Analytics & Data Global Tech

How the People Are Taking Over the World


We asked several participants in the upcoming Techonomy 2014 conference to write an article for us on what they are passionate about right now.

I remember my parents in Belgium staring at the front page of our newspaper, which portrayed the first picture of our planet taken from space. It was called Earthrise. It was 1968. It was magical. We—all of us—were in there, part of an organism, and we must have thought a thought that we had never thought before: let’s become whole. Barely ten months later—more precisely at 10:30 pm, 29 October 1969—the first message was sent over the ARPANET. The mission had started. Ever since then, a series of innovations and changes in culture have steadily advanced a global process of empowerment and connectivity.

The new borderless digital network selected and favored anything that was “open.” Eric Raymond wrote “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” in 1997 as a wake-up call for the open-source community: he said we need everyone because “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” (a thought credited to Linus Torvald, creator of the Linux open source database). The more widely available the source code of any software is for public testing, scrutiny, and experimentation, the more rapidly all forms of bugs will be discovered.

Two years later Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger introduced Wikipedia, based on these principles. A 2005 survey of Wikipedia published in Nature, which compared 42 science articles with Encyclopedia Brittannica, found that Wikipedia’s level of accuracy approached the encyclopedia, and both had similar low rates of “serious errors.” The people were winning.

In 2005, Mark Johnson heard the voice of a homeless street musician, Roger Ridley (now deceased) singing,“Stand By Me.” So he hit the streets with a mobile recording studio and a camera crew and recorded songs with everyday people, some of whom lived in the streets, because he wanted to prove that music had the power to break down barriers and overcome distance. The videos, called “Playing for Change,” united musicians from all over the world to make global music together. Out came the heartbeat of the crowd, seen by more than a 65 million viewers in the first year.

In 2007, Kevin Kelly, then editor of Wired, set up the first “quantified self” meeting, “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self knowledge through self-tracking.” Gary Wolf, his colleague at Wired, said, “Almost everything we do generates data. However, using the data they make can give people new ways to deal with medical problems, help sleep patterns, and improve diet.”

In 2008 Mark Frauenfelder became the editor-in-chief of Make Magazine, published by O’Reilly. Makers are a DIY subculture that revels in engineering and takes advantage of distributed technology, robotics, and 3D printing.

From the “The Maker Movement Manifesto,” by Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop:

There is something unique about making physical things. These things are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our souls. Sharing what you have made and what you know about making with others is the method by which a maker’s feeling of wholeness is achieved. You cannot make and not share.

Wired came up with the term“crowdsourcing” in 2006, but sites such as Indiegogo, founded in 2008, and Kickstarter, launched in 2009, took crowdsourcing to a new level. They became places where people could build stuff and so they conceptually merged with the maker culture. Before crowdsourcing, consumer manufacturing had been the prerogative of large corporations, but now smaller companies were able to learn how to build devices while making mistakes along the way. Crowdsourcing became a massive educational movement that put more means of production in the hands of the people. At the same time, manufacturing skills of big corporations leaked to smaller startups and they taught entrepreneurial teams their esoteric manufacturing secrets, and in turn they learned to apply a software mindset to a hardware project. It was co-evolution.

Enter big data. There are various theories of where the concept came from—Gartner Group, Oracle, Facebook, NSA, “big science”—but my bet is simply politics. In 2012, the Obama administration announced the Big Data Research and Development Initiative to explore how big data could be used to address important problems. The initiative is composed of 84 different big data programs spread across six federal government departments. Big data analysis played a large role in Barack Obama’s successful 2012 re-election campaign. Very soon, big data linked up with another campaign crusade of the Obama administration: the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Consumers started to realize that they had inherited a set of tools and measures that have traditionally been correlated with prescriptions and outcomes—for things like for health, weather, the movement of celestial bodies, etc. These tools and measures have logical ties to the systems they prescribe (heart rate and heart health, low pressure and cold fronts, object velocity and position). However, they will not be confined to such logical ties in the future, and may be applied to broader, consumer-oriented applications.

As we develop a massive “fuzzy” data set that pulls in streams from a multitude of sources, we will be able to identify and act upon surprising connections. Perhaps we could predict the weather far more accurately by using 27 measures of bird and fish migration. Or maybe we can predict your health based on your average typing speed. Or maybe we can predict your mood in your 20’s based on your grandmother’s career and measures of your caloric intake in your teens. The logical correlations with the original systems of concern can become more and more tenuous as the data set becomes greater. Basic science becomes less necessary (no need to piece out the workings of the universe from the ground up). Perhaps we will be able to just apply algorithms to data sets and fundamental laws will fall out automatically. Of course it is another epic mission, one that will need crowd armies to curate and organize.

Marshall McLuhan’s immortal prophesy keeps coming true: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” In the 19th century we used machines and saw ourselves as analog constructions; the 20th century brought computers and we tended to think of ourselves as digital machines. It is tempting now to think that we are networks because we use them daily and are part of them. But these are only platforms. The tool that we most use is data itself. We start to think of ourselves as data vessels. We are data. A new philosophy (dataism) is emerging that says people become the data they use and the companies that make filters also become part of one big, non-linear, complex adaptive dataset. One day it will be self-organizing thanks to new mathematical approaches we will pluck out of machine learning.

The Internet, the crowd, crowdsourcing, makers, QS, big data—they are all pieces of a puzzle that is enabling our species to become more conscious. In the 21st century humanity will be going from read mode into write mode, and taking evolution in our own hands. We will learn to use the fundamental building blocks of reality: bits, atoms, neurons, and genes. We write with them rather than merely reading them. We seem to be ready to go to the next level of awareness. See you there.

Walter De Brouwer will speak on a panel about crowdsourcing and data at the Techonomy 2014 conference.

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