In the UK, we’re rightly been celebrating the 15th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, by one of our more modest geniuses, Tim Berners-Lee. As the Observer’s excellent net correspondent John McNaughton notes, “these are early days. We can no more envisage the long-term implications of what has happened than dear old Gutenberg could.” Right from the start, Fast Company has been alive to how far the Net unsettles, accelerates and transforms organisations. (see this article from Issue 1, ‘Do You Live in Netscape Time?’, October 1995)
Yet what always fascinates me about the web is the deep and enduring truth about human nature that its developments keep revealing. As Lawrence Lessig so crisply put it, the web is an ‘innovation commons’ – an accessible and robust collective infrastructure, which nevertheless allows extraordinary ingenuity and diverse energy to be expressed within it. In that sense, it’s always been more like a constitution, or a playground, than a piece of software. Much of the challenge to conventional business models that the Net brings is about coping with those collective energies.
The best story on that recently is the way that veteran radical UK rocker Billy Bragg compelled MySpace to change its copyright rules on material played on its websites. Even the great Rupert Murdoch, the arch-commoditizer, had to recognise the non-proprietorial reality of the ‘commons’ that allows musical communities to develop on the internet.
What’s so exciting about this moment is that great and grand theorists are rising up – just like they did in my own country, Scotland, as the eighteenth century Enlightement faced the industrial revolution – to provide frameworks for all this often bewildering activity. Yochai Benkler’s extraordinary The Wealth of Networks – a clear reference to Adam Smiths’ The Wealth of Nations – helpfully identifies ‘social production’ (the digital gamut from open source to Web 2.0), to sit along side market and state, as a new way of producing and allocating resources.
These are shifts in economic and social structure as momentous as any there have been over the last three hundred years. And there’s no way they could have emerged without that open-minded scholar devising his ‘play space’ in 1993. How long before Berners-Lee gets his Nobel?