TED Conversations

Tim O'Reilly

CEO, O'Reilly Media


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William Gibson said "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." What futures have you seen that are here, but unrecognized?

In the late 70s, when the Homebrew Computer Club was meeting, its members were beginning to experience the world that we all now take for granted. In 1992, when I published the Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, there were only 200 websites, but we featured the WWW in the book because it was so clearly the shape of things to come. When Jeff Han demoed his multi-touch screen at TED in February 2006, he prefigured the iPhone launch a year later. When the kids at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition are modifying bacteria, they are showing us homebrew genetic engineering around the corner. Make Magazine's enthusiasts are becoming tomorrow's industrialists, with companies like Makerbot, DIY Drones, and Willow Garage Robotics turning what once seemed like an curiosity into real businesses.

In each case, these people were already living in a future that was soon to rush upon us all.

What have you seen lately that has made you stand up and say "Whoa! That person knows something I don't, is living in a world I haven't seen yet?" The answers can be from technology, but can also be new social forms, and can be positive or negative.

Point me to companies and individuals who tell you something about the shape of the future by the way they are living or the work they are doing.


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  • Feb 18 2011: Along the lines of Anonymous and Revolution 2.0, mentioned above, our understanding of complex, emergent systems, as well as our more and more pervasive communications networks, hint at new possibilities of governance and organization that we haven't seen before. The industrial revolution marked a starting point where now we humans could operate vastly beyond our own scale, on a planetary level. But, the traditional methods of organizing do not scale as well as our ability to grow our societies.

    From what I've seen, the traditional top-down organizational structures won't cut it for much longer. The question is, how can we use more bottom-up approaches that can scale, and the interconnectedness provided by the Web, to better organize ourselves in more effective ways? Our current methods are relatively ancient, and have not really evolved at the same rate as our science, technological, and societal development. We need a radical rethinking of governance, and emergent systems plus the Web are a good place to look.
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      Feb 18 2011: Hi, Alec,

      I agree with you that new possibilities are appearing for organiszation and governance. In my experience though they all have to deal with the fact that our current methods (as modern society as a whole) are ancient but so is our central nervous system (as individuals).

      Ultimately I think this is the reason that an open source model works better than a crowdsourcing one, at least when ordinary, practical matters are what needs to be arranged. Crowdsourcing works particularly well when there is an existing community which commits itself to a goal. Patton said it years ago: Don't tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results". This form of leadership and organization, though, denpends very much on the existence and maintenance of a healthy community.

      Most people need leaders. This seems to me to be deeply imbedded in how people work. So I think the possibilities for new forms of leadership are possible, but I do not think that an absence of leaders is possible.
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        Feb 19 2011: I believe you have touched on the heart of the matter. Bravo. Diversity is hugely important, but crowds are mobs absent some structure (such as a strategic analytic model that makes it easy for those who wish to focus on poverty to focus BUT ensuring that everyone interested in poverty is connected--right now crowdsourcing is all over the lot. You might like my graphic on open source everything, with the open source tri-fecta being Open Spectrum including OpenBTS, Free/Open Source Software, and Open Source Intelligence.

        Graphic: Open Everything

        However, after twenty years focused on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) I have realized I have the cart before the horse, and that connecting the five billion poor with OpenBTS etc is Phase One. My short posting on the three phases toward a World Brain and Global Game can be found at this URL:

        Strategic Phasing Toward World Brain & Global Game
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          Feb 20 2011: I do like it, thank you. I am not at all sure I have grasped it, but I am slow in these matters so you have to give me a couple of days. That is not a small and humble ambition you have outlined there. :-)
      • Feb 21 2011: Good point. I definitely agree that humans are predisposed to a leader-based structure. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, and leaders provide a good focal point to rally around a particular set of issues. Also, they're good at setting direction of a group.

        What I envision is not so much a replacement of leaders, but rather a way to enhance the interaction between leaders and followers. I see these new systems of organizing the crowd as a way to enable better feedback from the bottom up. Politicians often ramble about "what the people want", but how do they really *know*? Instead of relying solely on infrequent elections, which rarely match up to the unpredictable pattern of events, how can we really tell the leaders what we want? (And also make the system work both ways, so people can know more about what the government is doing and more about the issues.)

        On Slashdot.org, for example, people are given temporary moderation powers over comments somewhat randomly, with merit weighed in. To prevent their abuse of power, ordinary people can "meta-moderate", and moderate the moderators. Poor moderators are less likely to be given the power again. This pattern of moderation and meta-moderation causes the best comments to emerge from the pool. There are many examples of this type of model implemented online. While they are fairly limited and focused in scope, I think they hints at what's possible with a highly distributed and scalable communication network.

        I guess what I'm envisioning is a more participatory system, where it's desirable to participate in the process. People need to feel like they have a say, instead of just one of the millions whose vote doesn't really count. I think the Web is a place to look for answers, since it is something radically new, and has demonstrated a capacity for this. (Also, open source is absolutely another place where models can come from, highly merit- and transparency-based. Sounds like good qualities for government.)

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