A Practical Navigator for the Internet Economy

Executive Summary

When David Weinberger offhandedly mentioned to us that he had spent several years on his current book proposal, he gained our rapt attention. After an exchange of private messages, he agreed to be interviewed regarding his creative process for developing a proposal to write a new monograph explaining his ongoing thinking about how the Internet continues to change our lives.

He says: that thinking involves our strategies for managing the future, and the effect those strategies are having on our basic understanding of how the future works.

For example, he says that humans for thousands of years have lived under an operational paradigm that has focused on preparing for their future by anticipating it. But now open platforms are succeeding by not anticipating what their data and services might be put to use for. David speaks from experience: he spent almost five years building an open platform – LibraryCloud – to provide metadata information about the 13 million books in Harvard University’s libraries. The open sourcing of that catalog had been one of the the largest movements of a library catalog information into the public domain,  and LibraryCloud became the way software can interact with those records — any developer can write a program that can get at all of that information. Likewise, Facebook opened its user platform in 2006 and immediately created a situation where thousands of people outside of Facebook could become Facebook engineers by writing apps that used Facebook's API.

This movement from anticipating and preparing to not anticipating and opening data up is one of our new strategies that is leading us to an understanding of the future as expansive, rather than as the incessant narrowing of possibilities. These new strategies are enabled by the existence of a network of indefinite size, with exponentially increasing computing power, and with connections among people, machines, and sensors. This enables us to adopt strategies that assume these abundances, and these strategies are teaching us to re-conceptualize the future. Ultimately, David thinks, we are coming to reconceptualize the future in terms of interoperability.

To get to this point, David takes it back to the Newtonian explanation of the way the universe works. While Newton personally resisted the clockwork universe metaphor, his ideas about the relative simplicity and uniformity of the basic laws gave us the “tick-tock” that animates the universe and characterizes our paradigm of how the future works. But David argues that our basic strategies are inadequate for an interconnected world, and this change in strategies is leading to a change in how we think about how the future works.

The shortest way to put it is that our paradigm of the future is Changing from a Clockwork to a Network. A clockwork is a simple mechanism that obeys simple universal rules and is perfectly predictable. A network is a complex mechanism that (at the social and application levels) follows local-established rules, and that is emergent and unpredictable. David says, "The book identifies four strategies aimed at preparing for the future, although how I divide them up is a bit arbitrary. At the moment, they’re about (1) anticipating and preparing, (2) how we predict, (3) progress and our idea of success, and (4) distributing decision making."

Each of these is enabled by the interoperability that is at the heart of the Internet. Interoperability is, David says, the ability of a piece from one system to work with another. The Internet allows that at the level of moving packets of information. But it also happens at much higher levels as people build platforms, protocols, and standards. When you make information interoperable, you increase its value, you create an ecosystem that is profoundly unpredictable, progress becomes measured in tangles and branches rather than in straight lines, and causation doesn't work the same across the entire universe. We succeed in this new future, he argues, by creating more interoperability which creates more possibilities, rather than by decision-making that tries to limit the possibilities.

In this interview, David speculates on the moral dimension of this. As he puts it: "Interoperability does seem to me to satisfy some of what we’re looking for in moral behavior. The most basic requirement for being a moral creature is recognizing that we share a world with others, and that world matters to those others as much as it matters to us, although it matters in different ways. Interoperability makes it easier for humans to see how the world matters to others. Language makes our worlds interoperable. Technology that allows us to find others, hear them, and interact with them helps to make our worlds interoperable.. Interoperability is a requirement for moral awareness...but it’s also a consequence of that awareness: we want to interoperate with others because we’re aware that they’re there and that they are worth listening to."

He continues: "That leads to the one explicitly semi-moral imperative that emerges from the picture of the future that the book paints: Make more future. That’s my way of saying that it's good to enable more pieces to work together across systems because that makes more things possible. It builds a more resilient world. In fact 'Make More Future' may turn out to be the title of the book. "You can see the same shift in our idea of leadership all across the Internet: starting with the Internet itself: the largest project in human history. It only works because there’s no management, no control, and no leader making heroic decisions. It turns out that control doesn’t scale."


Preparing for Multiple Futures

The Future According to Newton                        p. 5
Unpreparing for the Future as a New Strategy            p. 6
An Open Platform Approach                            p. 7
GitHub as a Collaboration Tool                            p 18
The Metamorphosis of the Writing Profession                p 24
As We “Go to Press”                                    p 28

Adtech Surveillance Marketing Sleaze: It
Simply Won’t Give Up!                                       p30