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Hawai’i’s Shared Futures By Vision Foresight Strategy

Democracy in Moderation

An article posted today took a brief look at how Encyclopedia Britannica, that old quick-reference guide to world knowledge that we all relied on back in the day, is slowly modernizing itself.  And this means: how is it coming to grips with Wikipedia and the big trend in ‘collaborative’ sites and services (think blogs, wikis, and commentaries for everything) where the people at large contribute, edit, and argue.  Britannica is moving to some wiki platforms, but they have decided to maintain the key role of the expert in the production of their branded information.

This kicked off two things for us: 1) how this fits into the trends in information production and publishing; and 2) how this relates to the contemporary seizure with all things bottom-up

Publishing: A recent NY Magazine article looked at the changes in the massive book publishing industry, from the gradual change in publishers from small and artfully-run to the massive corporate media empires that are hit-driven just like Hollywood.  It mentioned Amazon.com and the Kindle, it’s e-reader, and the fears that physical publishers have about Amazon’s future ability to be the Microsoft of book publishing.  At the same time that e-readers continue to try to make inroads into our reading habits, web-based self-publishing and print-on-demand services have been expanding for everyday folks.  And then the blogs…

Certainly it’s clear that the technology is changing so that everyday folks have access to publishing their own thoughts, news, and stories.  Everyone can yammer away into the void with their own blogs, and they can pay to have their work printed (just like the old vanity press), but what’s the real impact to the idea of information, about what’s news-worthy and thus read-worthy?  What is the role of the expert in selecting ‘quality’ material?  And especially important as everyone begins to panic about the economy: what writing should we pay for?  When do we care about vetted material enough to pay for it, and when does instant gratification drive us to be satisfied with writing that might lack for quality or accuracy?

We also have to wonder about the potential for the Long Tail-type theories of business opportunities.  While Hawaii likes to argue over massive state programs to promote targeted economic growth in major industry clusters (one can hear the visitor industry growling in the background), there is probably a lot more that could be done at a much lower level of cost to promote the types of niche micro-businesses that the Long Tail suggests, which for Hawaii could very well include the evolution of new writing and publishing models.  Like most side-businesses, all it takes is to link up people’s passions with a little extra income to make a difference in their economic lives.

Bottom-Up: And then there’s the bottom-up issue.  It’s all the rage today to disparage the expert, the official, and anything that smacks of top-down.  Collaborative software like wikis and blogs and social network technologies allow us to connect to each other and share and contribute without any of the types of social, economic, or political structures we’ve lived under throughout recorded history.  Everywhere people conflate this with democracy and hail a new age in which the ‘community’ (a word which no longer means the neighborhood but a collective of people), the grass-roots, the crowd trump any other process or authority.

But down through history thinkers and philosophers have made a distinction between the People (arranged in a deliberative process) and the Mob (simply a mass of individuals).  What’s important is the question: when is ‘the community’ the right process, and when are experts required to lead and produce?  Even the Athenians, those symbols of democracy, understood that sometimes the individual was needed to make a decision instead of the multitude.

And when we come back to the issues of publishing, writing, and sharing, the collaborative tools and the social networking technologies force us to contemplate changes in what we define as ‘news’ and as valid information.  When ‘the people’ are able to connect with one another, and if they are left to their own devices (as opposed to the interests of mass media that has traditionally defined and pumped the news to people), what do they define as news, and what are they actually interested in learning about and reading about?

As any review of services like Twitter indicate, what’s important news to people is often stuff that mass media can’t replicate: what’s going on with my friends, family, and colleagues?  When taken from the perspective of the individual, important news and information is nuanced into much more personal spheres than the nightly news or newspapers can address.  So, what new balance might emerge from the tension between the expert and the community in defining, producing, and ultimately selling news and information?

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Filed under: Business, Culture, Democracy, Economics, Governance, Hawai'i

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