Simple hacks of intellectual transactions, or S.H.I.T., is all the rage among marketers and gurus these days. As I've explained before, responding to, amongst other things, David Berlind's repeated complaints about C.R.A.P, S.H.I.T. that supposedly will eliminate the complexities and reciprocities of the existing economy, including C.R.A.P., are fantasies that don't bear up to real-world use. Changing people is a hell of a lot harder than changing technology. If we would accept this fact, dealing with many economic problems, from C.R.A.P. to the emerging information hegemony of search engines, would be a more straightforward challenge.
We can hack machines, we can hack systems, but we evolve too slowly to overcome the human need for resources to sustain life and luxury, Organizations aren't changing as much as people are waking up to the fact that they've always been in charge.not to mention greed, which is built into so many economies anyway. Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near notwithstanding, which is so full of chockablock philosophical short-cuts and hockey-stick graphs seeking to prove the inevitable über-S.H.I.T. that I lapsed into catatonia after the third or fourth conflicting teleological force behind history was summoned to support the book's argument, that we're all going to transcend biology real soon now. Read and judge for yourself, don't take my word for it. Anyway, back to what I was saying... .
Social computing alledgedly put the kibosh on the top-down organization. But, know what? Most innovation has come from the edges of industry, the periphery of command-and-control organizations, the outside of whatever In Group was in control. Top-down systems are what come after change. They are attempts to make the change a permanent feature of human society. Top-down is just another way of saying "fenced in."
Social systems have always changed the economy, forever. Making out that the economy has been turned up-side down because a technology is uniquely social, so much so that users shouldn't share in the value they create because of all the goodness they get to share in, is merely the rhetoric deployed by one more generation of winners trying to lock in their gains.
Organizations aren't changing as much as people are waking up to the fact that they've always been in charge. Increasingly egalitarian access to information is making that awakening possible.
Every generation has had more information at its disposal, the organization of that information has changed and, in the case of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, given people the impression that knowledge has accelerated. It may not have, as evidenced by the fact that influence and authority are still cited as the most important factors in managing distributed organizations. If management as a practice can survive without bloodshed, things haven't changed so very much.
We've forgotten so much that isn't necessary to know anymore and we're forgetting more everyday to make intellectual space for new information (where are the contents of your hard drive from 1995 and would you need it if you found it?), so the volume of human knowledge being manipulated globally inside human skulls may be relatively unchanged from pre-historic days. We worry less about lions, tigers and bears, that's for sure. But we also notice so much less about the physical world, because it is largely—except for big storms and natural disasters—"conquered" territory.
Unfortunately, some among the newly enlightened think something quasi-religious has happened to society. It hasn't. If we were pragmatic about it, we'd admit the truth of this. Because it feels so good to think that your generation invented everything we're going to go on claiming it is the era of S.H.I.T., when no wrong will happen and those few that do will be swiftly punished by the wisdom of the crowd or the blink of personal judgment.
A collective unconsciousness hasn't been summoned out of silicon and Ethernet, but the people seeking to gain the most from the rise of networked society want you to believe it. And the fact that you get so much information thrown at you any time you make a query is proof that, so far, there's very little in the way of added value. We've got a lot of added volume, enough to make anyone think they're getting more information.
Individuals and organizations that see opportunities and exploit them successfully are changing the world, just like it has always been. The more information we have about this world, the better most decisions can be. However, if you want to exchange valuable data or data that is organized valuably (whether for knowledge purposes or entertainment) in this economy or any other, it is pragmatic to ask cui bono? Who benefits, taking a part of the transaction, when you give away your personal information? The search indices do. [For an excellent discussion of the biological foundations of religion, which are deeply tied to the way we perceive the economy itself, see Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which takes cui bono as the philosophical crucible for understanding human religious behavior.]
Search enthusiasts, however, believe they or their search-innovator heroes have really undone something fundamental about the way society and the economy work. "Sharing" and "caring" are bandied about like mantras against the corruption of this new world by money, ironically by those making the most profit, whether they are blogger-consultants or search index vendors.
As reported by Dan Farber, it appears these marketing-speak revolutions are claiming the highest minds in search. For example, Yahoo Senior Vice President of Search and Services Jeff Weiner, speaking at PC Forum, said of including users in the search revenue stream: "One would think that in profit driven culture, it would lead to right behavior, but it doesn't work. It changes the way people interact with one another. It's not as simple as providing economic incentive. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. It's a multivariable equation."
God forbid we should change how we interact so much that it becomes fair to everyone!
Let's dig just a bit deeper. If there is no profit, where's the economic argument? In fact, for the search engines, the rest of us are like raw natural resources that spit out more and more data for them to organize. If the mine wakes up to the fact it is riddled with miners, it will be bad for mining profits. That's not a very complex equation, so the search guys wrap their business in pioneer rhetoric, estimating that they've indexed less than six one-thousandths of human information and, so, like settlers who got to the Old West first, deserve to erect their cities and have them stand forever.
Status quo comes with the search offering you choose and it is made to sound like charity that you should even have access to such functionality. When asked by Root Markets CEO Seth Goldstein if users had a right to control and profit from their personal data,
Yahoo's Jeff Weiner Google's Omid Kordestani said at PC Forum today: "If it makes sense, we should probably allow it." That's the voice of control. [See the Attention Trust blog for ongoing discussion of user control of personal data.]
We can measure, we can monitor, we can fiddle with our networks and human relationships. Let's do it rationally, on foundations of Englightenment science instead of new age mysticism that strips the network and the information it contains of economic and social values that are inconvenient to the priests and lords of search indices.