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Published on June 2nd, 2013 | by Danny Roberts


The Crowd in the Cloud

The revolution continues.

This time it’s crowdsourcing. Why not tap into the collective knowledge of the entire human race? Clearly, there is much to be gained by doing so, whether it’s the satisfaction of contributing one’s expertise to the betterment of mankind or acquiring cheap (or free) intellectual capital for one’s business venture.

This emerging social shift we’re currently experiencing, this paradigm-shattering global social movement sending us careening into a new era of our humanity has everything to do with the fact that we—the entire human race—are talking to each other in greater numbers.

Take the popular weather mobile crowdsourcing app, Welp. First of all, it’s brilliant for its reliance on common sense and the simple observations of people’s direct experiences. Our slightly older readers may remember how they relied on newspapers or network TV weather reports to plan their day or week, only to be disappointed when the actual weather was quite different from the forecast. It left many of us wondering what good weathermen really are. And your grandmother would wisely comment: “You want to know what the weather is like, just look outside!” Well, grandma was right, except now you can basically just ask anyone to look outside for you—in New York or Tel Aviv or Berlin or wherever you might be going.

Second, it’s a delightfully delicious slap in the face to the useless network television news show, which has already been reduced to firemen-rescuing-kitten stories and pushing somebody’s propaganda. Let’s just strike the final blow and take away their weather reporting already.

That’s what I’m talking about when I spout off on changing paradigms and global movements. It starts with meteorologists and ends with democracy itself.

In January of 2013, Finland crowdsourced a new copyright law. And though reports differ, (I’m skeptical—though hopeful—of all the idealism surrounding Iceland at the moment) I’ve heard Iceland is crowdsourcing a new constitution! Why not just rely on the old methods where politicians ask their constituents their opinions and then go ahead and do whatever they want anyway? Well, according to Finnish political advocacy group, Common Sense in Copyright, they simply wanted “a fair and just copyright law in Finland.”

It seems perfectly reasonable. You want something fair, just and democratic, go straight to the people. Crowdsourcing could be the future of democracy—but we might be getting ahead of ourselves here.

There certainly are some problems—some kinks to be worked out. For example, as we all know, sometimes “the crowd” can be silly. After the Boston Marathon Bombing, a group of would-be amateur gumshoes on the popular social news site, Reddit, took it upon themselves to track down the culprits, resulting in the persecution of an innocent young man. And speaking of the implications for democracy, the White House crowdsourcing petition platform known as “We the People,” has resulted in some ridiculous proposals including the securement of funding for the construction of the Death Star and saving the Twinkie by nationalizing this sugary treat with the description:

“We the undersigned, hereby request Barack Obama to immediately Nationalize the Twinkie industry and prevent our nation from losing her sweet creamy center.”

And the implications for workers could go south if crowdsourcing becomes the conventional way in which companies secure labor capital. For example, as a writer, my living is dependent upon finding clients willing to pay for my services. However, I’m noticing a disturbing trend in which websites, online magazines and various other types of sites crowdsource their content, touting their contributors’ chance at writing just for the passion of it.

But where some mobile crowdsourcing apps do offer money to their participants—though it’s often very little—opportunities for people in undeveloped and underdeveloped countries could arise. First of all, people in these countries have a relatively low cost of living, so crowdsourcing jobs like working for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, while it certainly won’t result in anyone, anywhere getting rich, can provide necessary income where it is otherwise difficult to find. Plus, using and working with crowdsourcing apps helps prime third-world societies for the influx of technology that will inevitably come their way, eventually.

But perhaps the biggest concern is privacy. We’re all walking around with mobile devices in our pockets these days. A photojournalist by the name of Rick Smolan did a sort of conceptual art project he called “The Human Face of Big Data” in which he collected the data transmitted from hundreds of mobile phone users across the world. Participants were voluntary, but the data collected would have been transmitted anyway, indicating that your phone is sending out massive amounts of information about you everyday.

Plus, new mobile crowdsourcing app developments in the realm of what they’re calling “Augmented Reality” could likely enable every stranger around you to simply flash their phone in your direction to find out your name, Facebook statuses, tweets, blog posts or a host of other personal information about you—as long as it’s available online.

Too much speculation on this topic might lead a fellow like myself down the road to a dystopic, totalitarian future—some Orwellian 1984 stuff. But I digress.

Like anything economic or democratic—both underlying features of crowdsourcing—the future will depend on the will of the people, en masse. Do they get freaked-out when they realize their information is constantly being transmitted? Are they OK with doling out their skills and expertise for free? Perhaps creative, innovative companies will find ways to offer other kinds of incentives. Perhaps the social aspects alone are enough. We’ll see.

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