On Where We Are

Just try this thought experiment: Imagine that it's 1993. The Web is just appearing. And imagine that you - an unusually prescient type - were to explain to people what they could expect in the summer of 2003. Universal access to practically all information. From all over the place - even in bars. And all for free!

I can imagine the questions the skeptics would have asked: How will this be implemented? How will all of this information be digitized and made available? (Lots of examples along the line of "a thousand librarians with scanners would take fifty years to put even a part of the Library of Congress online, and who would pay for that?") Lots of questions about how people would agree on standards for wireless data transmission - "it usually takes ten years just to develop a standard, much less put it into the marketplace!" - and so on, and so on. "Who will make this stuff available for free? People want to be paid to do things!" "Why, even if we start planning now, there's no way we'll have this in ten years!"

Actually, that final statement is true. If we had started planning in 1993, we probably wouldn't have gotten here by now. The Web, Wi-Fi, and Google didn't develop and spread because somebody at the Bureau of Central Knowledge Planning planned them. They developed, in large part, from the uncoordinated activities of individuals. Why can you find all sorts of stuff, from information about the Hephthalite huns to recipes for brewing beer and even recipes for cooking squirrel, on the Web? Because people thought it was cool enough (to them) to be worth the effort (on their part) of putting it online. We didn't need a thousand librarians with scanners, because we had a billion non-librarians with computers and divergent interests. Wi-Fi is springing up the same way: not as part of a national plan by the Responsible Authorities, but as part of a ground-up movement composed of millions of people who just want it.

There are two lessons here. One is that the skeptics, despite all their reasonable-sounding objections, would have been utterly wrong about the future of the Web, a mere ten years after it first appeared. And the second is why they would have been wrong: because they didn't appreciate what lots of smart people, loosely coordinating their actions with each other, are capable of accomplishing. It's the power of horizontal, as opposed to vertical knowledge.

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