a. To divide into constituent parts.
b. To break up or break apart.
My brother sent me this TED video last week and I’ve been mulling it over.
In it, Eli Pariser talks about how the Internet is evolving to present you with what you want to see and filter out other sources. He says this is a bad thing. Well I think this is a natural result of disaggregation which is the main power of the Internet. Let me tell you a story and then we will go back to Eli’s argument. Tomorrow in part 2, I will talk about how this will drastically affect education.
In the beginning…
In the dawn of history there has been a natural tendency for mankind to group up. It rapidly became obvious to early man that by pooling our resources, we can achieve a higher common standard of living. There was a limit to how much you can group up though. That limit was communications. Keep in mind that transportation is also a form of communications. Walking was a definite limiting factor in those early times. When all you had to communicate with was walking, you couldn’t collaborate very well with a village 50 miles away.
As our communications (and transportation) technology evolved, it became possible to expand the scale of our collaborations. Villages evolved into towns, towns into cities, cities into nation-states, and finally into nations. One of the most famous achievements of the Roman Empire was it’s system of roads. This was a necessary tool for ruling a far flung nation. Humanity was aggregating itself.
The biggest impact of communication technology is in business. Businesses used to be very vertically integrated. In other words, everything was produced in one factory. A car factory took steel in one end, and finished cars rolled out the other. All the means of production were aggregated in one location. This, however, has largely changed. Container ships drastically reduced the costs of transporting products across large distances so labor became the biggest cost, not transportation. Couple that with modern communications and all of a sudden it made economic sense to move parts of your business to parts of the world with lower labor costs and just ship your product back. With the Internet, you can still manage far flung production and design. The Internet is the 21st century equivalent of the Roman roads.
The Internet has accelerated that globalization process because you can communicate so much more information than you could before. The Boeing 787 airliner was designed by engineers in design shops around the world. Since it’s all in the computer, when the US designers went home for the night, the Asian designers took over. When they went home, the Europeans took over and so on. It’s a 24/7 world on the Internet. This way of designing is a form of disaggregation.
Disrupting the Aggregated Business Model
There are many, many business models that involve aggregation. Some are safe in the Internet age. You can design the airplane around the world, but in the end you have to assemble it into one piece. Building physical things is pretty safe for now.
But many business models are based on aggregating information. Take a newspaper for example. It is composed of, articles, ads, editorials and entertainment. Each of those things can be obtained now from other sources online. Not only that, but in the process of aggregating a newspaper, inevitably things have to be left out, either due to lack of space or due to the bias of the people involved. This means a newspaper is always plagued by compromises and is incomplete. The whole is not more than the sum of its parts in this case.
With the Internet, you don’t have to be physically in proximity anymore. Once you add machine translation, we really will have a global community.
So here’s the problem. While technology has changed, human nature hasn’t. We all have certain needs and wants. We want to be accepted by others, we want to have our beliefs affirmed and our world view validated. It’s now possible to connect up with others online who share our beliefs. These groups are now ad-hoc, not bound by geography, and most importantly, not driven by necessity or survival. Some are political in nature. A group like Al-Qaeda couldn’t really be effective 40 years ago because it required a nation to project power and influence people. These days you can coordinate a loose group of like minded people to really affect things. This is visible now in the political process. The two main political parties in the US are having trouble raising money because other groups are going around them. The parties are designed as aggregators for money and information, which can be done now via alternatives.
Is Filtering a problem?
So let’s return to Eli Pariser’s argument. He is observing that many sources of information are automatically filtering what we see to try to personalized it for us. I partially agree with him that it’s a problem but some kind of filtering is necessary or else we would be deluged with information. I also submit that this filtering has always been going on. Censorship, bias and limited bandwidth have always constrained the information we have access too. These days there are vastly more sources of info than in the past. Where I agree with him, is the filtering should be more apparent to the user.
Even so, I think what is happening is good for democracy. As the sources of information have become more disaggregated, it becomes harder for propaganda to be effective. The truth generally gets out. What is irritating so many people in the news media is they can’t just put their spin on things anymore and have everyone believe it. The beauty of the Internet is it is disaggregated. Everyone has choices and can find what they want. You can’t make someone listen to you as much as some would like that. It really is about merit. If you can make a compelling argument, your message will be sent through so many channel that filtering won’t stop it.
Our world is being reformed before our eyes. We are no longer limited by the tyranny of location. We are redesigning things along ideological lines now rather than geopolitical lines. This massive change has swept over, music, film, news and business. Now it is coming to education. Part 2 tomorrow!
Update: Part 2!