Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future

Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future

Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson

libraries have acquisitions departments and card catalogs, magazines have editors and tables of contents, and so on. In the early years of the web, numerous attempts were made to apply some of these approaches to the content generated by the crowd. Yahoo originally stood for “Yet Another Hierarchically Organized Oracle,” and it rose to prominence as a sort of card catalog for the net; a human-created and -maintained set of website categories and subcategories.†

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one of Wikipedia’s pillars: “Act in good faith, and assume good faith on the part of others.”

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By adopting the right principles, norms, institutions, and technologies, the crowd can do a great deal to maintain quality standards, though there may be other trade-offs, like how easily or quickly participants can post new items, how quickly they are shared, who gets to see them, and, yes, how much profit can be earned from the content.

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This is generally true: the crowd wants clarity not just on how contributions will be evaluated, but also on how they’ll be used, and who will be able to benefit from them.

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how can the effort as a whole ensure that the really important work gets done? By realizing that in this case, “important” actually means the work that’s most relevant to the community of end users, by enabling these users to contribute, and by having some confidence that they will do so.

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In fact, there was not even an attempt to stick to one version of Linux. Instead, the operating system could “fork” so that it had one version called Raspbian optimized for the Raspberry Pi, a credit card–sized programmable computer that costs less than $ 40, while other Linux variants were optimized for giant servers. Forking was seen as evidence of Linux’s success, rather than as a loss of control, and it showed the benefits of letting contributors organize themselves and their work.

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Large crowds can be brought together to build highly useful products like Linux. Such efforts require “geeky leadership” that follows principles of openness, noncredentialism, self-selection, verifiability, and clarity about goals and outcomes.

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When such rapid progress is occurring, the knowledge of the core in organizations within these industries can easily become out of date. Somewhere out there in the crowd, meanwhile, are, in all likelihood, at least some of the people who help come up with the latest advances, or their students, and thus are quite familiar with them. The core can become stale, in short, while the crowd really can’t.

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The freedom of all is essential to my freedom. —Mikhail Bakunin, 1871

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The second reason human social skills remain so valuable is that most of us don’t find numbers and algorithms alone very persuasive. We’re much more swayed by a good story or compelling anecdote then we are by a table full of statistically significant results.

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analytical ability is even more valuable when it’s paired with high social skills; this combination is what helps good ideas spread and be accepted.

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the key practice for managers within these companies is that they try not to let their own biases and judgments play too large a role in determining which of the ideas they hear are the good ones, and thus worthy of implementation. Instead, they fall back whenever possible on the processes of iteration and experimentation to find unbiased evidence on the quality of a new idea. Managers, in other words, step away from their traditional roles as evaluators and gatekeepers of ideas. This shift is uncomfortable for some, who fear (with justification) that some bad ideas will see the light of day, but many of the most impressive companies and managers we’ve encountered believe the benefits are far greater than the risks.

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companies will also exist for a much more important reason: they are one of the best ways we’ve ever come up with to get big things done in the world. To feed people and improve their health; to provide entertainment and access to knowledge; to improve material conditions of life and to do so for more and more people over time, all around the planet. The new technologies of the crowd will help greatly with all this, but they will not displace companies, which are one of the cornerstone technologies of the core.

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So we should ask not “What will technology do to us?” but rather “What do we want to do with technology?”

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