MacroWikinomics: nonthreatening web theory primer for business

Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams's Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World is a funny kind of chimera. It's a business book — a book to help enterprises reform themselves around collaborative principles made possible by the Internet (it also talks about how education, government and NGOs can use the same principles). The business world surely needs that kind of book, as can be seen by the never-ending litany of lawsuits, threats, legislation, and back-room maneuvering aimed at shutting down, censoring, or controlling the net. So Macrowikinomics is a book to shake up the complacent and give them a combination of fear of the future rushing past them and hope that they can catch up with it if they put them minds to it.

This is a delicate balancing act. It calls for a message that is at once iconoclastic and compromising, delivering hard truths without sugar coating; but it must be comforting at the same time, and assure the reader that change is both possible and desirable. As much as I applaud the effort, I found that Macrowikinomics often erred on the side of comfort, overstating its case, omitting disturbing details, and shying away from politics and technical realities in order to reassure its audience.

Which is not to say that there's not a lot to recommend here. Tapscott and Williams cite several inspiring instances of successful, Internet-driven, bottom-up collaboration, and offer some surprising insights into the larger meaning of them. For example, the authors talk about the design process at Local Motors, which a combination of collaborative space and competition that calls on designers around the world to help figure out how to use reconfigured off-the-shelf parts to create new, hyperlocal car designs. More importantly, the authors stress founder Jay Rogers' insight that the world's top design schools are graduated legions of talented students who have virtually no hope of working in industry, and speaks of his determination to find a model that serves them.

Likewise good is the authors' vision for a "Wikiversity" that expands on the vision of the MIT Open Courseware project and others like it and imagines a university experience that treats all tertiary institutions as peers that collaborate with students, teachers and researchers to deliver the best possible education and scholarship for all concerned. The discussion of open health is also an eye-opening look at the way that patients can be "experts" on their own health, and how their collaboration with one another and with the medical establishment has (and will continue to) produce real improvements to healthcare.

Finally, the sections on NGOs like CorpWatch (which crowdsources intelligence gathering on corporate misdeeds) and on successful open government initiatives like the EPA's crowdsourced plan for Puget Sound are sterling examples of intelligent use of networked collaboration to make good things happen.

But as good as these examples are, Macrowikinomics is shot through with sketches masquerading as plans, optimism masquerading as a theory of change, and superficial looks masquerading as thorough analysis.

It seemed to me that the authors were afraid to breathe a word of politics into their work, lest they alienate their readership. So when they discuss free and open source software, they stress the way that businesses use it, they quote an IBM exec calling it "pure free-market capitalism," and so forth. But they ignore the fact that a sizable fraction of free software contributors are ambivalent or even hostile to the world of business, and that a big motivator in the community is to disrupt and defang corporate interests. Leaving this out of the account of free software production doesn't just make the explanation incomplete — it makes it unfit for purpose. If a Macrowikinomics reader is meant to come away from the section on open source with an understanding of the dynamic that she can apply to her own firm, this will leave out the critical intelligence that much of that world is anti-authoritarian and skeptical of commercial co-option. The authors cite the great scholar Yochai Benkler but completely fail to get to grips with Benkler's central thesis — that the kind of collaboration they're urging is neither a marketplace nor a socialist planned system — rather, it's a totally new thing, a "commons-based peer production" economy. This is one of the most important insights of the century when it comes to understanding how net-driven collaboration works, and the authors miss it in favor of an undemanding story about a new kind of free market. There are elements of truth to this account, but it lacks critical depth and doesn't do justice to its subject.

Likewise, the authors characterize the world as running on largely free market principles, despite the numerous examples of regulatory capture and corporate malfeasance. So while the authors assert that "companies that do bad things tend to fail," and "consumers decide whether to give companies their money," they ignore the monopoly or duopoly in Internet services that obtains throughout most of the US and Canada, and the convergence of network carriers on terms and conditions that will make it easy for repressive governments and deep-pocketed companies to manipulate and shut out dissent and disruption. They touch lightly on the foolishness of mass copyright lawsuits, but don't seem to appreciate the risks that far-reaching legislation and treaties from COICA to the TPP and ACTA have for the free, open future they're predicting. For all that they show how activists can use the net to pin misdeeds on corporations, they're pretty blithe in their certaintly that this will result in action. A world where Goldman Sachs is still in business is a world in which merely knowing that a company has done many great wrongs is enough to make the company pay for its wickedness.

I am buoyed by all the ways in which activists can use the net as a force-multiplier, but I don't think that the mere existence of networked activism is enough to keep the world honest and safe. For example, the evils of marijuana criminalization are well documented — mass incarcerations, victimization of sick and poor people, diversion of critical resources to pointless snark-hunts. It's not surprising that when Obama held an "open" town hall in which Americans were supposed to be able to choose the tough policy questions that the president would answer, the winning choice of issue was marijuana legalization. The Obama administration unilaterally changed the subject. Micah Sifry holds this out as a failing of the Obama administration's commitment to openness and collaboration. But Tapscott and Williams call the peoples' choice of issue "unfortunate" and tacitly approve of Obama's unilateral abandonment of collaboration when the subject got out of his comfort zone. This leaves me wondering what theory of change rules the Macrowikinomic world? If merely pointing out the emperor's lack of clothes (or participation in destructive, pointless wars on some drugs) is supposed to make things change, why are the authors willing to give the president a pass when the subject is an uncomfortable one?

For a book about technological change, Macrowikinomics has an awful lot of technical fudging, whether it's the authors raving about the Apple iPad and iPhone as an "open platform" (despite the fact that it's illegal to modify your iPad to run software that Apple hasn't approved) — and dismiss people who correctly call it a "closed shop." The authors even go over a public discussion I had with them about the notion that owning local copies of your music will go away in favor of streaming, but get nearly every technical particular of the argument wrong in their recap. They miss the fact that there's no plausible way to deliver high-bitrate streams to millions of people sharing the same limited wireless spectrum, and they don't seem to understand that even if there was, it would be an insanely wasteful system, since it would require contending for a scarce resource (wireless spectrum) instead of making use of a hyperabundant one (local storage). They think the privacy implication of streaming music is that you might inadvertently disclose your taste for middle Eastern music to a paranoid security apparat, but don't get the privacy risks that come from having to login to a network service over and over again to accomplish mundane, local tasks, revealing (over and over again) your location, the people you're near, even whose house you're at. They gloss over my argument that building a streaming-only service requires that you lock out free/open players (since they could be modified to save streams), and wave away the possibility that your cultural artifacts might vanish if you cancel your contract or your provider goes bust.

Which is not to say that the authors are copyright maximalists. Indeed, they make great cases for opening up your business, and discuss many examples of companies that get it right and thrive on such a model. But having gone over these examples, they conclude with a soothing message on the lines of, "so figure out what you can open up and open it, and keep the rest closed." Which sounds like good advice, but I couldn't help but wonder what advice they'd give to companies whose customers actively disagreed with that calculus and opened their stuff unilaterally — an important question, seeing as how it's playing out in the business pages, international treaty negotiations, and legislatures all over the world. I felt like the authors were worried that if they said, "You can't coerce people into not copying your designs and media, especially not your customers, whom you can't ever sue into submission. Anything that a lot of people want to 'open' will be opened. You can fight them, you can go along with them, you can do nothing. But you can't stop it. So: what's your plan?" By characterizing the "open" question as a choice, rather than a technological inevitability, they certainly put a large number at readers at ease — but it's a false comfort.

Macrowikinomics isn't a bad book, but it is a flawed one. In an effort to produce a nonthreatening primer for all audiences, the authors have oversimplified and elided the particulars in a way that leaves their account crucially incomplete. I like Tapscott and Williams's work overall, and will be reading their future efforts, but with the hope of more rigor and willingness to touch on truths that might disturb their core constituents.


Macrowikinomics (Amazon)

Macrowikinomics (Authors' site)