The Bus Book – 5th to 17th May – Wikinomics

Wikinomics is something of a phenomena – it has a website as well as being a book.  The book is about the concept of ‘peer production’ – think of the way in which Open Source sofwtare and Wikipedia is put together.  Lots of people collaboratingfor the greater good to produce something that is valuable to all – and then making it free.

The phenomena reminded me of two similar ‘paradigm busting’ management theories of recent decades; ‘Excellence‘ and ‘Re-engineering’.  Both of these approaches were sold to the world like the second coming of the Messiah, and both ultimately had what can best, in my opinion, be described as less than paradigm-breaking impact.  I have a little admission to make here; in my youth I was a fan of the Excellence management theories of Tom Peters.  Two things kicked me off the wagon; the first was that TP was getting WAY too far out there, even for me, and the second was that it was just oversold.

Now, before I embark in what will sound like heresy to some, I’ll say it clearly:

“I’m a great believer in Wikipedia, Open Source, Creative Commons and any other collaborative project you care to mention.  Heck, when it starts to move my own CommunityNet project will be using wikis, forums and other Web 2.0 tools.  This is an excellent way for things to happen, and long may it survive and flourish.”

But I found parts of this book a nightmare.  Why? 

Because I genuinely believe that the authors have over-done the hype regarding what is and isn’t possible with collaborative working, and have, to me, glossed over these issues:

  1. People don’t want to be exploited – we did all this and got this lousy T-Shirt?
  2. Not everyone plays nice – the meek will inherit the Earth, but we keep the mineral rights.
  3. Not everyone wants to give up their intellectual property rights – so….you spend your time and money making a film and whine because we want to use it without payment?
  4. The dictatorship of the majority – is this Koolade poisoned enough for you yet?

Let’s take a look at these issues in turn.

Exploitation – the book did mention that people in collaborative projects may be paid cash, or may get their reward in opportunities, the ability to develop a portfolio, contacts, being able to contribute to a greater good, or even just sheer ego-stroking.  However, if a company builds a multi-million dollar venture or product on the back of a lot of collaborative activity in a closed garden – like, for example, Facebook, mySpace, etc. – then it does get hard to avoid the occasional charge of exploitation.  I thought this was especially so in the chapters on more mainstream industrial and research ‘ideagoras’ and ‘The Prosumers’.

Not everyone plays nice.  There’s a comment from the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, about what he thinks the word collaboration means between people over 45 years old (gee, thanks for the patronising attitude, Mr Schmidt – shall we grey-hairs leave the building now?) – “nice conversation with nice attitude and nice objectives”.  Well, that works for me – and as someone who’s participated in a number of collaborative, non-profit, open source type projects over the last 15 years, I’d argue that that is critical to the whole thing.  If people don’t play nice, then sooner or later competent people who just can’t stand assholes will apply the rule of two legs and walk.  Now, if you like an open, collaborative project driven by morons then so be it, but once you start to impose control and dircetion of behaviour, you’re getting close to ‘classic’ collaboration.

Intellectual Property Rights are a mare; I’m sorry, but I whole-heartedly believe that if you wish to hold on to them, you should be able to, and the law should be in place to help you.  At the same time technical solutions such as DRM, Rootkits, etc. shouldn’t be condoned and used as they’re simply counterproductive.  Being made to feel that you’re soemhow selfish for wanting to make some money out of your creative abilities isn’t on.

The dictatorship of the mediocre is soemthing that concerns me.  Whether the authors like it or not, not all open Source, Peer Driven, Collaborative project is driven by mightly intellects with incredible motivation.  Sometimes the projects suffer from good old groupthink…  We need mavericks who can do wild stuff without being beaten away from the market place by sheer numbers of piss-poor open source solutions to the same problem that succeed purely because they’re free.   having a group where the majority can brow-beat the brilliant but perhaps unpopular is not good, particularly when the group may become the only game in town.  there is no difference, in real terms, between a Peer driven monopoly and a Microsoft Monopoly.  The idea that ‘you can go and do your own stuff’ falls apart when you’re in a monopoly situation, whether the monopoly is from a peer-collaborative organisation or a 20th Century Multinational.

Which brings me to what is for me the most sinister part of this expansion of something good (Open Source, Creative Commons, Wiki-type peer collaboration) to something quite positively evil (mass-globalisation).  The companies featured in this book using these techniques are not ‘Mom and Pop’s Friendly green Hardware Shop’ – they’re your mass manufacturers who regard Wikinomics as the next step in the increasing globalisation of markets and industries.

Whilst not featured in the book, the Cisco Human Network ‘Skateboard’ advert would probably be a poster brat for the Wikinomics guys – collaboration between company and prosumers via all that cool Web 2.0 stuff.  The Skateboarders had better get used to being on the boards; this sort of collaboration will probably result in them staying in McJobs until they die, as more and more jobs migrate to cheaper and cheaper economies as the worldwide factory floor envisaged by teh authors takes a grip.

There’s a saying attributed to Hunter S Thompson – ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn professional’.  Just because the big business world is taking on techniques form the economic underground doesn’t mean that they’re seeing the light and becoming nice guys; it just means that the battle for the ‘No logo’ world is about to be fought with different wepaons.




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