Malone says such markets, combined with blogs and other technologies that make it easier for employees to share information, will enable, for the first time in business history, “the economic benefits of large organizations, like economies of scale and knowledge, without giving up the human benefits of small ones, like freedom, creativity, motivation, and flexibility.” He is convinced that companies like Google, which uses internal blogs to keep management ranks flat, represent the future of industry. Tomorrow’s companies, he predicts, will be led not by dictatorial, alpha-ego CEOs but by “cultivators” who understand that productivity and profits soar when all of a company’s intellectual capital is being tapped.
Other institutions are also being remade through technologies that marshal collective intelligence. Dan Gillmor’s We the Media shows how blogging, the Short Message System (SMS), and corollary technologies like Really Simple Syndication (RSS) are creating a new and vital kind of journalism. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am friendly with Dan.)
Gillmor believes that such technologies have brought us to a turning point in media history: with the removal of major barriers to information distribution, such as the need for a broadcast license or a printing press, more people can provide journalistic observation, and that makes for a better-informed populace.
It can also make for better media. An excellent illustration involves Jane’s Intelligence Review, the respected defense periodical. In 1999, Jane’s posted a draft of an article on cyberterrorism to the massively popular online discussion forum Slashdot, whose denizens vetted the document so thoroughly that Jane’s decided to rewrite it from scratch.
Gillmor does not claim that blogging, SMS, and the like are perfect. He is concerned about the ease with which technology can be used to promulgate untruths (he remembers the faked picture of John Kerry with Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam rally). He worries about “trolls” (people who post disingenuous, irrelevant, or obscene messages in order to get attention) and “spin doctors” (people who deliberately post misleading items). But he explains how the communal character of blog culture mitigates many potential excesses: bloggers who are uninteresting don’t get linked to; those who make false assertions can be pilloried. What frightens him more is the prospect that governments and the mainstream media will try to slow or even derail bloggers, SMS news services, and other emergent forms of journalism through defamation or copyright infringement laws.
Like many, Gillmor also believes that networked technologies could make the political process more democratic. For at least a decade, the Internet has been hailed as the antidote for big campaign contributors’ undue influence on electoral outcomes. Until recently, it was a quack cure. But the Howard Dean campaign’s successful use of the Internet in the 2004 Democratic primary race suggests that, as Gillmor puts it, “American politics was approaching a tipping point.” Joe Trippi, Dean’s former campaign manager, agrees.
In his book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Trippi contends that the Dean campaign would never have taken off had he not employed communications technology like Meetup, a website that facilitates real-world gatherings. He argues that in 2004, the Internet was to the presidential election what television was in 1956 – something present in 75 percent of homes but not truly understood by most politicians and political operatives. But by 2008, Trippi says, the Internet will be at the heart of the political process. America, in Trippi’s view, is now run by the 631 people who collectively raised between $100 million and $150 million for the Bush campaign. But technology will make it possible for ordinary citizens to band together, piling small donations into substantial political war chests and speaking with a voice every bit as powerful as those of the special-interest lobbies. The model for all this? The campaign of Howard Dean, of course.
What Trippi identifies as the Dean campaign’s strength could just as easily be described as its main problem: it was propelled by its supporters and therefore had no strategy for directing, or even much understanding of, the forces it had unleashed. The campaign had no clue, Trippi makes clear, that thousands of people would show up at Dean meetups at a time when the candidate was barely mentioned in the national press. Nor did it expect to see millions of dollars in small contributions coming in via the Internet.
Yet it’s beguiling to envision campaigns that are shaped as much by voters as by the candidates themselves. Trippi seems to be that rare political professional who would be happy to find that, in the next campaign cycle, he was out of a job.
An influence upon all these books is Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, which looked at the way groups of people use cell phones and other wireless devices to organize collective action. Rheingold wrote that “the most far-reaching changes will come…from the kinds of relationships, enterprises, communities, and markets that the infrastructure makes possible.”
Creating a communications infrastructure that fosters a healthy democracy has been a concern of the United States since its founding. Newspaperman and intellectual Walter Lippmann once noted that the real trouble with both the press and representative democracy is “the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge.” That machinery may finally have arrived.
Michael Fitzgerald is a writer who lives outside Boston. He writes frequently for Technology Review, and his work has appeared in the Economist, the New York Times, and other publications.