Saturday, July 25, 2009

Us Now film on the power of mass online collaboration

The July Canberra meeting of the Web Standards Group featured the UK film "Us Now" about the power of mass online collaboration. For anyone familiar with the "wisdom of crowds", the film gets very tedious, very quickly. It makes the point in the first five minutes and then repeats it over and over again for what seems like hours. However, that criticism could also be made of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", which presents a simplistic case for global warming: it is pure propaganda, but socially useful propaganda (so good it won half a Noble Prize, with the other half going to the thousand scientists who did decades of work). Us Now is not going to win a Noble Prize, but for those not familiar with the idea of large scale online collaboration, it will be interesting and educational:

The Us Now film is about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet and "takes a look at how this type of participation could transform the way that countries are governed. It tells the stories of the online networks whose radical self-organising structures threaten to change the fabric of government forever."

You can watch a short on YouTube or read more about it at the Us Now website. This film was recently launched at London and Harvard and screened at the Hague and the French National Assembly in the last two weeks. Now it's our turn in Canberra....

The film uses mostly UK examples, which is a refreshing change from US experts, who think they invented the Web. What was disappointing is the shallow analysis of ways to work in groups. Essentially the films compares a big business/big government approach to decision making with web based online collaboration. The one example of non-Internet example of a local government meeting is presented as if this was something new.

The film makers would appear to have never been involved in a social, sporting or local government activity, where forms of collaboration have been used for millennia. While I believe that online collaboration can make a useful contribution to business, education and government, this shallow analysis will not help.

Providing examples of where collaboration has been used throughout history and examples outside the very narrow confines of the UK and USA, would make the case for online collaboration more credible.

Markets in much of the world have been operating for thousands of years as cooperatives of members. You need only step into the gold market of Istanbul or the Friday markets in Southern India, to get a sense of collaboration in the service of society. Web theorists need to learn from such systems.

Most of the examples used in the film are about local government, whereas the rhetoric from the theorists is about national government. Local government is far more important than regional or national government in the lives of the citizens. It is at the local level that the roads get fixed, the garbage collected and basic health services are provided. Even where services are officially provided at a regional or national level, such as in Australia with police and schools, they are made to work by informal decision making at the local level.

Working out a way to run a nation via the web may be interesting for political theorists, but is of little practical value. I suggest we need web systems which can be used to help run a body corporate for an apartment building, a village,or a playing field. Apart from being easier than working out how to run a country, the results of this will be much more easily applied accross the world, without casing any conflict with whatever happens to be the national political system of each country. While Australia and China may have very different national political systems, when it comes to the important issue of how to collect the garbage from a home, much the same decision making system can be used.

1 comment:

James Dellow said...

Re: Web theorists need to learn from such systems
Lee Bryant from Headshift - who featured in Us Now - makes that exact point in this presentation.
From his blog post about this presentation he comments:
"our new era of social technology and social business is in fact more traditional, and continues very old, resilient models of network-based trade, business and socialisation. The difference is, we now have the technology and infrastructure (and arguably the globalised world) that enables us to scale up these old ways of working to support our modern life."