The future and past of the Social Web
Don Tapscott, of Wikinomics fame, gave an engaging keynote this week at the Web 2.0 Berlin Conference, where he argued that the new era of mass collaboration, coinciding as it does with the emergence of a new generation of internet natives, represents a "perfect storm" of business change. Quoting Victor Hugo, he said "there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come," and went on to sketch out seven new business patterns that he has identified as powerful models driving substantive business change across a range of different markets.
Don also paraphrased St Exupery, who said that we should respect the past as well as the future, since the former was once the latter. This made me think about how little I really know about the history of computing, the internet and the social web. At ETECH 2006, I enjoyed George Dyson's historical perspectives on some of the early computing pioneers, especially John von Neumann, whose 1951 military-funded computer was such an important milestone, notwthstanding his own hawkish role in the nuclear arms race. In 2003, also at ETECH, I remember being mesmerised by Alan Kay's history of the interface, which was my first encounter with the famous Doug Engelbart demo of video conferencing and mouse-based navigation back in 1968. But the history of the internet is more than just a series of remarkable individuals.
Appropriately enough, the history of the internet is multi-dimensional and better represented by a hypertext space than a linear timeline, as it contains several distinct but criss-crossing threads, such as the development of early computers and collaboration software, the development of the network itself, the rise of the Web, and then in the 1990's, the emergence of social computing. A couple of good general history starting points are the W3C timeline and this broad timeline of developments. Trebor Scholz maintains an excellent History of the Social Web , and it is an interesting read that picks out a selection of the people and stories that have shaped recent developments in this field. One thing that strikes me in this account is the historical awareness of some of the protagonists, who were not just chasing a fast buck or fame, fortune and everything that gooooooes with it, like some of those who drove companies into the Fortune 500 and then into the ground during the dot.com period, but rather were aiming for meaningful social and business change. For example, some people may not realise that Tim O'Reilly's influence extends back way beyond his recent role as the godfather of Web 2.0 to the early days of the Web when it was not yet even Web 1.0 ;-) Whatever your views on Tim's recent impact, I think this Wired profile paints a picture of a real visionary who has valued open innovation and social impact above cashing in and out.
I find it quite fascinating that the history of the Web has been influenced by some very different political traditions, from the far left to the libertarian right. This was brought home to me a few years ago when I sat in on a lecture Dr. Richard Barbrook gave at the University of Westminster, when he was testing ideas for his fascinating and provocative book about the history of the net: Imaginary Futures. In the book, he argues that early Soviet plans for their own closed online network (plus, as in generally accepted, the launch of Sputnik) was a key driver in the US Government's establishment of DARPA in 1958 as a Cold War project to showcase American technological prowess. Barbrook also points out how the emerging field of Cybernetics in the 1960's was influenced by the New Left ideas popular in California and the Bay area at the time. The coming together of radical political ideas with the empowering potential of technology led many people to foresee a future in which we would be liberated from the need to work, creating a new world of leisure and creativity. Many of the founding principles of internet culture, such as the idea of the gift economy, public goods and the commons can trace their roots back to this period of great social and technological change. Later, computer technology was assimilated by business, academia and other institutions, and it was not until the era of the personal computer in the 1980's, and then the internet in the 1990's, that the ideas of those early pioneers started to become a reality. In recent years, however, it has been the libertarian right that has moved ahead in its embrace of the internet; in the UK and France today, the centre-right parties seem to have grasped the nettle of how the internet will transform individual relations with the state more effectively than those on the centre-left. Everybody, it seems, claims the internet as part of their own intellectual or political tradition, which is great.
For what it's worth, politics was my own "gateway drug" to the internet - long, long ago - and my dealer (to stretch the analogy) was the very same mercurial and occasionally incomprehensible Dr. Barbrook, who is mentioned in Trebor's history of the social web. He was my lecturer at college, in a subject whose title I forget, but which probably boiled down to some kind of left-wing boot camp on the past and future of the media. After graduation, I was running the press office at the Bosnian Embassy in London, and I would put together daily updates synthesising information from various sources on the current situation, including raw unmediated accounts from Bosnia, all wrapped up in our own political analysis. These briefings were transmitted overnight by fax modem to journalists, politicians, diplomats and human rights groups around the world, with whom we networked directly rather than see our message distorted and over-simplified by editors in the mainstream media. This was actually pretty effective as a media strategy, and our output stood out because it deliberately avoided the stylistic cliches of propaganda or political spinmeistery, plus it contained lots of references to other sources. We have a word for that now: we call it blogging.One day in 1994, Richard visited my office and showed me this thing called the internet and told me it was my future. Don't you just hate a smartypants ;-)
Where are we going next ... anyone know? The common thread running through the new business patterns that Don identified seem to be open innovation, peer-to-peer collaboration and crowdsourcing, but something tells me that we have only just scratched the surface of their impact so far. As the old adage goes, the future is here already, it is just unevenly distributed.