Malcom Muggeridge once said, “All new news is old news happening to new people.” Economic times are tough and many people are rightly concerned about what 2009 holds. This is at least the third ecomonic down turn I have experienced so far, and they don’t get any easier. What is to be learnt?
Every time the cry of “this time it is different” rises up. And it is, in lots of ways. Every time declaration of “this is the end of X, Y and Z” rings out. It rarely is though. One of the odd things about the way we experience change is that it feels huge as we go though it, but small looking back. Our senses and our society are highly attuned to detecting change. That’s how are are wired, from the neurons in our brain to the newspapers on the news stand.
Meanwhile, powerful homeostatic forces almost always pull us back on to much the same course. Real change happens slowly, and for good reason. TechCrunch cries “The End Of Venture Capital As We Know It?” – the piece, partly based on an essay by Paul Graham, has caused the usual storm in the blogosphere. Jof Arnold has done a nice job of posting a rebuttal. VCs and Angel investors are certainly struggling, blows have been felt even by big name entrepreneurs like Doug Richard. Does that mean the end of the VC world? Of course not. Models are shifting – for example Scott Dig has an interesting post on crowd sourced investment, but scroll down to Fred WIlson’s comments on that same post and you’ll see that he has been using variations of these ideas for some time. He argues that the wisdom of crowds doesn’t replace the need for experience and expertise in the long run.
During the discussion at the recent screening of Us Now, JP Rangaswami gave an example that grounded things for me. The Q&A had wandered on to the topic of how everything has been changed by the Internet and “Web 2.0”, specifically the power of crowd sourcing. J P took the example of his pacemaker. Would we be happy to have surgery performed on us under the direction of the wisdom of crowds? A wiki page or message stream set up so that everyone could chip in during our surgery? I think even the boldest of technology early adopters would turn a little shy at the prospect.
At times like these, we must be careful not to over generalize new ideas, just as we must be careful not to dismiss them without inspection. My maths teacher once proudly proclaimed “You can draw any number of lines between two points on a graph”, in just the same way you can draw any number of conclusions from a couple of news stories or blog posts.
I am seeing more and more people putting new names to old ideas and telling us that things have changed. Shallow opinions, unsubstantiated by research and fact, propagating like they are received wisdom. I hear people saying that there is no need for experts anymore – we can Google for all the knowledge we need. I have to say, I really don’t want to meet these people during any medical incidents of my own.
Experts are good at working things out, drawing on experience. Crowds are good at providing seed information for decisions. In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few” James Surowiecki makes the point that crowds are wise only as long has they have diversity, independence and are decentralized, otherwise they can become very foolish. The blogosphere has a tendency to centralize (eg Digg) and amplify a select few, who can become imitative – something else that Surowiecki cites as a cause of the failure of their wisdom.
With mainstream media entering the blogosphere the brutal fight for eyeballs and associated advertising revenue is causing some independence to be lost too. Folks, let’s keep our hats on. We are still human. Society is still society. Enough 2.0 good, 1.0 bad stuff. Enough “everything has changed”. That is 2 legs good, 4 legs bad territory.
Most of us don’t have a direct influence over the macro-economic factors that surround us, but we can control the micro-factors of our direct environment. If we don’t, then it is that environment which is controlling us, rather than the other way around. So, read widely, find diverse opinions, and add your own opinion into the mix if it is different to what you see. Understand, as best you can, the provenance of what you are reading and the author’s motives.
The Web has put some good new tools into our hands. For better or for worse, we can control what we read, more easily participate in debates (if you are in a start up, you might want to join this one: “How does the government support technology start-ups in a downturn?” and the one on TechCrunch UK), and we can read around a topic, rather than taking just one person’s opinion. No-one ever got smart from one blog post or a thirty second Google search.