have been told about organisations and work tells us this should not be possible, especially in an age of rampant consumerism dominated by large companies. Yet here are large groups of people voluntarily committing their labour together, without seeking financial reward or being told what to do, and managing to create complex products and services that millions of people rely upon each day. It should not be possible. Pigs, famously, do not fly.

We are told that to be organised we need an organisation. Yet all these are complex and highly organised activities without a single organisation being in charge of everything that goes on. We are told that to make sure order is maintained someone has to be in control. Yet these activities seem ordered precisely because no one seeks to be in control and so people have to exercise their sense of responsibility, adjusting to one another, sorting out disputes as they go. The order comes from within these communities not from the top. To get complex tasks done reliably we have assumed we need a clear division of labour, so everyone knows in advance what they are supposed to do, whose job it is to do what. Yet in these non-organisations people seem to voluntarily distribute themselves to work, as and when it needs to be done. They find their own niches to work in alongside other people. Consumers, we are told, are happiest when they are being treated like Kings, waited on hand and foot and offered the widest possible choice. Yet in these vast communal efforts the consumers willingly become workers, devoting some of their time, effort and imagination to develop products for one another. They do not want to be just passive recipients but players and participants, at least some of them do, some of the time. They do not just want more choice but more say. These are activities of mass participation rather than mass consumerism.

We have come to expect that innovation comes from inventors and that every idea has a distinct moment of birth. Yet in these new endeavours innovation is the work of multiple authors. It is cumulative, collaborative and often depends on the contributions of users. It takes place all over, not just in specially designated zones.

Sitting in your office at Microsoft, working your socks off, meeting constantly updated plans imposed by impatient managers who want you not just to deliver relentless growth but to do so with a smile on your face, it must be bewildering. You are being beaten by a bunch of people many of whom mainly work from home, create products for free, because they enjoy it and with no one telling them what to do. How did that happen?

It happened because We-Think scrambles up the logic of managerial capitalism. Consumers turn out to be producers. Demand breeds its own supply. Leisure becomes a form of work. You do not have to buy into alternative, hippyish, altruistic values to believe We-Think organisations are significant. They matter because they get things done, usually at very low cost: they create software, produce videos, trade goods and services, provide information. People do not turn to Wikipedia and Linux just because they sound good – a bit like green open spaces. They turn to them because they get very basic jobs done, reliably, at low cost. If you are researching anything then Wikipedia is a good starting point.

The irresistible force of collaborative mass innovation is about to meet the immovable object of entrenched corporate organisation. We-Think is about that coming conflict and what will emerge from it. Linux and open source software against the power of Microsoft. Google and YouTube against the power of the industrial era media giants. Wikipedia attempting to become the Red Cross for information world wide, possibly trumping CNN and the BBC.

As I was researching and writing We-Think over the past eighteen months and more, it became increasingly evident that I could not write a book about collaborative creativity in a traditional way. My argument is that creativity is invariably collaborative and that opportunities for largely self-organising creative collaboration are going up the whole time. Seems odd then not to apply that thinking to the writing of the book itself.

That is why - with the full support of my publishers at Profile - I am releasing the book in draft form before its formal and physical publication, planned for summer 2007. Most of the first draft was made available online this week, with the final three or four chapters following over the course of the next few weeks. I hope that by opening the book up to readers' comments before it hits the bookshops we can make it a better book.

But the point is not just to make We-Think a better book. The point of the book is to provoke a conversation about the emerging opportunities for us to organise ourselves in ways that are more collaborative and creative. By releasing the text ahead of time we hope to start that conversation earlier and engage more people.

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