The Translucent Generation
“The Translucent Generation is not bound by time. It is best thought of as a snowball rolling down a hill; the longer it rolls the bigger it gets. I am referring of course to those whose values have been shaped by the net. There are an elite few of this description already in the business world. However, since 1980 there have been an increasing number of children using the Internet in their formative years. This snowball silently reached critical mass long ago, which will become evident in the next five years as the first major wave of this generation floods the business world.”
This article is your crash course on the future.
Tags: translucent generation
What makes us translucent?
A substance is translucent when it transmits light, translucency being the intermediary phase between opacity and transparency. This generation is translucent because bits and pieces of our thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, and actions are available on-line to anyone who cares to look. Not enough to tell the complete picture about any person or institution—transparency—but enough to put us in a state of social disequilibrium that will have a profound impact in the years to come.
Who is translucent?
The translucent generation is made up of those whose values, beliefs, and ideals have been shaped by their dynamic use of the Internet. There are lots of twenty year olds today who use the Internet daily, and a few who have used it since they were old enough to read. Of those even fewer are power users; the web logging, Usenet posting, wiki editing, IRC chatting types. And of those power users, very few were engaged in these activities during their formative years. Those elite few share a unique value set that will revolutionize the world. And because these values spread virally, the size of this generation will continue to grow exponentially.
Prophets of a secular religion
The philosophical underpinnings of the translucent generation have come through the process of millions of people arguing about their beliefs for billions of hours. Ideas on the Internet compete in a Darwinian way; the best ideas spread at the speed of light while the others fade away. However, here are a few individuals whose actions or writings have summed up this philosophy exceptionally well.
Richard Stallman — Founder of the GNU project
Jimmy Wales — Founder of Wikipedia
Eric Raymond — The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Philip Greenspun — Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing and founder of ArsDigita
Lawrence Lessig — The Future of Ideas and Free Culture
Howard Rheingold — Smart Mobs and The Virtual Community
Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger — The ClueTrain Manifesto
Dan Gillmor — We the Media
David Weinberger — “Small Pieces Loosely Joined”
Joe Trippi — “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
Bruce Schneier — “Beyond Fear”
Jeffrey Rosen — “The Unwanted Gaze” and “The Naked Crowd”
Don Tapscott and David Ticoll — “The Naked Corporation”
All of the hyperlinked books above are available for free online.
Also, Paul Graham gets an honorable mention for his book Hackers and Painters. Though it is not about transparency itself, it discusses strategies for working with people who hold the values of this generation.
Many of people above have already been interviewed by itconversations. If you are serious about understanding the future then your first assignment after reading this article is to listen to them.
In chemistry, if you combine two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom the resulting product, water, takes on properties not found in either of its components. How is it that water is wet when hydrogen and oxygen are not? This process, called emergence, is perhaps the most difficult to understand concept in all of chemistry, but fortunately for us we don’t need to understand how it works in order to enjoy the result. A good working definition of emergence is the process by which the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
On the Internet there are millions of individuals discussing every imaginable topic at every hour of the day. Other people read these arguments and incorporate the conclusions into their own arguments. Certain values have emerged from this process and have become universally accepted by a generation. Whether or not you hold these values or abhor them matters little; in a few years people who hold these values will surround us all so we must learn and understand these values in order to interact productively.
I have distilled my years of reading into four principles:
Share the wealth
If you can find a way to benefit others without being harmed yourself, you should always do so. For example, if you invent a tool used to create a product but you don’t intend to sell the tool then you should give it away freely. When Apple released the iPod Shuffle, it went out of its way to promote and help the companies making accessories. Although Apple may lose a small amount of money in the short term, it benefits enormously over the long haul. If you write something you don’t intend to sell then release it under Creative Commons or GFDL.
Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.
Power to the people
The businesses that succeed in the future will be the ones that empower people. A good example of this is Google; it grew from nothing into a multi-billion dollar empire in just a few years because it provides a service that empowers people. Try asking yourself what your day would be like without Google. It’s like thinking about what it will feel like to be dead. People often talk about wanting to start a company to take out Google, but this is the wrong type of thinking. Google is already very good at what it does and it is also a responsible corporate citizen. Even if there were another search engine equally good most people wouldn’t switch. Because of this, Google will be the search engine of choice for years to come. For better or for worse, we are heading towards a monoculture of good.
Corporations and politicians have long gotten away with treating us like idiots but this is already changing.
Publish first, revise later
Writing follows the rule of diminishing returns. If the average person spends two hours writing something, it will be less good than if he spent one hour on it and then another person spent an hour on it. This is because once we get our initial ideas out on paper the rate at which we can produce drops drastically.
For most people this is contrary to common sense. After all, products produced by committees are almost universally bad. The reason for this is that in a conference with twenty people only one person can speak at a time. This means that if twenty people spend an hour working on something, instead of getting twenty hours worth of production you only get one. In reality the end product usually ends up being even worse than this because everyone has something they want included and there is no real method of rational discussion. Someone will make a speech with ten points and the next person will respond to one of those points, and the other nine will go undebated.
When everything is in text there is a permanent record of the question asked and the answer that is given. It is virtually impossible to ‘spin” a question put in writing, because even if nine out of ten people don’t notice the tenth can easily point it out to the rest. While it is generally considered obnoxious to point out logical fallacies in real life, doing so is admirable on the Internet. However, as more people use the net these practices will come to be socially acceptable in real life as well. This is because as social interactions on the Internet compete for time with social actions in real life, real life will be forced to respond by becoming better.
On the Internet hundreds of people can edit the same document all at once. This leads to emergent behavior; the ideas of ten other people are combined to form an idea that none of those ten would have been capable of conceiving on their own. While groups in real life are the antithesis of change, groups on the Internet are so efficient that they actually produce more than the sum of their parts.
As a corollary, when collaborating informally you should judge people by their ideas and not by their writing.
Look for success
There is an increasing trend towards feigning offence at trivial issues in order to look like a moral hero. I’m sure only half a dozen people through the United States were actually upset about Janet Jackson showing her breasts on television, but politicians around the country reacted with outrage. Fortunately this trend will be short lived.
In Scott Adams’ book The Dilbert Future there is an anecdote about why all politicians seem to be crooks. The possible reasons he gives are
- Crooks are the only ones who run for office.
- Politics turns people into criminals
- All politicians are being framed.
- Every person on Earth is a crook, but only the only people we check out carefully are politicians
There is no reason to believe the first three are correct, so probably the best explanation for this phenomenon is reason four. Now clearly not everyone is really a crook, but it is true that we have all done both good and bad. The problem is that a scatter shot of everything that each person in the translucent generation has ever done is available online through a quick Google search. This is a great tool to find out if a potential employee has committed a felony. The problem is how should one react when reading logs of that person’s online chats from when they were ten?
No matter how stupid, racist, offensive, or pathetic ones comments were as a ten year old it is unlikely that they would have a statistical correlation with job performance at age thirty. When everyone has dirt on everyone else, it won’t be about the number of failures, it will be about—within reason—the number of successes. Instead of being judged on your gravitas, you will be judged on your ability to act appropriately in any given context.
The revolution will not be televised
The dot com revolution was easy to understand. Everything that existed in the physical world needed a virtual equivalent. Bookstores became Amazon and banks became PayPal, and there was much money to be made and lost. The next revolution is more subtle, but there is far more money to be made. Instead of each industry needing at least one digital counterpart, each industry will now need at least one counterpart that subscribes to values and ethics of the translucent generation.
There are some new companies such as Google that have been formed with these values and are doing splendidly because of it. However, existing companies will be very slow to make the switch and many will simply be unable to. If an entrepreneur is one who takes advantage of economic disequilibrium then now is an excellent time for entrepreneurship. For proof of this just look at how well Wikipedia and Firefox are doing against their Microsoft counterparts. We are on the eve of one of the greatest revolutions of all time and no one even realizes it.
Business as usual
I have foreseen the future and it holds great truth and honesty amongst the demises of the unholy and unspirited.
What will happen to the companies that fail to see the error in their ways? Let us compare and contrast Apple and PayPal for our case study.
In early 2003, Apple’s iPod looked like it was going to be the hottest products of all time by the end of the year. But as it turned out that Apple’s iPods had a rare but devastating problem with their batteries. All technology has some kinks at first, so this wasn’t a huge problem. The problem was that instead of replacing the defective batteries free of charge Apple decided to screw the customers and forced them to essentially pay the cost of a new iPod. After all what could a few disgruntled customers possibly do?
That was true until the Neistat brothers happened to call Apple one day asking them what they could do about their dead battery. Because Apple took the stance ‘We’ve got your money, now bend over’ they decided to make a video to tell the world about it. To date this over 1.7 million people have viewed the video and tens of millions have heard about it. After the video was released Apple did eventually modify their policy and improve their product, and it decided not to move to stop third parties from selling cheap replacement batteries. Because Apple changed its way the iPod eventually did become the cool new product of 2004. However for its sins it lost millions of potential sales and gave its competitors an entire year to catch up.
Compare this to PayPal. For the last several years PayPal has been on the verge of become the greatest company of our time. Sure they are still a hundred million dollar company but they are nothing compared to what they could have been. Even to this day if you go to a venture capitalist who specializes in technology all they usually want to talk about is PayPal. The company has America by the purse strings but has been unable to capitalize because of its bad business record. Because they were too cheap to reimburse customers for a couple hundred thousand dollars they lost out on literally billions of dollars flowing through their system. Most people reading probably have a PayPal account, but when was the last time you used it when you weren’t forced to by eBay or the like? Because PayPal is a poor corporate citizen it has become one of the greatest flops of the decade.
One person can make a difference. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.
If this is the future you want then act as if it already exists. And spread the word.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.