I was surprised, gladdened, and then worried to find that the theme for the most powerful people in the world when they gather in the resort of DAVOS this year is ‘the power of collaborative innovation’. Looking at this issue from a technology standpoint, it’s great to see that world leaders have noticed the revolution in capability with the way people at large have grasped the use of web 2.0 technology, but are these great people too far away from being ‘hands on’ in using these technologies themselves to see some of the very real issues that are emerging? Do they use social networking sites, read, comment, and write blogs? I doubt it, so their observations must come from the direction of ‘controlled’ use in business, or government with clear definable benefit cases, whereas I feel that many of the issues that are emerging are actually social, and flow from factors they are barely able to grasp.
The two most influential books on the topic that it seems everyone knows, and I would expect to see the authors present are; The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, and ‘Wikinomics’ by Don Tapscott. Both assume the changes that mass collaboration and global communications will be a force for good, because it will be capable of being channeled towards appropriate goals. Presumably that’s the point of the discussions by the ‘leaders’ of our society, how to channel these new capabilities for the good of the countries, enterprises, etc that they represent. I hope they figure out some good positive moves, I can only be encouraged by what is already happening as people with imagination and a responsible attitude to society innovate. Some great and good changes are already underway.
There is the other side of the coin, those who don’t see society as something that they have any responsibly, and those who are already encouraged to use smart phone cameras to video themselves indulging in anti social acts for posting on web sites. Okay that’s recognizable and action is, or will be taken, to curb these activities. Slightly different, but also recognizable to control is that the Chinese already have a serious problem with addicted gamers who play themselves to death, or at least to the distraction of their social roles. This is also recognizable and action to curb that availability of sites after a gamer has spent three hours online is underway.
My worry is the ‘grey’ area that the availability of this huge amount of information is having on the population at large. I believe many of the Politician’s attending are self-confessed technophobes, difficult for them to perhaps comprehend how much any interested person can know find out about their behavior. Is this the basis for the apparent dissatisfaction with Politicians in so many countries? I think so. Worse I don’t think these guys understand that this may mean they need to change more than the way they behave; may be it’s less about democracy as we have defined it in terms of voting every few years to elect some people who will deal with issues that are invisible to the population at large, and more about continuous collaboration. That truly would be the power of collaborative innovation using the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ as defined by James Surowiecki to deal with the increasingly complicated issues which require complex solutions. Is it possible to do this today? The answer is almost certainly yes to the basic technical question, but it poses some very significant questions.
It’s not a question of if the people are educated enough for democracy, this question has already been answered with voting rights under the current model, but the real question is the quality of information made available and by whom. The Al Gore film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ dealing with global warming has been widely shown, and the UK Government decided to make it compulsory viewing for school children in school. A significant number of parents objected to this on the grounds that in their opinion the film has inaccuracies so they objected to these being presented as apparent educational ‘facts’ to their children. A court case followed and found that there were nine ‘facts’ that expert opinion could not sustain therefore the case was proven that presenting these as ‘facts’ was wrong.
This straight forward finding should have been an end to the matter, but the National Geographic magazine decided to ask an expert of their own and published an opinion by Eric Steig, an earth scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle that these ‘facts’ were true.
The reality is of course that all of these were in fact personal ‘opinions’ based on how individuals interpretation the underlying statistical ‘data’ to reach conclusions.
To me the real question underpinning DAVOS, and indeed society collectively and individually today, is about the accuracy of the information that is flooding into society and the capability of citizens to understand how to treat the ‘facts’ that they are presented with in forming their own opinions. Enterprises perhaps understand this better than Government and are increasingly learning that they have to update their own practices in face of these changes. Too many Governments have yet to grasp how to focus their current information and processes towards their citizens through the Web, let alone deal with this new generation of information hungry, highly demanding, citizens who will use the absence of ‘formal’ information to collect their own answers. The risk is that these may well be wrong, and their prevailing assumption that if it is found on the Web, or at least in places like Wikipedia, it must be true is highly dangerous.
Collaboration is a powerful capability that is supposed to have been one of the traits that separate the human race from other animals and has allowed the development of society as we know it today, and the attendees cannot help to be in favor of it. From the top down they can indeed set goals and encourage positive results, but from the bottom up these new collaborations may be built on straw if there is no answer to the question of collaboration using what information and from where. Am I advocating a global stamp for authorizing data? No not really, but a wider use of the current digital rights capabilities would go a long way to making sure that these powerful new collaborations both used and created authenticated information.
Maybe Global Warming would be a good starting place to unleash collaboration to solve the many problems, but the lesson of multiple opinions and versions of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ shows what is required in addition to the sense of purpose that DAVOS may well produce.