The Critical Mass of Experience (*)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
16 October, 2018
Editorial: 246
Fecha de publicación original: 19 diciembre, 2000

To remember is to regress, and what one has experienced, live it again

If it’s December in Barcelona, it’s time for Cornella and the Internet. For the fifth consecutive year, our friend Alfons made this month a must for a dozen or so of us to publicly reflect on the future of the Internet ….. over the year to come. This time, with his brand new company, in hand, Cornella moved the event from the habitual lecture theatre at Esade –which was growing too small for the occasion– to the Palacio de Congresos de Barcelona where he gathered together 500 people. A lot was said, very interesting some of the time, and at others repetitive. Some managed to capture the spirit of the meeting: the growing maturity of the Internet. And this was precisely what I based my personal “prediction” on: that the experienced segment of the population who have lived on the Internet for more than 24 months is reaching a critical mass, thus putting their capacity for expressing themselves, for formulating demands and, consequently, for managing information and knowledge, at the centre of their concerns. This approach will become more and more predominant as the Net develops and matures.

Despite the crisis in a significant sector of “dotcoms”, the growth of the Internet population continues to break all records as though this had nothing to do with it. People have even managed to ignore the mad drive for customers which they have been –and continue to be– subjected to. In spite of all the media hype about big corporations and stock market ups and downs, internauts –individuals, companies, collectives, organisations or administrations– have continued to behave like more than just the potential buyers they are often viewed as. Connected people are many things to many people: curious, go-ahead, information broadcasters or receivers, educators, learners, mother/fathers/relatives to whatever extent, citizens, fun-lovers, argumentative, concerned about health, sad, happy, etc., as well as being vendors and buyers.

The problem is in the mixture. And this is what brings even the best predictions by those most “in the know” tumbling down, no matter how much they clench their jaws and claim to take no notice of “any iron clad laws about the Internet”, which are destined to meltdown with each new batch coming into the oven. Constant population growth on the Internet and the mysterious equation resulting from the combination of the least experienced with mature internauts has demolished –and still continues to do so– many hypotheses about the Net, many business plans and many systems designed to make us behave within certain defined guidelines drawn up “for our own benefit”. The greater the number of internauts the less controllable the flow –and behaviour– of the Net, the greater the possibilities for interaction and, thus, the greater the rate of experience transmitted from one segment –the veterans– to the other –the greenhorns–. This transmission is fundamental for consolidating a “critical mass of experience” which, in the end, will determine a fundamental part of activity on the Net. There will always be “reverses”, as is only natural. At any given time, innovation could cause new waves of internauts, like when Internet connections are introduced in entire regions overnight due to cable for instance, or new wireless technology puts powerful information servers into our pockets or wallets.

Despite all this, it looks to me as if we are heading directly towards this transition phase. Over the last two years, demand has been overwhelmed and swamped by supply. As waves of new internauts flooded onto the Net, due to free access policies, supply has been tied down to what we know how to do and what there is, not necessarily to offering what a population with powerful means of expression can do or demand. A population, moreover, subjected to vertiginous personal, organisational, business, professional, etc. changes. A population that has been treated with indifference –basically like customers– above all because of the lack of systems capable of asking questions and drawing significant conclusions about demands that require a much more fragmented and sectorialised approach and which should be better adapted to the needs of each individual. Many new companies which have moved ample resources over the last two years have been asphyxiated by their own ideas without even examining the ideas of those they call their “clients”. “People are like this or that and this is what they want” has been the by-word of the times.

The tide is ebbing which does not mean it is ceasing. Now we need to develop these interrogation systems which are really just virtual spaces for online knowledge generation and management based on user participation. We are beginning to recognise that the problem is not just the volume and reliability of information, but platforms where we can meet others with whom we can collaborate, either within organisations or elsewhere on the Net. We are faced with the problem of turning the information that surrounds us and the knowledge we are suppose to possess, both on an individual and collective level, into something of strategic value. Curiously enough, over the last few months we have come across virtual shops hoping to reach the heavenly status of hypermillionaires by selling ham, to give just one example, who want to advise them how to turn their businesses into some kind of consultancy with moderated forums like en.medi@. The aim is to attract new batches of more experienced internauts who are after quality information about their personal interests on a wide range of subjects.

Thus, flexibility and adaptation to this growing maturity on the Net will become the virtues of the future –previously considered so intangible — and that should never have been abandoned in the name of closed, perfectly packaged systems where everything is preordained right down to the last click. The same might be said about the possibilities for participation and interaction which the Net has to offer as essential ingredients of this maturation process. They have always been there, but floods of newbies only added to the illusion that the great multi-million dollar idea was to develop a substitute for the TV or the PC and give it a good remote control so that nobody had to think too much.

Now is the time that thinking and thinking hard will become the key factor for survival on the Net, instead of paying more attention to the ups and downs of the Stock Exchange than to the needs of the users. And thinking online means being able to express the intellectual capital of each and every one of us. Capturing and articulating answers (in the form of services, projects or informational organisation models) implies the design of online knowledge management systems. These systems, whatever their origins, will proliferate wherever internauts decide to interact, project, defend, sell, buy, administer or train themselves or simply be guided by their curiosity. So, this is a concept that is not just connected to business management in the strictest sense. Online knowledge management concerns all of us and affects everything we do on the Net. After all, the only thing we do on the Net is communicate via information and knowledge.

(*) This editorial is an extended version of the five minute talk I gave during the debate on “Internet in the year 2001” held in the Palacio de Congresos de Barcelona on the 13 December 2000. All speeches were recorded by La Malla.

Translation: Bridget King