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Wikinomics - Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams ***

I was quite impressed when I read the book Wikinomics back in 2007. The authors seemed to understand the importance of networking in a way that companies which (for example) sent out emails from a 'noreply' email address didn't. However, there's always a danger of misreading the runes when trying to predict what will happen in the future - so it seemed interesting to go back 13 years later and see how Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams' picture of the economy of the future panned out.

Coming back to the book, it does rely on a handful of examples and repeats distinctly vague concepts a lot (in this respect it emphasises its role as a business title). And it's true that some aspects - for example the importance of the likes of YouTube and the as-yet-unlabelled social media ring true. However, the authors did fall for an old trap of enthusiastic techie types - the assumption that everyone is going to become a producer as well as a consumer any time soon.

We saw this error early on in home computing, when those who were never happier than being up to their elbows in machine code assumed that everyone would want to program their own computers. Of course, it never happened. Similarly, back in 2007, Tapscott and Williams were convinced we were all about to become 'prosumers'. They tell us ‘Rather than being passive recipient of mass consumer culture, the Net Gen spend time searching, reading, scrutinising, authenticating, collaborating and organising.' In reality, the vast majority still spend their time consuming - just from a different, more smorgasbord-like set of media. We are told to expect 'vast, self-organised networks of knowledge producers' based around file sharing and blogs. It didn't really happen.

Related to this was the expectation that most software would become open source like Linux - and Linux is certainly still going strong, but remains pretty much unique in terms of a mass market product. Similarly Wikipedia was held up as the future of publishing - yet wikis have not really escaped from this great first example (probably not helped by the fact that no one has ever bothered to make their contributor user interfaces friendly).

There's a naivety about the authors' idea that things will be so much better when those prosumers are designing the products for the manufacturers and software houses - perhaps forgetting the old chestnut about a camel being a horse designed by committee. It's quite sweet that they hold up the movie Snakes on a Plane as an example of what can be achieved if you ask the audience what they want, rather than giving them what you think they want. Tapscott and Williams thought that in the next decade (i.e. before now) we would move from tailoring products and feature requests to prosumers actively designing the new products. It hasn't happened because, in the end, most of us are not skilled designers.

Similarly, the expectation was that Second Life or its successors would be how we all interacted in the future - and I believe it is still going, but certainly there isn't the enthusiasm there once was. For me what underlines the incorrect emphasis in the book is that the founder of Wikipedia was just on the radio explaining how Wikipedia doesn't trust social media contributions as sources - they want academic sources, books, and major magazines and newspapers. While you could argue social networks did make us kind of prosumers, it proved to be a very second rate form that the doyen of the wiki field doesn't not consider an acceptable source.

Aside from the predictions, I do have to question one iffy bit of history. We are told  ‘with 42 million items today the New York Public Library is larger than the Alexandria library, but there are still very few libraries that rival the collection at Alexandria nearly two thousand years ago.’ This just isn't true. Depending on source, the classical library at Alexandria was thought to hold somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 books. In the US alone, there are at least 100 libraries with more than 3 million books. Of course Alexandria was phenomenal for its time - but it's not a useful comparison.

Perhaps the two best rules of looking forward are that things that seem like they are going to be big at the start probably won't be, and technology is not going to change the nature of individuals and what they want to do - it just amplifies aspects of those individuals. Nonetheless, Wikinomics gives a great insight into how 2007's world of the future compares with the real thing.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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