What if the lights go out?

We humans have a talent for getting other people and other things to do stuff for us. If we didn’t, we’d all be out there scratching a living from the forests and fields and we’d have a pretty rudimentary existence. Would you care to forage or kill for the food on your table?

“A strange way to start an IT-focused blog,” you might be thinking, but all will become clear. Yesterday I was listening to Clay Shirky talking about the wonders wrought by the advent of the internet. In particular, he was talking about the tremendous communication leap which has taken place in terms of how we communicate, cooperate, collaborate and act in concert as a result.

Previous communication systems have been predominantly one on one – telegraph, telephone, fax and so on – or they’ve been one to many, where ’one’ has usually been a business: books, radio, television. Even the web started off that way. What’s changed over the past few years is our willingness and ability to convene online. We don’t need to be gathered together by an organisation – a company, a fan club, or whatever. We do it ourselves. And we’re most likely to do it by coalescing around a topic of common interest.

Shirky mentioned the case of HSBC stopping its interest-free overdraft facility for graduates last year. It thought it had the power to do this. (One to many.) But it didn’t account for a graduate starting a Facebook group delicately called “Stop The Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off“. Okay, I was kidding about the ’delicate’. Despite it being the summer holiday period, students and graduates joined the group in their thousands to discuss the issue and decide on actions that might need to be taken. Not least sharing information about how to move their accounts to other banks. Newspapers picked up on it. Physical demonstrations were planned in Facebook and HSBC backed off.

A piece of information about HSBC became a gathering point, a cooperation point and a collaborative action point. This sort of thing just couldn’t have happened before. People were put together by bosses. Or they joined clubs organised by other people. They didn’t self select and self organise, certainly not as quickly and as effectively and in such numbers.

Inside the business, the same thing’s happening. People often find each other because of common interest and quite regardless of the hierarchy. If two people in two labs in two parts of the world are coincidentally researching the same materials, there’s a good chance that they’ll discover each other if there’s a topic online around that material. Relationships will form which couldn’t have come about through central direction.

As Shirky says, “Every URL is a latent community.”

You see it a lot with environmental groups at the moment. A lot of coalescing is going on around different green topics. I see that fellow analyst Tom Raftery has started talking about the ’Tom’ instead of the Tonne as a CO2 measure. In fact Gavin Starks has started a ning social network called megatom. It has 15 members as I write and it may be madly successful, or it may die. It cost very little to start. It’s not like a conventional media title. If it flies, it flies. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. This kind of exercise is being repeated thousands of times a day, all over the world. Some might say the lunatics are in charge of the asylum, but that’s not true. Good ideas will gain traction, bad ones won’t. Good contributors will gain influence, bad ones will be ignored.

With several UK power stations heading for the knacker’s yard courtesy of EU rulings and with our excessive dependence on foreign energy supplies, we face the real prospect of power shortages. But this new world relies, more than anything else, on us each having a supply of electricity. Without it, the doorways to this parallel social universe will be slammed shut.

Am I being paranoid? Does it matter? I happen to think “no” and “yes” respectively. What about you?

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