The internet has opened up previously unimagined space for innovation, but unintended consequences befuddle our ability to assess risks on the technological frontier. Denise Caruso and Clay Shirky launch Supernova with a lively rethinking of risk, serendipity, and the power of love in a socially networked world.
Innovation is inherently risky, but the probability of that risk cannot be readily estimated for new inventions. It's hard to anticipate how something will be used or interact with other things. Caruso illustrates her point with some double-edged examples like nuclear power, antibiotics and genetic engineering. In the case of the internet, she argues, we make the assumption that total freedom is needed for innovation to flourish, "let a thousand flowers bloom", yet that same freedom brings a darker side full of risks like spam, identity theft and surveillance.
How can we get out in front of these incalculable risks? Caruso suggests that genuine conversation between diverse stakeholders is the key. Getting people with different points of view to hear one another can foster understanding, forestall problems and help minimize groupthink.
Shirky tells the story of an ancient Shinto shrine that is perpetually remade. Although the Ise shrine has existed for thousands of years, UNESCO disputed its status as an historic structure because it is repeatedly torn down and rebuilt. This highlights the difference between solidity of edifice and solidity of process.
As a parallel example, Shirky reflects that the perl support network embodied by comp.lang.perl.misc was not understood by companies that expected "solid", commercial support. Yet while such companies faded, the perl community is constantly renewed. Why? Shirky points to the love that aggregates people to create something together. It used to be, he says, that people did little things for love and big things for money. With the coordinating tools of the internet, they can now do big things for love.
Denise Caruso co-founded the nonprofit Hybrid Vigor Institute in 2000
to study and practice collaboration in the service of new solutions for
complex social and scientific problems. She recently published
"Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and
Life on a Biotech Planet", and continues to work on projects both in
academia and the private sector to improve the practice of risk
analysis for science and technology-related innovations. For the five
years prior to founding Hybrid Vigor, Caruso wrote the Technology
column for the Monday Information Industries section of The New York
Clay Shirky divides his time between consulting, teaching, and writing on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. His consulting practice is focused on the rise of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, web services, and wireless networks that provide alternatives to the wired client/server infrastructure that characterizes the Web. He is an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology -- how our networks shape culture and vice-versa.
This free podcast is from our Supernova series.