Does the web make experts dumb?

For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.

Information can be asymmetric in a number of ways. The first, and simplest, is asymmetry-in-access. If you can make sure that no one else has access to information that you have access to, if you’re in a position to deny others access to the information, then you can do something useful with it. In the old days this was called keeping a secret. Keeping something secret is not wrong per se. But if that secret is privileged information, there are many things you cannot do with it. Like trade on it. Or blackmail someone as a result of it.

Nevertheless, for centuries, people have made money by having asymmetric access to information. And for the most part they’ve done it legally.

A second form of asymmetry is in effect a special case of asymmetry-in-access: asymmetry-in-creation. If you create/originate the information in question, then it is possible to prevent anyone else from knowing it. All you have to do is make sure that you don’t tell anyone. Kenny Dalglish, while managing Liverpool in the mid-to-late 1980s,  was asked how he’d managed to keep Ian Rush’s return from Juventus a secret. In answer he said ‘It was simple. I didn’t tell anyone”.

If you choose not to share something you’ve created, then you are in a position to be the only person in the world to enjoy it. Take a work of art or music or literature. As creator, you can choose to share whatever you’ve created with nobody; with just one person; with just a few people; the choice is yours. And you can charge for this access. Some people may think you’re being selfish, some people may consider you “sad” as a result, but you have every right. What you’re doing is legal. You’re protecting the scarce nature of what you’ve created, and seeking to exploit that scarcity.

For centuries people have made money out of creating unique things, scarce things, and then charging others when they want access or ownership.

A third form of asymmetry is really a derivative form, where the information is itself not of much use without some way of comprehending it, parsing it, interpreting it: asymmetry-in-education. Equality in educational rights may be a much-vaunted goal, but it’s not there. Equality of opportunity continues to be mandated, and may well happen in your lifetime. Equality of outcome cannot be legislated. Asymmetry-in-education has therefore continued to persist despite the efforts of well-meaning people over the past century or so.

This form of asymmetry has been exploited by experts in many guises: doctors, lawyers, priests, even IT consultants. And their theme song is simple. “You didn’t have to work as hard as I did to know what I know. It’s complex, you won’t understand it.”. In many cases, this situation was exacerbated by the use of foreign languages, preferably dead foreign languages. And, just in case that wasn’t enough, the smoke and mirrors of specialist terminology, jargon, abbreviation and convention was used to obfuscate the environment.

For millennia experts have exploited this asymmetry and wielded power and amassed wealth as a result.

There is a fourth, and final, form of asymmetry: asymmetry-by-design. This is where you take something that is essentially abundant and, through fair means or foul, get it redefined as scarce. Most implementations of Digital Rights Management are attempts to create asymmetric access, make something scarce by design. At a level of abstraction, iPhone and Android apps are essentially the same thing in disguise: thinly-veiled attempts to make abundant things scarce.

Creating artificial scarcity out of something that is essentially abundant is also not wrong per se. But there can be legal and moral implications. Building a dam near the source of a river and charging people for access to the water may sound reasonable; on the other hand, there may be strong grounds for “grandfathered” rights to that water. Society, through the ages, has seen fit to protect the view (as in “ancient lights”), walks (as in ramblers’ rights) and even open spaces (as in commons).

[Speaking of commons, permit me an aside. There appears to be a tendency for people to use the term “by hook or by crook” to mean the equivalent of “by fair means or foul”. This is inaccurate. If you wanted to chop down wood for firewood, you were entitled to use your hook or your crook to get to branches and limbs of trees in the commons. Only fair means. No foul means.]

Asymmetry in access. Asymmetry in creation. Asymmetry in education. Asymmetry by design.

Asymmetries all of them. Asymmetries that allowed people to wield power and to amass wealth. For the most part legally.

Then, along comes the internet. Along comes the Web.

The world’s biggest copy machine, as Kevin Kelly reminded us.

Suddenly asymmetry of access was weakened, holed amidships below the waterline. One of the nicest things about the web is that it levels the playing field for access. More accurately, it is capable of levelling the playing field for access. And it is for this reason that “net neutrality” arguments tend to get most heated where there isn’t any true competition for access. Given real transparency and real competition for access, there would not be a need for legislation.

Copying machines are not designed to make things scarce. As a result, anything made available on the internet was relatively easy to copy. Which in turn meant that anything that was expressed as a digital object was difficult to make scarce. Many many industries have made money for many many years on the basis of relative scarcity; their concepts of pricing were based on scarcity models. So they tried to make the inherent abundance of the internet into something scarcer by using DRM or its more sophisticated new form, the App.

This approach, asymmetry-by-creation, and its alter ego, asymmetry-by-design, are about creating artificial scarcity. This is fundamentally doomed. I’ve said it many times. Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.

So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.

I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.

The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.

I have three children born since 1986. One has finished her Master’s and is now a teacher. One has just finished his A Levels and is taking a “gap year” before starting university in a year’s time. The third is still in school.

The web has made them smarter. They know things I did not know at their age, and I had privileged upbringing and access. They know things more deeply than I did. Their interest in things analog is unabated, they think of the web as an AND to their analog lives rather than an OR.

Many of you reading this are experts; I myself am considered an expert in some things. And the status bestowed upon us by our expertise is dwindling

So what?

We should rejoice that access to the things that made us experts is now getting easier, cheaper and more universal.

We should rejoice that generations to come will out-expert us in every field we care to name.

We should rejoice that we continue to enter a world where the economics of abundance is displacing the economics of scarcity.

We should rise up every time there is an attempt to pollute the path of open access.

The web is not making us dumb. It is the expert in us that is being made to look dumb. And that is a Good Thing.

Views? Comments? I suspect this post might attract a few flames….

Thinking about better mousetraps and the Maker Generation

Do you ever read Make Magazine? If you don’t, you should. You’re missing out. Take this article for example, from the October 2007 issue. A simple, brief piece about using everyday household objects to build non-lethal mousetraps.

The article in turn leads to Roger Arquer’s site, who then gives us a taxonomy of humane household-item-based mousetraps, shown below,  along with detailed examples:

[Incidentally, going along to Thorsten van Elten’s site, referenced above, is also worthwhile.] It’s also worth looking at the 16 comments on the original Make article; the conversation is useful, markedly different from the garbage you get on some of the popular sites, immortalised in the “Brandon Mylenek” Onion article from a couple of years ago, shown briefly below:

By all means read the whole Onion article here, but do make sure you aren’t eating or drinking anything while you do so: I don’t want to be responsible for the accidents that may ensue. Back to the mousetraps. One of Roger Arquer’s more intriguing designs was this one:

Bulb, open neck, heavy base, kept in equilibrium by the weight of the nut. Mouse goes in, dislodges nut, bulb straightens, job done. So five years later, ostensibly influenced by Roger’s design (though ideas can and do happen serendipitously in parallel), someone comes up with this:

Humane: the mouse (or even, for that matter, the gerbil modelling the device’s usage) does not get harmed. Safe: Nothing that can trap a child’s fingers or cause a child to be hurt. Durable and long-lasting: No moving parts at all. Judo-like: The only energy expended is by the mouse while trapping itself. Global: Nothing in the design that makes it hard to produce the device in Seattle, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Seoul or Sierra Leone. And you can get under the hood: No sealed components to worry about, nothing you can’t fix or repair yourself. Cheap: Anyone can make a workable variant using everyday household materials. A “maker” solution. [I haven’t been able to check the patent position, but it would be oh-so-fantastic to find out that the patent was Creative Commons based. If any reader knows the answer, please let me know.]

Design has always been about building better mousetraps. What’s changed is that the success criteria look different. Now we have to concern ourselves a lot more with safety, with usability, with sustainability. Not that earlier designers didn’t do so; it’s just that the priorities have changed. About a year ago, over dinner with friend and namesake MR Rangaswami and his close friend CK Prahalad, who, sadly, passed away a couple of months ago. At the dinner, “CK” spent some time talking about the ideas that later became this seminal article on sustainable innovation. I would strongly recommend that you read it: CK, MR and Ram Nidomolu tackle some very important themes within it. One of the ideas that CK mentioned was that of a washing machine with a special microchip. A microchip with a simple and specific purpose: remember the “state” of the machine, the cycle being performed. Why? So that a restart could be carried out from the right point. Doesn’t sound very innovative or useful? That means you haven’t really been to India. A country where “power cuts” and “load shedding” are common, where whole swathes of city lose power for a few hours when demand greatly exceeds supply and the available power gets rationed. In such an environment, restarting washing machines from scratch would be a real waste. [Yes, you can argue that the washing machine itself is a waste, and that DIY dhobis are required, but that’s for another post.] Wonder what a dhobi is? This wonderful photograph, by Elishams, will show you:

Thinking about India and sustainability brings something else to mind. My sister and her family are visiting the UK right now, we’re going to see Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert at the Royal Albert Hall tonight. The family were over for dinner last night, and we were reminiscing. [I have four siblings, and we haven’t all been together in one place since 1982; we’re hoping to fix that soon.] The conversation meandered quite a bit; one of the things it touched on was the streetside tea we used to enjoy in Calcutta as children and young adults. Cue the “matka”:

Photo courtesy VijayKumarBalaji

The matka. What wonderful memories. Early morning walks around the maidan in the mist, gentle conversations with friends, matkas of adhrak chai (ginger-spiced tea), with the matka flung in gay abandon into the nearby ditch when done. Makes me think. It’s been decades since I first heard the term “biodegradable”, decades of plastic bags and plastic containers and plastic everything. What is it with us that we avoid doing anything about such things? What makes us care so little? Have you ever read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring? It’s hard to believe that by the time the next Olympics comes along, that book is going to be 50 years old. Yet we do so little. I think it’s all changing with the new generation, they come into our wasteful lives with different attitudes; they care about the avoidance of unnecessary packaging; they are natively, intuitively better stewards of their environment. Stewardship. Something we’re going to have to do a lot more about in design, by design. Talking about design again, one more book you should read is Tim Brown’s Change By Design. Excellent. Must review it soon, been meaning to do that for about a year now. Sustainability in design comes in many shapes. Nowadays, when I cook food, I make a point of piling up the packaging waste that accompanies the food ingredients; over time, that has allowed me to become smarter at buying ingredients that don’t come with stupid packaging. And I’m not alone in this: half the world’s consumers would give up convenience packaging to help the environment, according to Nielsen. So. In summary. There’s a new generation out there. There are new problems out there. And in between there’s design. Design of things that will sustain; things that are cheap to build; things you can repair yourself; things that aren’t wasteful in energy or even packaging; things that don’t harm other living creatures. Things that are easy and convenient to use. We’ve spoken a long time about building better mousetraps. The Maker Generation are doing something about it.

The Maker Generation. Their time has come.