TCS Daily

Horizontal Knowledge

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 4, 2003 12:00 AM

People used to be ignorant. It was hard to learn things. You had to go to libraries, look things up, perhaps sit and wait while a book was fetched from storage, or recalled from another user, or borrowed from a different library. What knowledge there was spent most of its time on a shelf.

Guinness became a publishing sensation by cashing in on that ignorance. Bar patrons got into so many hard-to-settle arguments about what was biggest, or fastest, or oldest that Guinness responded with The Guinness Book of World Records, bringing a small quantity of authoritative knowledge to bear in a handy form.

Things are different today. I'm writing this in a bar right now, and I have most of human knowledge at my fingertips. Okay, it's not really a bar. It's a campus pizza place, albeit one with 27 kinds of beer on tap, a nice patio and - most importantly - a free 802.11b "Wi-Fi" wireless Internet hookup. With that, and Google, there's not much that I can't find out.

If I'm curious about the Hephthalite huns or the rocket equation or how much money Fritz Hollings has gotten from the entertainment industry, I can have it in less time than it takes the barmaid to draw me a beer.

What's more, I can coordinate that sort of information (er, well, it might be kind of hard to tie those particular three facts together, but you take my meaning. . . ) with other people with enormous speed. With email, weblogs, bulletin boards, etc., I could, if the topic interested enough people, put together an overnight coalition - a flash constituency - without leaving the restaurant. (And in fact, some folks did pretty much just that recently, and succeeded in killing the "super-DMCA" bill before the Tennessee legislature.)

So what? Everybody knows this stuff, right? It has been the subject of countless handwaving speeches about the revolutionary potential of the Internet, blah, blah, blah, yada yada yada. Well, sort of. Everybody knows it. But they don't know it, yet, down deep where it counts. And even those who kind of get it at that level tend to forget - as I do - just how revolutionary it is. And yes, it really is revolutionary, in ways that would have defied prediction even a decade ago.

Just try this thought experiment: Imagine that it's 1993. The Web is just appearing. And imagine that you - an unusually prescient type - were to explain to people what they could expect in the summer of 2003. Universal access to practically all information. From all over the place - even in bars. And all for free!

I can imagine the questions the skeptics would have asked: How will this be implemented? How will all of this information be digitized and made available? (Lots of examples along the line of "a thousand librarians with scanners would take fifty years to put even a part of the Library of Congress online, and who would pay for that?") Lots of questions about how people would agree on standards for wireless data transmission - "it usually takes ten years just to develop a standard, much less put it into the marketplace!" - and so on, and so on. "Who will make this stuff available for free? People want to be paid to do things!" "Why, even if we start planning now, there's no way we'll have this in ten years!"

Actually, that final statement is true. If we had started planning in 1993, we probably wouldn't have gotten here by now. The Web, Wi-Fi, and Google didn't develop and spread because somebody at the Bureau of Central Knowledge Planning planned them. They developed, in large part, from the uncoordinated activities of individuals. Why can you find all sorts of stuff, from information about the Hephthalite huns to recipes for brewing beer and even recipes for cooking squirrel, on the Web? Because people thought it was cool enough (to them) to be worth the effort (on their part) of putting it online. We didn't need a thousand librarians with scanners, because we had a billion non-librarians with computers and divergent interests. Wi-Fi is springing up the same way: not as part of a national plan by the Responsible Authorities, but as part of a ground-up movement composed of millions of people who just want it.

There are two lessons here. One is that the skeptics, despite all their reasonable-sounding objections, would have been utterly wrong about the future of the Web, a mere ten years after it first appeared. And the second is why they would have been wrong: because they didn't appreciate what lots of smart people, loosely coordinating their actions with each other, are capable of accomplishing. It's the power of horizontal, as opposed to vertical knowledge.

As the world grows more interconnected, more and more people have access to knowledge and coordination. Yet we continue to underestimate the revolutionary potential of this simple fact. Heck, we underestimate the revolutionary reality of it, in the form of things we already take for granted, like Wi-Fi and Google.

But I'm not a wild-eyed visionary. As a result, I'm going to make a very conservative prediction: that the next ten years will see revolutions that make Wi-Fi and Google look tame, and that in short order we'll take those for granted, too. It's a safe bet.

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