The "new Alexandria" and global change

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
By Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
New York

We live in a period characterized by diversity, chaos and an intense search for solutions to increasingly complex and global problems.

Within that context, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything explores what may well be one of the most profound changes in our time - a shift from hierarchical lines of creation and production to a model in which almost anyone, anywhere, can contribute ideas and innovation to a given economic or social project.

Authors Dan Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams trace the evolution of this shift, explaining how a new type of "mass collaboration" that encompasses virtual networks and teams - drawn from the 1.3 billion individuals now connected via the Internet - are writing encyclopedias, creating computer operating systems, proposing solutions to poverty, reporting on events around the world, and building social networks.

Mr. Tapscott, a business strategy consultant and Professor of Management at Canada's University of Toronto, coined the term wikinomics to describe an economic model for generating value based on community, mass collaboration and self-organization. Perhaps most familiar to us is the Wikipedia - an on-line encyclopedia containing some 9 million articles authored by thousands of volunteer contributors from around the world. The term "wiki," meaning "quick" in Hawaiian, is apt: the developments have been rapid; most of the online communities have formed in the last seven years.

While the authors conceive of wikinomics in primarily economic and corporate terms - highlighting opportunities for firms and entrepreneurs, the significance of this trend is far greater and extends into every sphere of human activity.

These emerging modes of collaboration, based on the desire of individuals to add their voices and efforts to the myriad of collaborative enterprises and the growing consciousness of belonging to a global community, are giving rise to a transformation that is both internal and external: as individual attitudes and values embrace the concept of a global community so, too, are they reflected in the social structures that members of society create.

The authors see many of the new initiatives and the vision behind them as the "new Alexandria" characterized by the "fastest and broadest accumulation of human knowledge and culture," now estimated to double the stock of human knowledge every 5 years. Among these online initiatives are: Linux - a collaboratively created open source computer operating system; Facebook - a social networking website with 60 million users; YouTube - a video sharing website hosting about 68 million videos; Kiva - a website that connects individual lenders with small businesses in the developing world; InnoCentive - an online community connecting individuals, businesses and academic institutions with a global network of over 125,000 individuals to solve some of the world toughest challenges; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Courseware program - a free online catalogue spanning the entire curriculum of this prestigious university.

Wikinomics cites four core principles which define this new mode of collaboration: openness, "peer production," sharing, and acting globally. These are contrasted with the "hierarchical, closed, secretive and insular multinational [company] that dominated the previous century."

All are evidence of a shift in values - and perhaps an emerging ethic - that is gradually dissolving the attitudinal, intellectual and structural obstacles that maintained earlier patterns of collaboration. Against the backdrop of complex global problems including security, poverty, climate change and gross violations of human rights, such a shift is eminently practical as it breaks with those norms and patterns that have proven incapable of moving us out of the social and economic quagmire in which the peoples of the world are bogged down.

The authors situate the current developments as the latest revolution in communication technology: the concept of the Internet as a static tool is giving way to a dynamic, participatory environment, one in which the individual shifts from passive user to active co-creator.

The Internet has gone though a number of significant transformations since its inception in 1969 with the expansion of electronic mail to a global scale and the creation of the World Wide Web. We are now witnessing the succeeding revolution - some have called it the "participation age" - defined principally by its ethos of collaborative content and knowledge generation. With the aid of interactive media, readers of news are no longer passive recipients of information, but participate in how that information is distributed and ultimately interpreted. (While the spread of internet penetration has been grossly uneven, growth statistics are promising; Africa's usage, for example, has increased nine-fold over the last seven years and is steadily climbing.)

The phenomenon of mass collaboration has already yielded an unprecedented outpouring of innovation, both in substance and in process. As the authors note, by applying the principles of wikinomics, "we can transform the way we conduct science, create culture, inform and educate ourselves, and govern our communities and nations." In the process, we are reminded about the true sources of human motivation, namely the desire to be part of a greater whole, to collaborate, to create and to know.

For Bahá'ís, the new trends outlined in Wikinomics are largely consistent with the vision of humanity's future outlined in the Bahá'í sacred writings. Bahá'ís understand that the key to a peaceful and prosperous future lies in the recognition of our global interdependence and essential oneness as a single human race. Indeed, the Bahá'í Faith calls for a consultative process in which the individual participants strive to transcend their respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with higher level interests and goals.

Moreover, Bahá'ís envision that the engine powering such a construction is the empowered, global-minded individual, working in cooperation and collaboration with others. This paradigm is outlined in the Bahá'í concept of consultation, a distinctive method for group decision-making - which in many ways parallels the wikinomics model.

"So vital is [consultation] to the success of collective endeavor," asserts a 1995 statement of the Bahá'í International Community, "that it must constitute a basic feature of a viable strategy of social and economic development. Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project."

From the broader perspective of history, the Bahá'í Faith views the current patterns of social transformation and innovation as a transition from collective "childhood" to collective maturity. The barriers raised by the thoughts, attitudes, and practices of the childhood of humankind are gradually being uprooted, and structures of a new civilization that reflect the capacities of a maturing humanity are taking shape.

"If certain social assumptions...have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines," the Bahá'í Faith states.

Wikinomics offers yet another powerful example of how old ways are being swept away in the face of new paradigms - paradigms which are driven in many ways by the social and spiritual realities of humanity's new age of interdependence and individual empowerment.

-by Julia Berger