Sunday, March 25, 2007

User driven innovation - is it egalitarian?

Todays NYT has an article about user driven innovation. Heavily quoting Erich von Hippel's work, the article describes physicians coming up with their own medical innovations, snowboarders refining their snow boards, and new tools for the hobby woodworker developed by the hobby woodworker.
It seems that Denmark, well known as the creator country of user driven Lego, wants to go the farthest, establishing user-driven innovation as a state policy. It is probably no coincidence that Nordic countries like Denmark live under the law of Jante: "Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us".
Taken to its extreme, Jante's law leads to a society preserving social stability and uniformity over fostering creativity and change. Within a COIN, however, it is an extremely fertile nurturing ground for innovation and creativity. This has been shown many times, most famously for the creation of the Web, and for groups of open source programmers such as the developers of the Apache Web server. These communities are not egalitarian, but a meritocracy, with a transparent and fluctuating leadership of the most capable. It is those most capable users who drive user driven innovation.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Look in a virtual mirror to get the wisdom of crowds...

...while you shop. For avid clothing shoppers, todays New York Times describes the latest virtual/real mirror at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan. A shopper stands in front of the mirror situated in the store, which doubles up as a large computer monitor. While the person looks in the mirror, other people make suggestions from an online dress inventory over the internet. The live shopper at Bloomingdale's can then view the suggested piece of clothing in the mirror, overlaid with her/his own image.
It seems it has become popular to ask for shopping advice by snapping a picture with a mobile phone camera and sending it to friends, before buying that expensive Gucci handbag. This virtual mirror takes the shopping experience one step further, blurring together the real and the virtual world. Shopping still is a social experience, even in the virtual world.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Can you represent things “how they are”?

I stumbled into this NYT article about Danny Hillis – of Thinking Machines fame – latest startup, Metaweb Technologies. His goal is to create Freebase, a database that will describe things “how they are”. He wants, for example, to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger with different views as a bodybuilder, a movie actor, and a politician.

I am wondering if the approach of having a centralized system to describe "things how they are" will ever work. The point is that the same things can have very different meanings for different people. I just think back to the only time I visited East Berlin before the wall came down. I went to a bookstore and looked at schoolbooks talking about the second world war. The books were telling how the great and wonderful Soviet Union liberated Germany from the Nazi dictatorship. The US was barely mentioned. In the meantime I have been in now unified Berlin many times. But I can not find these books anymore in the regular bookstores.
The point is that depending on society, upbringing, ethical and moral system, etc. the same “facts” can be viewed 180 degree opposite. What is “way cool” to one group can be unacceptable to another group. How one can capture such divergent viewpoints in a single database I don’t know.

Of course, Wikipedia as a centralized repository describing “things how they are” comes immediately to mind. It seems, however, that Wikipedia reflects the viewpoint of well-educated, tech-savvy, Western, mostly liberal people – a small elite, who is unaware of the real problems of the world, as other groups coming from other parts of the World might say. Also, even in swarm-controlled Wikipedia there are “editing wars” on controversial topics such as “George W. Bush” or “abortion”, where editing access to these pages has to be controlled by editors.

Another famous earlier project that tried to capture the commonsense knowledge of the world in a centralized repository was CYC. It was started in 1984 by Doug Lenat, when artificial intelligence was seen as the holy grail of computer science. It describes knowledge in form of well-structured rules. But the problem is that knowledge changes so fast that the people capturing it for CYC were never able to keep up.

As a believer in swarm creativity and the “wisdom of crowds” I think that the decentralized and chaotic approach of the Web at large, with search engines on top to retrieve and access knowledge is a much more flexible way than having a centralized repository. Searching for controversial topics on the Web will bring up pages discussing it from all possible points of view from all walks of live and regions of the globe. I will be really curious to see how Danny Hillis will succeed in keeping up with change while capturing opposing viewpoints.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

It's not a good idea to abuse virtual trust

There is some turmoil right now among Wikipedia contributors about the fake identity of “essjay”. As the NYT reported a very active Wikipedian with the screen writer name of “essjay” had edited thousands of articles, pretending to be a tenured professor of religion at a private university, while in fact he was a 24 year old attending a number of colleges (as the NYT put it politely).

The revolt was not so much about essjay pretending to be somebody else – after all it is a well established, although as has just been shown wrong again, tenet of the Internet that nobody knows that you are a dog. Rather, what the Wikipedia community did not tolerate was to use the moral authority of essjay's assumed faculty position in disputes about content of the articles he was editing. While the community initially was supportive of essjay, once they found out that he was using his assumed role to corroborate his arguments, they became much less forgiving, and were asking essjay to resign. For example, defending an editing decision, essjay wrote “This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility.” This, unfortunately, was too much for the Wikipedian community to accept, and so essjay was hanged himself by his fake identify.

The lesson is simple: don’t pretend to be more than you are, at least not on the Web, because the Web’s transparency will bring out the truth, normally rather sooner than later.