“Moving Down”

June 6th, 2011

So many things make me think about or seem to relate back to the Commons that I’m rarely surprised by that anymore. But I didn’t expect Thomas J. Friedman’s “memo” to China’s President Hu Jintao to be one. His NY Times op-ed piece caught my eye this weekend because of another surprising conjunction: in something titled “Advice for China,” the subject line of the “memo” read “The Arab Spring.”

Actually that wasn’t so surprising. Point #1 was about the inadvisability (and the near impossibility) of censorship, and how that was borne out in so many places, so often by means of digital/social media. (Already I was thinking about the Commons, having gone on record about its openness being key to its generativity.)

But it was really Point #2 that caught my eye:

The second trend we see in the Arab Spring is a manifestation of “Carlson’s Law,” posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: “In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.” As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.

Hmm. I’m not thrilled about “moving down.” (I put it in the title at least as much to problematize the phrase as to celebrate it.) I’ve developed a distrust of spatial metaphors, something that goes back to an argument James Joyce had with Wyndham Lewis (but this is not the place to go into that).  Suffice it to say that spatial metaphors tend to deny time and process, affirm hierarchy, and do other suspect stuff. Still, the participle  “moving” qualifies that denial of process. And it’s not people on high who are moving down (like some contemporary form of noblesse oblige). It’s that “sweet spot for innovation”  that’s making this move.

I think we see that affirmed daily, in the bits of news or insight we get tweeted, the interactions we see aggregated, the sudden or surprising affinities that are also provocations. For me, all of this was extracurricular before the Commons. Now, though the Commons still feels extracurricular, it has brought work closer to play and colleagues closer than they’ve ever been (particularly in the ease of contact and the serendipities of connection).

If this is the sort of thing that’s happening, that’s good. It should happen. There ought to be a law. And apparently there is.

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