We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in under a generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communications tools. The truly dramatic changes in such tools can be counted on the fingers of one hand: the printing press and moveable type (considered as one long period of innovation): the telegraph and telephone; recorded content (music, then movies); and finally the harnessing of radio signals (for broadcasting radio and TV). None of these examples was a simple improvement, which is to say a better way of doing what a society already did. Instead, each was a real break with the continuity of the past, because any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society. A culture with printing presses is a different kind of culture from one that doesn’t have them.
Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society; they are a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible: put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are important and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be constrained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down [sic], or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.
Clay goes on to talk at length about Wikipedia, and how web enabled collaboration has changed the world of encyclopedias. Indeed how it has changed the very nature of an encyclopedia – articles have gone from being artifacts to being processes, and wikipedia has added a partial commentary on current affairs to the traditional facts and history of the the hard bound encyclopedias of our youths.
For me, formerly venerable and seemingly invulnerable institutions at
risk include record companies, TV broadcasters and newspapers.
More important (and inspiring) is the reminder that the web will change the world beyond recognition – as the printing press, telephone and TV have all done before. We are still at the start of that revolution.