If I were to give one reason why the Web existed I would say collaboration. But just at the very time that hyper connectivity should be increasing collaborative behaviour, competitive intensity has created uncooperative behaviour. For decades, we have had the rollout of digital infrastructure coupled with changes in public policy, allowing for migration in ways that hadn’t happened before. The impact has been to create an environment where competition is intensely high and margins of business are pressured.
Collaborating across disciplines doesn’t happen easily in any profession. But to deal with the challenges facing us, and resolve some of the biggest problems facing the world today, we need to move beyond this.
There are a number of global problems that have been around for some time that we have been struggling to solve. We face significant problems related to climate change, energy and water supply, nutrition, health, and disease control. These are multicultural, multidisciplinary problems that are emotive, polarising issues requiring negotiation.
Let me select climate change. If I take a per capita view on carbon footprint, I will get a completely different story from India or China than if I take an absolute view, but neither by itself is necessarily a sensible way of continuing the conversation. It is impossible to have a debate on the subject unless you are able to have a multidisciplinary multijurisdictional approach. These sorts of things are not easy to discuss in a narrow sphere. They are nuanced issues, not just simple questions.
This is where Web science can help. Web science can enable collaboration at a meta level beyond disciplines.
Web science can bring value to the debates about these global issues, by providing data rather than emotive or polarising language. To be useful, that data should be cross discipline, jurisdiction, and culture, with some basis for people to be able to compare objectively without maintaining that their data is the ’correct’ data. Web science can teach us how to bring data sets from different disciplines together, how to interpret them and add context, which will ultimately provide the meaning we need. Then, we can benefit from the collaborative potential of the Web.
As far as technology has a purpose, it is assumed that it is to make us more efficient and effective. Technologies interfere by first making something better and more efficient, and then often collapse the value from it, before allowing something new to emerge.
The PC, for example, initially allowed people to type more effectively as a word processor, but at the University we then stopped employing typists to type up our research or lecture notes, instead doing it ourselves. The short-term effect was to make a lot of people redundant and make us more pressurised. But then new possibilities emerged – the communication potential for researchers increased hugely. In addition, the administrative support staff we now have are not just data entry people typing our words. Their role is more sophisticated, supporting and improving our processes and systems. That is the point we are at with the Web, although its impact differs across industries.
The creative industries are currently in flux. Newspapers and journalism face a problem as people expect to read news online for free. Are we killing an industry or are we in transition to something more interesting and ultimately more valuable than simply reporting the facts? Are we possibly moving towards more investigative journalists who will provide more insight and analysis rather than simply fact-reporting?
I am interested in open access scientific research, whereby our research papers are posted online for all, rather than published in journals by the academic publishing industry. A move online poses a threat to academic publishers. Yet in theory, more value would be obtained from the research budget without the expense of hardcopy journals. The value of the information would also be increased, allowing everyone to stay up-to-date, and to collaborate. Secondary research could be conducted and scientific accountability would be increased.
The ability to collaborate that the Web offers is transforming industries and has the potential to make us smarter.
Take the software industry. Through GitHub, developers share software online in order that improvements can be made for everyone’s benefit. New products are made available for free. Successive layers of value are being created by people’s collaborative efforts.
I see computer science and by extension the Web as a sub branch of science fiction. Computer scientists look at the world and say: “It’s not working this way, I am going to use the computer to create a world that works in a different way.” Consequently, we now have new payment systems such as Bitcoin, new ways to access entertainment such as Netflix, or new ways to book holidays, such as Expedia. We create things and change the way the world works, but sometimes in unpredictable, unforeseen ways.
The Web provides a wonderful vision of the future with exciting possibilities, but it is also an enormous gamble. Is it going to provide a means of organising our society that will let people have careers and build companies and industries in all sectors that are sustainable and will give value? We just don’t know the answer yet. But I am hoping, and betting, that JP is right in his view of the collaborative potential of the Web. I believe it will help us bring together our collective knowledge, and we will do something sensible with that ability, to make the world a better place.