Crowdsource Yourself

I: Ruby Anniversary

Today is a very important day in the annals of computer science. It’s the anniversary of the most famous technology demo ever given. Not, as you might expect, the first public demonstration of the Macintosh (which happened in January 1984), but something far older and far more important. Forty years ago today, December 9th, 1968, in San Francisco, a small gathering of computer specialists came together to get their first glimpse of the future of computing. Of course, they didn’t know that the entire future of computing would emanate from this one demo, but the next forty years would prove that point.

The maestro behind the demo – leading a team of developers – was Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was a wunderkind from SRI, the Stanford Research Institute, a think-tank spun out from Stanford University to collaborate with various moneyed customers – such as the US military – on future technologies. Of all the futurist technologists, Engelbart was the future-i-est.

In the middle of the 1960s, Engelbart had come to an uncomfortable realization: human culture was growing progressively more complex, while human intelligence stayed within the same comfortable range we’d known for thousands of years. In short order, Engelbart assessed, our civilization would start to collapse from its own complexity. The solution, Engelbart believed, would come from tools that could augment human intelligence. Create tools to make men smarter, and you’d be able to avoid the inevitable chaotic crash of an overcomplicated civilization.

To this end – and with healthy funding from both NASA and DARPA – Engelbart began work on the Online System, or NLS. The first problem in intelligence augmentation: how do you make a human being smarter? The answer: pair humans up with other humans. In other words, networking human beings together could increase the intelligence of every human being in the network. The NLS wasn’t just the online system, it was the networked system. Every NLS user could share resources and documents with other users. This meant NLS users would need to manage these resources in the system, so they needed high-quality computer screens, and a windowing system to keep the information separated. They needed an interface device to manage the windows of information, so Engelbart invented something he called a ‘mouse’.

I’ll jump to the chase: that roomful of academics at the Fall Joint Computer Conference saw the first broadly networked system featuring raster displays – the forerunner of all displays in use today; windowing; manipulation of on-screen information using a mouse; document storage and manipulation using the first hypertext system ever demonstrated, and videoconferencing between Engelbart, demoing in San Francisco, and his colleagues 30 miles away in Menlo Park.

In other words, in just one demo, Engelbart managed to completely encapsulate absolutely everything we’ve been working toward with computers over the last 40 years. The NLS was easily 20 years ahead of its time, but its influence is so pervasive, so profound, so dominating, that it has shaped nearly every major problem in human-computer interface design since its introduction. We have all been living in Engelbart’s shadow, basically just filling out the details in his original grand mission.

Of all the technologies rolled into the NLS demo, hypertext has arguably had the most profound impact. Known as the “Journal” on NLS, it allowed all the NLS users to collaboratively edit or view any of the documents in the NLS system. It was the first groupware application, the first collaborative application, the first wiki application. And all of this more than 20 years before the Web came into being. To Engelbart, the idea of networked computers and hypertext went hand-in-hand; they were indivisible, absolutely essential components of an online system.

It’s interesting to note that although the Internet has been around since 1969 – nearly as long as the NLS – it didn’t take off until the advent of a hypertext system – the World Wide Web. A network is mostly useless without a hypermedia system sitting on top of it, and multiplying its effectiveness. By itself a network is nice, but insufficient.

So, more than can be said for any other single individual in the field of computer science, we find ourselves living in the world that Douglas Engelbart created. We use computers with raster displays and manipulate windows of hypertext information using mice. We use tools like video conferencing to share knowledge. We augment our own intelligence by turning to others.

That’s why the “Mother of All Demos,” as it’s known today, is probably the most important anniversary in all of computer science. It set the stage the world we live in, more so that we recognized even a few years ago. You see, one part of Engelbart’s revolution took rather longer to play out. This last innovation of Engelbart’s is only just beginning.

II: Share and Share Alike

In January 2002, Oregon State University, the alma mater of Douglas Engelbart, decided to host a celebration of his life and work. I was fortunate enough to be invited to OSU to give a talk about hypertext and knowledge augmentation, an interest of mine and a persistent theme of my research. Not only did I get to meet the man himself (quite an honor), I got to meet some of the other researchers who were picking up where Engelbart had left off. After I walked off stage, following my presentation, one of the other researchers leaned over to me and asked, “Have you heard of Wikipedia?”

I had not. This is hardly surprising; in January 2002 Wikipedia was only about a year old, and had all of 14,000 articles – about the same number as a children’s encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, though it had put itself behind a “paywall,” had over a hundred thousand quality articles available online. Wikipedia wasn’t about to compete with Britannica. At least, that’s what I thought.

It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next few months – as Wikipedia approached 30,000 articles in English – an inflection point was reached, and Wikipedia started to grow explosively. In retrospect, what happened was this: people would drop by Wikipedia, and if they liked what they saw, they’d tell others about Wikipedia, and perhaps make a contribution. But they first had to like what they saw, and that wouldn’t happen without a sufficient number of articles, a sort of “critical mass” of information. While Wikipedia stayed beneath that critical mass it remained a toy, a plaything; once it crossed that boundary it became a force of nature, gradually then rapidly sucking up the collected knowledge of the human species, putting it into a vast, transparent and freely accessible collection. Wikipedia thrived inside a virtuous cycle where more visitors meant more contributors, which meant more visitors, which meant more contributors, and so on, endlessly, until – as of this writing, there are 2.65 million articles in the English language in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s biggest problem today isn’t attracting contributions, it’s winnowing the wheat from the chaff. Wikipedia has constant internal debates about whether a subject is important enough to deserve an entry in its own right; whether this person has achieved sufficient standards of notability to merit a biographical entry; whether this exploration of a fictional character in a fictional universe belongs in Wikipedia at all, or might be better situated within a dedicated fan wiki. Wikipedia’s success has been proven beyond all doubt; managing that success is the task of the day.

While we all rely upon Wikipedia more and more, we haven’t really given much thought as to what Wikipedia gives us. At its most basically level, Wikipedia gives us high-quality factual information. Within its major subject areas, Wikipedia’s veracity is unimpeachable, and has been put to the test by publications such as Nature. But what do these high-quality facts give us? The ability to make better decisions.

Given that we try to make decisions about our lives based on the best available information, the better that information is, the better our decisions will be. This seems obvious when spelled out like this, but it’s something we never credit Wikipedia with. We think about being able to answer trivia questions or research topics of current fascination, but we never think that every time we use Wikipedia to make a decision, we are improving our decision making ability. We are improving our own lives.

This is Engelbart’s final victory. When I met him in 2002, he seemed mostly depressed by the advent of the Web. At that time – pre-Wikipedia, pre-Web2.0 – the Web was mostly thought of as a publishing medium, not as something that would allow the multi-way exchange of ideas. Engelbart has known for forty years that sharing information is the cornerstone to intelligence augmentation. And in 2002 there wasn’t a whole lot of sharing going on.

It’s hard to imagine the Web of 2002 from our current vantage point. Today, when we think about the Web, we think about sharing, first and foremost. The web is a sharing medium. There’s still quite a bit of publishing going on, but that seems almost an afterthought, the appetizer before the main course. I’d have to imagine that this is pleasing Engelbart immensely, as we move ever closer to the models he pioneered forty years ago. It’s taken some time for the world to catch up with his vision, but now we seem to have a tool fit for knowledge augmentation. And Wikipedia is really only one example of the many tools we have available for knowledge augmentation. Every sharing tool – Digg, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, Twitter, and so on – provides an equal opportunity to share and to learn from what others have shared. We can pool our resources more effectively than at any other time in history.

The question isn’t, “Can we do it?” The question is, “What do we want to do?” How do we want to increase our intelligence and effectiveness through sharing?

III: Crowdsource Yourself

Now we come to all of you, here together for three days, to teach and to learn, to practice and to preach. Most of you are the leaders in your particular schools and institutions. Most of you have gone way out on the digital limb, far ahead of your peers. Which means you’re alone. And it’s not easy being alone. Pioneers can always be identified by the arrows in their backs.

So I have a simple proposal to put to you: these three days aren’t simply an opportunity to bring yourselves up to speed on the latest digital wizardry, they’re a chance to increase your intelligence and effectiveness, through sharing.

All of you, here today, know a huge amount about what works and what doesn’t, about curricula and teaching standards, about administration and bureaucracy. This is hard-won knowledge, gained on the battlefields of your respective institutions. Now just imagine how much it could benefit all of us if we shared it, one with another. This is the sort of thing that happens naturally and casually at a forum like this: a group of people will get to talking, and, sooner or later, all of the battle stories come out. Like old Diggers talking about the war.

I’m asking you to think about this casual process a bit more formally: How can you use the tools on offer to capture and share everything you’ve learned? If you don’t capture it, it can’t be shared. If you don’t share it, it won’t add to our intelligence. So, as you’re learning how to podcast or blog or setup a wiki, give a thought to how these tools can be used to multiply our effectiveness.

I ask you to do this because we’re getting close to a critical point in the digital revolution – something I’ll cover in greater detail when I talk to you again on Thursday afternoon. Where we are right now is at an inflection point. Things are very fluid, and could go almost any direction. That’s why it’s so important we learn from each other: in that pooled knowledge is the kind of intelligence which can help us to make better decisions about the digital revolution in education. The kinds of decisions which will lead to better outcomes for kids, fewer headaches for administrators, and a growing confidence within the teaching staff.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a panacea. Far from it. They’re simply the best tools we’ve got, right now, to help us confront the range of thorny issues raised by the transition to digital education. You can spend three days here, and go back to your own schools none the wiser. Or, you can share what you’ve learned and leave here with the best that everyone has to offer.

There’s a word for this process, a word which powers Wikipedia and a hundred thousand other websites: “crowdsourcing”. The basic idea is encapsulated in a Chinese proverb: “Many hands make light work.” The two hundred of you, here today, can all pitch in and make light work for yourselves. Or not.

Let me tell you another story, which may help seal your commitment to share what you know. In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc.

Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, or RateMyProfessors.com, or the promise of your own work over these next three days, Douglas Engelbart’s original vision of intelligence augmentation holds true: it is possible for us to pool our intellectual resources, and increase our problem-solving capacity. We do it every time we use Wikipedia; students do it every time they use RateMyProfessors.com; and I’m asking you to do it, starting right now. Good luck!