Review of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World by Don Tapscott
Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World
by Don Tapscott
Full disclosure: I received this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. Loves me the free books.
In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams argue that the Internet has irrevocably altered the way corporations and businesses will interact and develop new products and services. The proprietary, closed models of research and design are obsolete and must be replaced by mass collaboration with outside talent. Companies that do not embrace this new ethic of economics, the eponymous wikinomics, will be left behind, their innovation too glacial for a world where news moves at the speed of the trending topics on Twitter.
As I said in my review of Wikinomics, I am biased because of my generation. A lot of what Tapscott and Williams argue just feels right to me because this is how I have grown up using technology; I don't really understand any other model. My criticisms of Wikinomics were mostly directed toward the authors' style and rhetoric, and the same is true for Macrowikinomics. The books share the same effusive tone that makes me wince for how it must sound to the truly sceptical. However, this sequel has managed to win me over in a way the business-oriented Wikinomics did not. One thing I noticed with Wikinomics was how dated it felt, even though it was written only in 2006. In contrast, Macrowikinomics is a lot more topical and much more embedded within the current events of 2008-2010, yet it paradoxically feels like it will age more slowly. It owes this success to its expanded scope and more ambitious premises. By applying wikinomics in a more general setting, Tapscott and Williams make a more convincing case for its relevance.
Macrowikinomics covers several topics of contemporary importance. The CBC Spark interview covers some of them with Tapscott. After introducing their concept and bringing those who did not read the first book up to speed, Tapscott and Williams briefly cover how they think wikinomics will help to avoid any repeats of the 2008 financial crisis (more open data means more watchdogs). However, the book really hits its stride in part III: "Reindustrializing the Planet." Here, Macrowikinomics does what Wikinomics didn't: it makes me angry.
Oh, not angry at the book! No, Tapscott and Williams blithely discuss how wikinomics is beneficial for the transition away from fossil fuels, and although their conclusions and futuristic scenarios often err on the side of optimism, much of their analysis is valid. And so, the normally level-headed and mellow Ben feels the first signs of rage simmering beneath his placid surface. It's those darn global warming deniers! We know the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the atmosphere. I am convinced by the evidence that humans are a significant contributor to global warming—however, even if one is not, doesn't it make sense to curb our emissions anyway? At some point, whether or not one agrees that we have already passed it, we'll be emitting too much carbon dioxide, and the Earth will not be a happy place to live. The same goes for our dependence on fossil fuels. Maybe the opponents of the transition to clean energy are right, and there are vast, untapped reserves of oil. That does not change the fact that oil is a finite, non-renewable resource; we are using it faster than it can be replenished by several oils of magnitude. Eventually we're going to have to kick our oil habit—isn't it better to do it now, while we can phase out oil gradually?
Of course, the people who deny human culpability in global warming and the danger of our dependence on fossil fuels often do so out of a particularly insidious version of myopia. We humans are notoriously bad at our long-range planning, preferring to jump from crisis to crisis as our evolution has conditioned us to do. The result is a sort of "not in my lifetime" deferral of the problems of global warming, fossil fuel dependency, etc.—and this, of course, is where my generational bias rears its head. My generation rather worries we're the ones who will ultimately have to deal with these problems (or else)! Yet we are only just beginning to come of age and exert an influence on the conventional halls of power—corporations, governments, NGOs, etc. So understand that for us, the distributed approach to solving these problems that wikinomics champions feels natural and effective because it's largely all we have. Our governments mumble about "emissions targets" and "carbon taxes" even as our world leaders fly off on expensive jets to international summits where they talk about treaties that, if ever signed, are never really honoured. Our poor politicians are trapped between the rock of the powerful, well-funded corporate lobbyists and the increasingly-vocal youth calling out for change. Change, however, is slow in coming. And if our governments are slow in implementing clean energy, designing intelligent electrical grids, and subsidizing automobile innovation, then we are going to do it ourselves.
Our methods are as various and diverse as our demographic: we might generate our own electricity and sell it back to the grid, we might help design vehicles that are more efficient, or maybe we'll develop and contribute to apps that track our carbon footprints. One of the more reassuring points that Tapscott and Williams make is that, contrary to how I sometimes feel, one does not have to be an expert in everything. Sometimes, with all of the issues that seem to be clamouring for my attention, I am just overwhelmed by the amount of information available to me. It's impossible to become an expert in everything, so I must rely on other experts to tell me what I should think, and that always opens me up to the danger of being misled—one Andrew Wakefield, and suddenly I'm running around, not vaccinating my children! Tapscott and Williams have a suggestion to help mitigate such problems: openness and participation. Just as they believe that being open about the methods for calculating derivatives and risks will prevent repeats of the 2008 financial crisis, they are very adamant about opening up R&D for transportation and encouraging innovation in the clean energy sector. I don't need to be an expert in car design, because there are plenty of other car design experts out there who can focus on helping to build better cars. Meanwhile, I can contribute where I feel most comfortable. And that brings me to Macrowikinomics' take on education.
I am almost finished my undergraduate education. This was the last year of my honours bachelors degree in mathematics; next year I take "professional year" education courses and complete two sessions of student-teaching in schools. If all goes well, I'll be certified to teach grades 7-12 in Ontario, specifically in math and English. I've always wanted to be a teacher, even when I was a child. As I approach the attainment of that goal, I ruminate often on how I will teach. I have so many new options available to me, new technology and new strategies. As a new teacher, it threatens to be a little overwhelming, since I still have no experience. I'm sure I will find my way and develop strategies that work for me, as well as for my students. For now, I think about how I can bring my comfort and familiarity with current technology into the classroom and apply it to my teachables.
If Macrowikinomics made me angry about global warming, it made me excited about education. Tapscott and Williams tackle mostly the "ivory tower" of universities in the first chapter of part VI: "Learning, Discovery, and Well-Being", but they also mention projects in elementary and secondary schools of which they approve. Many of their proposals are controversial, and many of them seem obvious, and there is plenty of overlap between these two categories. It should come as no surprise that they want pedagogy to shift away from one-to-many delivery methods, such as the traditional professorial lecture, toward collaborative learning environments where teachers guide students toward making discoveries. They quote Seymour Papert: "The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a [student] of the pleasure and benefit of discovery." This resonates with me. As a student, I have always loved learning, and that has made it easier for me than many of my peers. I know that I can't make every student love learning, but I can do my best. I can recognize that everyone learns differently and try to foster that difference rather than ignore it as I deliver the same lesson in the same style to the same bored faces.
Mostly, Macrowikinomics calls for a flexibility in the education system that would be as awesome as it is, at present, unattainable. Oh, I think components of their vision are very achievable—for example, I certainly hope to see open textbooks and additional platforms modelled after MIT's OpenCourseWare become more common. The success of OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy suggest that there is a niche traditional textbook and lecture-style learning is not satisfying. Some of Tapscott and Williams' suggestions are less likely to pass, at least in the near future: I think as long as universities are competing for government grants and corporate investments, it will be more difficult to collect credits from disparate institutions (through distance learning) and cobble them into a degree. Of course, Tapscott and Williams would like to see those institutions become collaborative at every level, not just when it comes to accreditation, and that would solve the problem—but the problem is a deep one, embedded with the very system itself. And I'm not going to tackle it myself … I'll be in high school, preparing the minds who probably will.
In the last two parts of the book prior to the conclusion, Macrowikinomics turns first to the dying newspaper industry and then to the effect of wikinomics on freedom and democracy. The former contains little that will be new if one has been paying any sort of attention to the news in the past five years: newspapers are dying, free is killing them, bits are cheaper than atoms, etc. It is a solid enough analysis, but it is not the strongest part of the book. I am pleased by the inclusion of the latter part, because it addresses some of the concerns I voiced in my review of Wikinomics about the absence of any perspectives from less developed nations. Again, it's not perfect, and sometimes I had to flip to the end notes to find the caveats about how the Internet can be used to the advantage of authoritarian regimes as well as a tool to fight against them. I'm still pleased by the inclusion of these topics, however, and for readers less familiar with how social networking has interacted with political activism, this part will hopefully be enlightening.
And yes, I get it: BMWs run Linux. The repetitive style that sometimes irked me in Wikinomics returns in all its glory. Also, if you have read Wikinomics, and especially if you read these in quick succession, some sections of this book will feel very familiar—in fact, some are reproduced verbatim from the first book. While I understand the need to familiarize newcomers with these ideas, and while it might be economical to save some time and effort by reusing older material, I found my attention wandering during these parts, because I had heard it all before.
Tapscott and Williams are at their best when they are discussing the new and amazing opportunities for innovation that the Internet and mass collaboration offer. They are, in a sense, charting the new techniques made possible by our new technology, both by interviewing the people who are setting trends and blazing trails and by making their own diagnoses and suggestions for how we can innovate using wikinomics. As with the previous books, they run into more trouble when they attempt to wax philosophical—their enthusiasm undermines their frequent reminders that wikinomics, the Internet, etc., are not panaceas. Similarly, their attempts to refute criticism of wikinomics and macrowikinomics are noble but unimpressive. Macrowikinomics is thorough, well-researched, and very much a manifesto.
Whether you consider this a good thing I will leave up to you. I, for one, plan to recommend this to people who I think will find it interesting, even if they might not agree with Tapscott and Williams' views. Unless you are an entrepreneur, investor, or corporate executive, I would advise you just to skip Wikinomics and go right to this book: it's everything Wikinomics is and more, and it's definitely worth reading. Macrowikinomics is neither the most insightful nor the most persuasive book about technology I've read, but it is provocative. It made me angry, and it made me inspired.