When the solution is part of the problem

In my last post, I described the dangers of assuming a moonshot or Manhattan project could solve America’s energy crisis. The Bush administration, releasing some of their text for the upcoming state of the union address, perpetuates the myth that large-scale projects are effective solutions:

“America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Bush said in the excerpts. “The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

Not to be crass, but most moonshot projects work because, to be effective, their output (rockets or bombs) requires little to no changes in individual behavior or social values. Changes in energy production or consumption, on the other hand, will require changes in what we buy, drive, eat, etc… The danger lies in believing there is a single technological solution out there which, if found, would make all of our problems go away, because that belief prevents us from making harder choices, and taking on greater challenges at the local levels.

The more we believe someone else will bring us a (technological) solution, the less responsibility we feel for solving the problem ourselves. The real solution, if history is any guide, will come from the emergence and confluence of many local solutions.

Sustainability in the Cathedral and Bazaar

One of the problems with expecting technological innovation to solve social problems–like expecting energy research to solve the energy crisis–may be our perpetual confusion between the means and ends. It’s alright to have a moonshot goal (the end-game), but the means for getting there need not, and likely should not, be NASA-scaled, centrally-controlled, and monstrously-funded projects.

Thomas Friedman, for example, recently described Texas Instrument’s green chip factory in Richardson, Texas recently (A Green Dream in Texas). TI’s plant was designed and built in a “cost-saving, hyper-efficient green manner.” It’s not clear how efficient is efficient but, in any case, what’s interesting is how Friedman uses the green factory to call for an “energy independence” moonshot:

In 1961, when President Kennedy called for putting a man on the moon, he didn’t know how – but his vision was so compelling, his expectations of the American people so high, that they drove the moon shot well after he died. The Bush-Cheney team should be inspiring our generation’s moon shot: energy independence. But so far all they’ve challenged Americans to do is accept a tax cut.

Friedman supports the goal of moonshot. The end he has in mind is exactly what we need. But in reality, what’s harder–putting one man on the moon or a million men and women into hydrogen-powered cars? And why?

Governments are organized well to build cathedrals, but not bazaars. Unfortunately, some of the greatest leaps forward are too complicated to be solved by one single project or person; instead they take place over time and across countless, nameless people (as Jean Henri Fabre once said, “History records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat”). Throwing money at creating the single best solution, like building one rocket, or one bomb, is easy compared to creating a technological revolution that requires an accompanying social revolution to succeed. For these problems, it’s better to build bazaars–the open source communities where ideas and behaviors co-evolve. And from which spring the real revolutions.

More technological sensemaking

The debate about Wikipedia is moving into the mainstream (e.g., Gregory Lamb of the Christian Science Monitor, Online Wikipedia is not Britannica – but it’s close). It now may be reaching more people who previously new little and cared less about what the Wikipedia was and, for them, a shared sensemaking is taking place. What’s interesting about it is how technologies move from being compared to predecessors to being evaluated on their own merit. And that process involves the shedding of much of the political and cultural baggage of the past.

George Johnson of the NYT had this to say in his commentary The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts:

It may seem foolish to trust Wikipedia knowing I could jump right in and change the order of the planets or give the electron a positive charge. But with a worldwide web of readers looking over my shoulder, the error would quickly be corrected. Like the swarms of proofreading enzymes that monitor DNA for mutations, some tens of thousands of regular Wikipedians constantly revise and polish the growing repository of information.

There is a subtle and fleeting moment early in the introduction of new technologies when society shifts from viewing these novelties in terms of their nearest existing analog and starts seeing them for what they are: when the automobile shifted from being a less-than-dependable horse and buggy to its own identity (and Ford stopped comparing the costs of each in his advertising); the electric light shifted from a fragile and expensive gas lamp to a new power source; the telephone from a bad telegraph; TiVo from an expensive VCR. The same could now be happening not just for the Wikipedia, but for open-source software and content in general (blogs, Linux, etc…).

Johnson concludes in words reminiscent of open-source pioneer Eric Raymond (to enough eyes, all bugs are shallow):

It seems natural that over time, thousands, then millions of inexpert Wikipedians – even with an occasional saboteur in their midst – can produce a better product than a far smaller number of isolated experts ever could.

One more small step…

Google has taken one more small step forward, and gave us a glimpse into a giant leap for Internet-kind. video.google.com is a site for users to upload short videos which Google converts to flash and offers up for everyone. One of my favorites took a stunt we used to play back in the design loft with old soda bottles, corks, and bike pumps and turned it into almost a blood sport: water bottle jet pack. Also check out the clips from amateur rappers from across the world (e.g., Curry and Rice Girl)–which shows as well as Friedman could that the world is indeed flat. All the world’s a stage–or maybe more like a infinite-ring circus.
Consider the value of building your own stage and letting your community (users, friends, what have you) provide the content…

Nature weighs in on the Wiki debate

Nature Magazine weighed in on the Wikipedia debate in a recent article :

They sent 50 pairs of Wikipedia and Britannica articles on scientific topics to recognised experts and, without telling them which article came from which source, asked them to count the numbers of errors (mistakes, misleading statements or omissions). Among the 42 replies, Britannica content had an average of just under 3 errors per article whilst Wikipedia had an average of just under 4 errors — not as much difference, perhaps, as most people would expect.

Nature editors and reporters view this evidence in Wikipedia’s favor:

an expert-led investigation carried out by Nature — the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science — suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule.

I see enough ambiguity in the findings for wikipediphiliacs and wikipediphobics to continue the raging debate. And that’s a fine thing. Some doctoral student will come along in 5-10 years and have a wonderful record of how the old media reacted to the technical changes (for better or worse) that wikipedia represents.

The big question, to me: Is the Wikipedia just serving as the lightning rod for a rant against the entire blogosphere, where accuracy is traded for speed, cost, and quantity?

Wiki’s web, the Times’ glass house…

On Sunday, the New York Times picked up an op-ed in USA-Today and published an interesting article about the inaccuracies and maliciously un-edited nature of the Wikipedia, our premier open-source encyclopedia. The article, Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar recounts with a little glee and absolutely no sense of irony how:

ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler’s biography, true?

The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby.”

“Nothing was ever proven,” the biography added.

Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.

This is another case where technology turns a relatively everyday event into a harbinger of technological doom. I’ll be the first to admit that technologies bring unintended, and often catastrophic, consequences. But this is an example of how new technologies that are no worse than old technologies managed to get blamed for crimes that, in the old ways of doing things, were just business as usual.

Worse things happen every day in the book reviews posted anonymously on Amazon (I should know). Worse still happen in the NYT Review of Books, considering the far greater damage to writers’ careers of a bad review in the NYT magazine. And of course, the irony absent this NYT report on the Wikipedia makes it seem that such a travesty of truth could never happen to the Times news organization itself (see the Wiki for Jayson Blair and Judith Miller).

As the Times reports, “Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.” Seriously, how many people do you think saw it, or possibly posted it on their sites? Now compare this number to how many people read Judith Miller’s reports on the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction? Here a bit from the Wiki on Miller:

On May 26, 2004, a week after the U.S. government apparently severed ties with Ahmed Chalabi, a Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. It also regretted that “information that was controversial [was] allowed to stand unchallenged.” While the editorial rejected “blame on individual reporters,” others noted that ten of the twelve flawed stories discussed had been written or co-written by Miller.

From the glass house they live in, the NYT editorial staff should be much more careful about throwing stones at online reference material.

Personally, I happen to think the Wikipedia is one of the better things since sliced bread, as it is an incredibly useful 1st (but not last) reference tool. Where else could you get several pages of text on Lego’s, along with links to 12 other Wiki entries and 40 or so external links? Do you think Britannica pays as much attention? It only cares about the founder or Lego as part of an article on toys–though that is open only to paying members. How about M’Soft’s Encarta? It only sends me to a dictionary definition and another generic article on toys (not to mention a pop-up ad the size of my screen). And, of coruse, the great material on Jayson Blair and Judith Miller…

And, as a footnote, I find it nice that Wikipedia even includes this last bit of history on Seigenthaler:

Between May and September 2005, the Wikipedia article on Seigenthaler contained a number of inaccurate statements, including allegations he may have been “directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby,” assertions he considered “character assassination.” The statements, added by an anonymous editor and since removed, prompted Seigenthaler to write an Op-Ed in USA Today on November 29, in which he stated that “…Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool…[f]or four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin.” Seigenthaler said that he had tried to determine the identity of the anonymous editor but had been unable to do so. Seigenthaler’s article prompted a number of commentators to write about the issue and Wikipedia and the internet in general, and on December 5, Seigenthaler appeared on CNN with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.