Beyond MacroWikinomics

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MacroWikinomics, the sequel to the bestselling book Wikinomics is out this week. Should we rejoice? Sadly, no. Sure, the book has raving pre-publication commentary. The topic is cool: the prospect that each and every one of us is changing the world. But unlike the more methodical vision of Bill Drayton’s Ashoka, where “everyone a changemaker” actually refers to taking real actions towards becoming social entrepreneurs in your everyday interactions with your local community, the Tapscott/Williams vision is mostly hyperbole, echoing the cliché that “we need to come together as global citizens”. Just listen to the sound of this phrase at the beginning of the book, taken from the BusinessWeek excerpt of MacroWikinomics:

there is now a historic opportunity to marshal human skill, ingenuity, and intelligence on a mass scale to reevaluate and reposition many of our institutions for the coming decades and for future generations. After all, the potential for new models of collaboration does not end with the production of software, media, entertainment, and culture. Why not open-source government, education, science, the production of energy, and even health care.

what follows is a populist criticism of virtually every institutional framework in existence:

…[M]any of our institutions are stalled, lacking vitality, leadership, and dynamism. It’s like every last ounce of oxygen has been squeezed out, leaving a mess of deflated expectations and chronically underutilized resources.

As FT reviewer Richard Waters writes in his book review of MacroWikinomics, entitled “How the web will save the world”:

The difficulty with books such as MacroWikinomics is that they take interesting phenomena like these, then apply a heavy dose of messianic fervour to produce an absolutist view of the future.

The problem, however, does not lie in messianic fervour. Fervour is exciting, and sometimes warranted, depending on the cause. The issue is the lack of a deeper analysis. You cannot just dismiss all current governments, companies, industries and individuals and say open source collective collaboration through the web will change the world for the better. Where is the evidence? How do you know? What is the better world you are looking for? The problem with most “collective” problems is that each and every one of us has a different view of what the problem is not to mention what the solution would be. This is only one reason why collective innovation runs into problems.

Every decade or so, the visionary discourse of how globalization and technology will change the world seems to gain intensity. Unfortunately, in this case, the visionary talk is cyclical and repetitive. In 1999-2000, the vision every trend watcher was talking about was the “nomadic worker” who would be able to work anywhere, anytime. In my Ph.D, What the Net Can’t Do (2002), I showed through fieldwork that even in such a conspicuous place such as Silicon Valley, nobody really, really believed their own hype or had any plans of acting on it. Venture capitalists told me they would never invest in a company that was further away than a short car ride before lunch. Marketeers and engineers alike admitted they did not themselves use the Internet and its applications the way their advertisements said people would.

In reality, only workers who are willing to accept a rapidly descending status and relevance in the workplace, and who previously have worked up quite a reputation in some relevant sphere, can afford to go off the grid. Even for them, every minute counts. Every minute away from bosses, customers, markets, cities and inspiration, or from friends and family for that matter, takes away from your presence, relevance, and engagement with those who do tend to stay in one place or at least meet up face-to-face on a regular basis. In short, quantity time is still more valuable than quality time. Presence is still more valuable than virtualized co-presence.

In 2010, the visions are even grander. Now, the web will save the world, apparently. Fine, maybe it will, after a while and together with a bunch of interrelated and non related phenomena. However, and regardless, one cannot just assume that most institutional frameworks, indeed anything that is not related to individual expression, lacks legitimacy. The age-old visions of direct democracy share the deficiency that hampers any such vision of change: the lack of awareness of how human motivation works. I do not discount that the web has facilitated and indeed spurred many ongoing experiments in mass collaboration. It is not unlikely that a few of them will change the world as we know it, or at least alter important aspects of our world. However, social change is complex.

First of all, in all honesty, many institutions, governments, and collective actors are alive and well. Sure, there are many things wrong with any given healthcare plan, school or public agency, but the alternative is not so clear. Individualism is great, for sure, but will, arguably, never completely outgrow community. The two seem to build on each other, even complement each other. Society will always fight back.

Or, maybe we should start with something a bit more basic: society exists. When will the visionary, absolutist, determinist, technocrats realize this? Their arguments are quite stunning, really. All in the name of progress. Progress from what? To what? This reminds me about a long standing discussion I have with a dear friend about whether progress actually exists. He claims all of civilization, all advances in societies and markets and capital show progress. On what grounds do people tend to claim progress? What is the measure? For him, of course, with the frame of reference being the “great civilizations” of Greece, Rome, and the British Empire, it is simple. Wealth, art, industry was created and some of it is timeless and important. Well. Yes. However, every time we claim to progress, the counterargument can be made, some (other) people are worse off. So, for instance, the surplus of the colonies created palaces and industry in Europe. Conversely, it set Africa on a path of perennial decline for centuries. Or, as Richard Waters writes:

It would be nice to believe that Tapscott and Williams have history on their side, and that projects such as Linux foretell a world where anyone with an internet connection and an hour to kill will give generously of their cognitive surplus.

The problem is, most people’s cognitive surplus is quite limited, measured and must be applied sparingly to only the most important projects at hand. So, I might get involved in my kids’ school, a charity or two, a local political debate, or in global debates in my field of expertise. But, I will not get involved in everyone’s schools, all charities, all political debates and in global debates across the globe. We are all situated actors with our own bounded, focused frame of mind. We cannot focus everywhere. We cannot spend all of our energies on all good things. We must choose and we do. Daily. Ruthlessly. Most of us do it based on an analysis of what means the most to us. What we care the most about. Most of all, we make the decision based on where we are. Place making is difficult. Only with labour do we make the world our own. And when we do, we celebrate that, try to enjoy it, rather than look elsewhere. Psychologically, that is also the sane attitude. If you walk around trying to engage in anything, anywhere, you are delusional, and most likely, ineffective.

Empowering citizens is a great aim. I believe it can happen. I believe it does happen. It just does not happen all the time, and the web is not the cause of it. And, we need institutions to organize ourselves. Every time a problem is complex, recurring, or demands fair solutions, an institutional arrangement seems a quite fruitful way to go. Also, there is nothing morally wrong with organizing human societies in representative arrangements, governments, bureaucracies, and corporations. This is not to say that checks and balances are not needed and that the web is not useful in this regard.

In 2008, I wrote the book Leadership From Below. I argued that leadership is more about attitude than position. My intention was not to say that formal leadership will disappear or has disappeared. Rather, what I was pointing out is that influencing others demands that you acquire followers, or even better, that you simply channel the energies that are latent in the group you are working with. For instance, you will be more successful at innovation if you work with other people’s ideas, shaping them together rather than always asking people to work on your ideas. This applies almost always, and even if your idea is better. Psychoanalysis has brought forward this insight, although it must have been known to man (and especially women) for centuries. My grandmother knew. My mom, my wife, and my daughter all know this. I merely write about their insight and sometimes discover their plot as an afterthought.

MacroWikinomics is a nice phrase and will likely sell quite well. Its ideas, however, are shallow. There is nothing wrong with collaborative innovation but it is not at all new or completely web related. It would be nice to believe that every problem requires a given amount of resources, say 1, 10, 100 or 1000 man months. But this is not true in practice. A problem can get solved just like that, if an innovative idea comes forward. A team might be astonishingly inefficient or very efficient, depending on what happens in their group process. A huge problem might actually require an enormous amount of energy to resolve, but the exact quantity needed can seldom be determined beforehand.

Arguing against the limitless opportunities of the web sometimes feels like being against fighting climate change, aids, or corruption. In short, it is perceived as being against progress, against the politically correct, against reason itself. However, my cause is not to try to stop positive change. But naïve faith in the impossible: namely the belief that everyone we will change the world for the better simply by taking part in online collaboration surely is also damaging to the intellect, and possibly to society.

Information technology is good for many things. However, whereas IT excels at underpinning efficiency and effectiveness of relatively well framed challenges, its track record in underpinning boundless innovation in any given area is shorter, and less distinguished. We simply do not know enough. Could the web be essential to solving the world’s most pressing problems? Possibly. Could it at least help. Sure, but saying that is so trivial that one does not need to write a book about it.

Instead, what we need is a cognitive framework for what each of us can do where we are, and an awareness about what has been done by those we are surrounded by. The old phrase “on the shoulders of giants” used to mean that we all build on our ancestors. The new phrase might become “on each other’s shoulders”, but I just would not bet on it yet. It is absurd to purport an absolute faith in the wisdom of contemporaries. History shows that societies that do so, only do so at their own peril. Look at the latter parts of the Greek, Roman, British Soviet or US empires. They all became completely paralysed by the obsession with running themselves. They stopped caring about anything outside themselves. Obsessing over their own inventions, they thought themselves invincible. From this perspective, the web might be the last innovation of the West? Who knows?

Mass collaboration by individuals, whether or not they are connected, co-located, know each other or not, has obvious limits related to the inefficiency and psychological complexity of masses. The old crowd psychologists, from Gustave LeBon onwards, were sceptical of the masses. Tapscott and Williams seem overly optimistic. The truth is somewhere in between. The web is a platform, a very efficient platform for innovation. However, it is not a panacea. In itself, it does not solve anything. Only humans do. Sometimes.

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About trondau
Trond A. Undheim (39), Ph.D., a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Managing Director of Tautec Consulting, has over fifteen years of multi sector experience in strategy, policy, communications, academia, and entrepreneurship. Formerly, he was a Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at Oracle Corporation, with wide responsibilities in long-term business development, strategy, public policy and standardization globally and in Europe. Trond is an executive, speaker, entrepreneur, author, traveler and blogger. With a doctorate on knowledge work and the internet in Silicon Valley, he is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. He has worked at Oracle Corporation, the European Commission, the Norwegian Government, and founded a start-up. He was awarded an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from NTNU, Norway’s top engineering university, as the youngest candidate at the Faculty. He is multilingual and has lived on three continents. He is always ready for strategic opportunities providing significant intellectual and managerial challenges.

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