A conversation with David Weinberger about the future.
One of the highlights of Chattanooga’s recent Startup Week was a lecture by David Weinberger, Harvard researcher and author of “Too Big To Know”, about how the Internet has changed not just what we know, but how we create knowledge.
He spoke on the Public Library’s Fourth Floor about “the future as a platform.”
Rather than interview him alone, I enlisted two of Chattanooga’s own future-makers—Mike Bradshaw, executive director of CoLab, and Nate Hill, assistant director of the Public Library—to have a conversation with him about the Internet, startups and Chattanooga.
The Pulse: Can your research be used as model for understanding what goes on in communities, which has so much to do with information but is not information technology?
Mike Bradshaw: Can I add to that? People want to apply traditional forms of measurement to the effects of our work here, the emergence of this start up community, which is really kind of a transformative phenomenon that defies our ability to measure it effectively. All of our startups have to use basically a Newtonian model to project their future plans. They start with an initial state and apply dynamical rules to it, which is their business model.
David Weinberger: The business model is a perfect example of Newton gone wrong. I think the Internet innovation, entrepreneurialization space is way ahead of me in this. I’m not coming up with a new business model for them. This is what they’ve been doing.
Twitter started out with a very different idea of what its use was. It has been extremely open to enabling the uses that it is growing into because this is how its users are inventing it.
The notion of putting something up and letting users expand it and decide what it’s going to be is new. It looks like lack of planning, like they’re not mature business people, but they’re way smarter business people. They know that they cannot predict what this thing will become. If you don’t know what it’s going to become, it’s very hard to lock it into a business model and how you make money exactly.
Nate Hill: This is exactly the sort of model we have used for how we think about the Fourth Floor. We think of it as a physical platform for the community. Ultimately, I don’t have a plan that I rain down upon the fourth floor. It’s a community-driven thing, a place the people can come and create that next iteration of what the library is going to be for them.
Weinberger: It’s easier in the Internet because everything is just bits and you can find everything and it’s very cheap to fail and its easier to build on. But it’s an old idea. Jane Jacobs [wrote about it with cities]. People will want “here’s where the barber shop will go “ or “make the sidewalks this wide” and they don’t anticipate bicycles or food carts.
Events like Startup Week—as I understand it—are about thickening the culture, which means increasing the connections, which is what a platform is really about.
That’s what culture in general has always been about. It’s been about shared connections around share experiences, shared values, shared things.
Bradshaw: People seeding the waters, adding some sort of energy into a self-organizing system. The available free energy comes in the form of capital and people’s interest and creating nodes on the network.
Hill: I’m kind of curious how this rings to the guy who has all the money and is thinking about making an investment.
Bradshaw: Most of the time even though they’re going to ask you for the projections, they’re really looking at you. The investor is sitting there looking at the founders thinking, “Are you the person that’s going to be able to manage all this when that doesn’t happen?”
There’s something else. Have you ever watched a Mandelbrot Set draw itself? [This is fractal geometry, in which a huge and complex form creates itself by the repetition of small, simple shapes.] It fills in, fills in, fills in—that’s incrementalism to me—and then bang its out there.
That seems to me to be a great model for the effects of incremental [changes on a startup]. Under the proper conditions—generally unpredictable ones—a new level of organization springs in. It’s a qualitative shift rather then an incremental shift.
And that’s sort of what I saw happen here in Chattanooga, first as an observer and then a participant. I saw a phase shift in the culture.
Weinberger: It starts with a seed, a set of people who understand it and are pushing it, and you have to constantly explain to people, even well-meaning people. Over time you win that argument by giving people a vision of the culture that they embrace, which means giving up on the old existing measurement ways of judging values.
You can read the second half of our conversation in two weeks.