December 26 2008 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: The Web Year: 2009 Rating: 4
Biological history has much to teach us about our web economy. In particular, we can glean a great deal from the well-established patterns of punctuated equilibrium (the idea that growth and death come in spurts, which is very similar to many technology and social diffusion cycles) and evo-devo biology (a new theory of life in which Darwinian evolution acts in concert with structured development to optimize organisms AND biological systems for survival).
Just as the sudden death of the dinosaurs permitted small warm-blooded mammals to vary and scale during the subsequent ice age, so too is the swift death of old media models creating the ideal conditions for nascent software and social media models. Though this sort of cycle is nothing new, it is illuminating to apply it to the current economic situation in which printed newspapers are dying, open source IT is winning marketshare, and increasingly more people are sharing their information online.
When considering the near-term future and the year ahead, we can be reasonably certain that the dire economic conditions will serve as a breeding ground for new advantageous innovations. It was no accident that we experienced a spurt of great literature during the Great Depression as brains were freed up and exposed to an extreme environment. And now it's no accident that were vacillating from commercial enterpise to "programming subculture", as Kevin Kelleher at GigaOm puts it.
Interestingly, Kelleher forecasts that 2009 will be the Year of the Hacker, during which the growing corpus of unemployed or underpaid programming whizzes will turn to personally satisfying leisure projects. To my mind, this is synonymous with a spurt of bottom-up evolution, or more random exploration of the possibility space, that only becomes possible when the structured developmentenabled by successful and growing companies runs its course and can no longer provide the incentives necessary to claim developer brains. It's a natural swing that will clear the way for efficient new structures to emerge in an updated web environment and scale as they claim capital from established institutions.
As Kelleher points out, "the web [now] has a stronger capacity to both welcome those with free time and amplify their skills." This thinking jives totally with what Duncan Riley has dubbed the "rise of the prosumer" and an explosive increase in capacity for writing, sharing and structuring information via the web.
The web environment has indeed changed over the past decade, enabling ever faster and more fluid communication and knowledge generation. Yet most of the largest media structures (and other businesses) on the planet have yet to take advantage of the efficiencies enabled through new media structures such as blog networks, link aggregators, wikis, micro-blogs, social networks, and virtual worlds, all of which will serve as the building blocks for new scalable business and social structures that can deliver value more efficiently.
Thus the stage is set for programmers, writers and myriad other producers to move further into the prosumer realm and quickly multiply the volume of quality media (and redundant crap) available to all.
As this prosumer shift takes place we should expect to see a burst of "Wikipedia-like community projects" that both Kelleher and TechCrunch's Erick Schonfeld are expecting, new blogs, Facebook applications, iPhone apps, Android apps, blog federations, online video producers, hybrid apps, etc.
Of course, only a small percentage of these evolutionary leaisure-time experiments will be rewarded through traditional economic channels at traditional valuations, but nevertheless they will redefine the environment and create the conditions for a new punctuated phase of structured scaling. Simultaneously, a new form of economics will emerge, enabling and powered by value transfer through reputation (Kelleher cites Chis Anderson's belief that this will translate into post-recession employment), increased monetization of web content (very gradual, but potent for those who excel), decreased communication costs ($ saved by avoiding physical and print communication), increased self-actualization/learning catalyzed by better access to more information and selective networking, increased quantification of environments and problems (better maps, better data about your children and home, etc), and so forth.
It remains to be seen which of these models will scale most effectively in the near-term, but it's clear that over time these will serve to fundamentally alter the way that we view and measure economic productivity. (My hunch is this will ultimately lead us toward economic models that more closely resemble the actual real-timebehavior of our life system.)
As far as 2009, I think it is likely to go down in history as Kelleher's The Year of the Hacker, but also more generally as the Year of the Prosumer or the Year of Broad Social Media Shift.
The Equation: Financial Vacuum + New Tools = Effective New Info and Business Combinations
My prediction is that over the next decade nearly all humans will become serious prosumers and derive a significant % of income through their web-based and quantification behavior. 2009 will mark the knee of that S-Curve as phase space is cleared out and old media dinosaurs die to make room for nimbler web mammalians. Kelleher will be proven right, but may need to broaden the use of the term "hacker" to accomodate the totality of significant web-based economic change.
Put another way, 2009 may one day be referred to as the year during which the growing mass of prosumers made great headway hacking through the massive decay inherent in our system.