Friday, June 02, 2006

The Wisdom of Crowds

Tim Bray on Tantek Celik on Scott Reynen on the topic of innovation, using a turn of phrase Bill Joy invented:  "Innovation happens elsewhere".  I take Tantek's (and Bill's) point:  there's more brainpower on the internet that there is in your walled garden, sure.  And the 'net will do as the 'net wills, that's for sure.  If you're trying to do something that the 'net can do, you're better off letting the 'net do it.  (Things the 'net can do:  make a half-decent operating system for operating system nerds, generate impenetrably abstruse discusison on every topic known to humankind, expose failures of thought quickly, etc etc.)

But there are things the 'net can't do.  And, contrary to the opinions of the 'net, not all of those things are uninteresting by virtue of the fact that the 'net can't do them.  One of them is good usability, for example.  The 'net's greatest downfall is its greatest virtue:  anyone can participate.  Sure, bad decisions get questioned, but so do good ones.  The 'net builds consensus, and relies on the assumption that what "everybody knows" is what's right.  And for most things, it is.

But not for everything.

Anything that's counterintuitive, the 'net's going to get wrong most of the time.  Anything that's profoundly multidisciplinary, the 'net's going to get wrong most of the time (because the experts in the individual fields will drag the project their way, at the expense of the others).  I'm sure there are other examples.

I think we haven't got the balance right between hierarchical, corporate, power-concentrating decision making and the wisdom of crowds here at Sun.  We're still too focused on the hierarchy; we don't do enough out in the open where people who care can keep us in check.  But it's possible to go too far the other way, too, and get mired in endless debates about what the right thing to do is.  What we need, of course, is the Platonic benevolent-dictator philosopher-king; someone everyone trusts, who takes good advice and ignores bad advice, who listens when it's appropriate and rules by fiat when it's not.  (and while I'm making wishes, I'd like a pony.)

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