“HI FRANK! What’s up? We’re at 1918 Ceasar Chavez. Perfect! See you soon!”
This is a paraphrase of how I answered my phone quite frequently at SXSW last week. You may, from the outside, imagine that Frank is a close personal friend. He is not. He’s just some dude, driving a car. I hit a button (Uber or Sidecar) on my phone and Frank’s name, number, car make and model and rating from previous customers pop up. Moments later, Frank arrives, takes us where the group needs to go. Jovial conversation and happy returns abound. Magical.
I love this interaction. And, I love Frank. Well, maybe not Frank, persay. But I love what Frank stands for. This interaction embodies how technology can put a problem and a solution into the same place at the same time, while removing the barriers to a transaction and creating a personal relationship. It feels simultaneously futuristic and obvious.
A point of reference: in The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen reviews a paper from the journal New Media and Society called “Wikipedia and encyclopedic production”. The authors argue that, “[…] when it comes to the method by which Wikipedia was assembled — amateur, obsessive collaborators augmenting earlier work bit by bit — Wikipedia’s not as revolutionary as it’s cracked up to be.”
Wikipedia is at its’ core pretty similar to the collaborative, accretive processes by which knowledge was collected and catalogued for thousands of years. Throughout history, Rosen writes (1), ‘obsessive compliers’ have collected knowledge and built on each other’s works not dissimilarly to our modern day Wikipedians (see my homeboy Pliny the Elder’s 37 volume Natural History). Rosen extends the observations in this paper beyond just the encyclopedia:
In fact, this seems to be true of so many of the Internet’s “innovations”: Blogs look like 18th- and 19th-century publishers more than they do The New York Times or The Washington Post; small crafters selling their wares on Etsy look more like earlier markets than the 20th century’s big chains. We have a tendency to reach for the most recent historical examples as our benchmarks, but when you take a longer view, you see that we haven’t so much as broken with the past as repeated it.
My favorite recent technology fosters what I’m going to call “micro-connections”, meaning instances where you can have a one-to-one, first-name interaction with someone whose needs and motivations align with yours. These kinds of tools ‘take us back’ by enabling personal interactions between people (2). These business models thrive by providing the kind of services, features and interactions that make each customer feel loved and special and part of a shared community. Yes, on the one hand technology moves us forward. But on the other hand all of these things are just helping us revert more closely back to the way humans interacted for thousands of years before the 20th century.
Before our more recent past, people lived in villages and knew pretty much everyone, it was easy to align services and needs. But look at what happened to the world:
This is terrifying. So many needs! How do we feed and clothe and shelter all of these PEOPLE? And obvious reaction would be to commoditize the human experience. Make as many things as possible, as fast and cheaply as possible: tract housing, massive agribusiness, Walmart.
But in the last five or six or so years, it’s felt like the Internet might be trying to show us a different way. Suddenly we have the information and tools to overcome the speed and scale of modern life and remake the micro-connections that formerly characterized human existence.
In a recently TED talk (worth watching) punk rocker Amanda Palmer noted how Kickstarter has changed the music industry:
For most of human history, musicians, artists – they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance. But the Internet and the content that we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.
So Amanda Palmer says that it should be enough to be known and loved by a few and that the Internet can help provide those tools. And Rebecca Rosen points to the Internet’s innovations as ways to get back to a more ‘normal’ way of living where we can connect and collaborate with people who share common goals. Finally let me show you one more graph that I love. This is the number of breweries in the US:
I don’t know for a fact, but I suspect that brewing isn’t the only industry that’s becoming or has the potential to become decentralized and spawn smaller business where it’s enough, as Amanda Palmer says, “to be known and loved by a few.”
What if the 20th century really was just an anomaly? A disconnect between the growth of human population and our ability to handle it? Maybe new technologies will help us remake the (oh my, this is cheesy) the global village and sustain a happy human existence at speed and at scale. Maybe we can actually live simultaneously in a world that is populous and fast while still finding the micro-connections that make us truly happy.
(1) She also uses the aurally and intellectually pleasing phrase ”stigmergic accumulation.” Which, well, I’ll just leave that there for you. You’re welcome.
(2) I love Uber and Sidecare because they supply names and remove monetary exchange. I love Spotify because it allows me to share music instantly with friends all over the world – like we’re all around some virtual campfire. I love Etsy and Custom Made because I can email with a maker and we can communicate about the process and nuance of a craft. I love TaskRabbit because I can ask a local where we should order BBQ and tacos.