Government as a Social Machine

I am blogging today from the Government as a Social Machine forum hosted by ANZSOG and featuring Professor Dame Wendy Hall from the University of Southhampton in the UK.

The discussion this morning involves a diverse range of stakeholders from both public and private sector organisations discussing the challenges organisations and citizens face in adapting to the new knowledge-rich, engagement-rich worked enabled by global real-time distributed communication systems, such as the Internet and mobile devices.

Wendy is also presenting at a NICTA/OKFN event this afternoon, at the Semantic Web Conference in Sydney later this week and in Victoria next week at the first Digital Literacy even being run by the Victorian public service (details of most of these events are in my Gov 2.0 calendar.

Wendy has opened with a story from before the web, on how no-one predicted what the Internet would become, however some earlier thinkers, such as Vannevar Bush, in his brilliant work ‘As we may think’ (, which was published in the Atlantic Times in 1945.

She’s also talking about aged Nelson, who coined the terms hypertext and hyperlinks back in the 1960s and Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse, windows and much of the user interface adopted by Apple and Microsoft over the next thirty years. In fact Doug gave the ‘mother of all demos’ ( which foresaw the web (viewable online at YouTube).

Wendy recalls that when she met Tim Berners-Lee at the Hypertext conference in 1991 (which rejected Tim’s paper on the web), she thought it was pretentious that he had named the hypertext system he had invented the ‘World-wide Web’, presuming that people around the world would use it.

At the time she didn’t think the web was original or breakthrough, “how wrong you can be”, she says.

Wendy says that Tim’s strategy was to give away the web, making it an open protocol and standard – universally free to use and not controlled by any organisation. She says that otherwise Tim felt that the web would not grow or thrive, but instead be locked down.

She also says that Tim believed that to make the web scale, it had to be able to fail. While many at the time believed that a system which could dead-end – linking to a non-existent page – would turn away users, Tim strategically introduced the ‘404 error’ (which appears when a web page isn’t found’ to encourage individuals and organisations to build out the web, rather than limit it.

Wendy asks, could we have built the web another way? She says we may have to at some point, it is only 23 years old, “barely out of nappies”.

Wendy says there’s many ways to kill or corrupt the web, such as having specific organisations or governments control it – however we don’t really know as we haven’t had that experience yet.

However, she says, what if the Internet disappeared overnight – how would it impact on individuals, organisations, societies, even countries?

The impact of a one-day shutdown of Wikipedia was immense (she says) during the SOPA protest, and there is an increasing risk in some developed nations that blackouts, caused by inadequate electricity supplies, could cause a blackout of information, with people unable to access the information they need to cope with the situation.

Wendy also says that when Tim created the web he understood that it had to include an easy way to write, as well as read, web pages – leading to the development of the first web browser, which was also an editor.

Wendy says that in 1996-8 while the web was growing, the Internet wasn’t sufficiently mature for broader use, due to difficulties with slow modems, finding Information (pre-Google) and the cost of computers – making categories such as online shopping inconvenient.

However how the technologies have matured Wendy believes that High Streets will disappear. She says that the UK government selling off the Royal Mail, which was instituted in the Victorian era, is a sign of this change flowing through the system.

Wendy says that years ago she consulted to the Royal Mail, highlighting to them that the new business they needed to dominate was parcel delivery, based on online sales “however they didn’t get it”.

Wendy says “it is very hard to convince the big juggernauts of industry, including government, to change”.

She says that, for example, large organisations seem to believe that people will always read books – Wendy says yes they will read, but not necessarily books.

She recalls telling biologists years ago that they would be reading papers online. They retorted that the Internet was so slow and computers so heavy that they would never be able to read their papers on the train. Wendy says, “Now, ten years on, biologists are reading their papers on the train using iPads.”

Wendy says that Google was inconceivable before the web, and engineers had ‘proven’ it wasn’t possible to quickly index huge amounts of information.

However she says that since Google, the world has changed. Wendy says that Google is also no longer just a search engine, they are incredibly diverse, “there are at least 2,000 driverless Google cars driving around San Francisco”.

Wendy says that once an organisation has a majority of the network it becomes very difficult to dislodge. Google, eBay, Facebook and now Twitter are giants, at least in the English-speaking world – different titans exist in China.

Wendy says that Google is the James Bond villain of the future – because it knows what you search for, “everyone has searched for something they would not want to be made public”. She says that if Blofeld took over Google they would have something over every politicians.

However, Wendy says, when used benignly or even for commercial profit, it is fine – and many other industries are in a similar position of potential control over society.

Wendy says that even before the arrival of social networking “we should have known how much people would want to write about themselves, take photos, videos and share, based on what we knew about human psychology and behaviour”.

Wendy says there is now an expectation that people can find anything, any knowledge online and if an organisation, product, place or individual doesn’t have an online presence “they don’t exist.”

She says that the web should be the first way any new entity is introduced or promoted.

Wendy says that while Tim Berners-Lee invented the technology and helps set the standards, we (globally) have created the web. We write the websites, blogs and micro blogs. We make the links and the apps. “The web doesn’t have shareholders or owners – we are collectively the creators and custodians of the web.”

She says that the web exists because we want it to be there, and it will keep existing as long as we want it to exist, so we all have a responsibility to ensure it is a place we wish to frequent.

When people ask her about issues online, she says that we didn’t make the streets safer by imposing curfews – similarly we need to create the right culture on the web, not create legal restrictions.

Wendy says that Wikipedia was started as an experiment, even Jimmy Wales didn’t believe it would work, however it is now equivalent to 1,900 volumes of an encyclopedia – most of which is very accurate. It has grown its own governance, it wasn’t invented ahead of time – which is a lesson for organisations today.

Wendy also says that YouTube is another giant attractor to the web, the place for storing and sharing videos – now owned by a google.

Wendy says that an alien that came to earth a hundred years ago and then returned today would find everything had changed – except possibly education, which is now being transformed by MOOCs. The first platform for MOOCs has also now been bought by Google and is developing it as an open source platform. She says “who will be the university of the future? Google.”

We’ve had a break and Wendy is now taking some questions. Firstly she says that cybersecurity is a risk to society, though not the web and is an area of high expenditure for the UK government.

She also says, in response to comments at morning tea about people being advised not to trust Wikipedia as a reference, that Wikipedia is at least as trustworthy and accurate as printed encyclopedias, plus it has a faster error correction rate. Plus, she says, we create Wikipedia, so it is what we wish to make it.

Wendy believes that privacy also won’t kill the web, young people are growing up with different concepts of privacy and will adapt their approach and the web to suit their values.

However she believes that blackouts, siloisation and/or the end of a level playing field for creating and publishing content would end the web. Wendy says that net neutrality is also important. Without it we lose the level playing field and commercial or ideological interests can control publishing and access to the web.

One of the crowd has commented that probably government is the biggest risk to the Internet, and Wendy says that she has concerns over legislators making decisions about an ecosystem they do not understand, which can lead to all kinds of unforeseen and undesirable consequences.

Wendy says it is hard to dictate in the web, to get people to use something they don’t want to use. To get the network effect requires co-creation, meaning that government must work with communities collaboratively to develop platforms which benefit both.

ABS representative says that they are opening up a lot of data through APIs and unleashing developers through GovHacks to cocreate new tools and services, however it is still a not insignificant challenge to get people within government to just agree on a common definition for Australia or Sydney, to allow datasets to correlate across agency.

Wendy is now talking about Twitter, and how its real-time nature can support, even drive, community movements, “the way bad news spreads now is via Twitter. It is a mechanism for warning people to get out.”

She says the interesting thing about Twitter is that it is being cocreated, with functions like RT, MT and hashtags invented by the community.

Wendy says cocreation is critical for the web, not only codesigning systems, but using systems which allow people to add value as they go about their daily interactions, such as via ReCAPTCH ( and Duolingo (

Wendy says that the semantic web, a web of data, was in Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision for the Web. However without data online we cannot experiment to find out what this will become or create the network effect, where people share and reshape data and create services or new visualisations with it.

She wrote a paper with Tim in 1996 which identified four principles for the Semantic Web (, however says that the commercial sector still didn’t get open data, hugging it tight.

Then governments began opening data based on discussions with Tim and others, leading to President Obama’s declaration and a cascade of open data releases by governments around the world and initiatives like the Open Data Institute.

Wendy is using an example of UK prescribing data, how open data allowed the NHS to identify 200 million pounds in savings each year. (Photo)

Wendy says that while engineers and scientists often thing of the web as a technological byproduct of a set of simple standards, it is a socio-technical construct, effectively a ‘social machine’ cocreated through interactions between technology and millions of humans.

The technologies that underpin the web didn’t create the web – people did, providing the content, linkages and developing, sharing and using the apps and websites that sit on it. However without the technology the web could also not exist.

Wendy says that social machines start with an incomplete specification that evolves and grows to cover more of the problem via interactions. They achieve participation through local incentives and the network effect, eventually succeeding through a process of rapid trial and error involving subsets of participants.

Wendy is working on understanding social machines through an ‘observatory’ at Southhampton University that observes, monitors and classifies social machines as they evolve. She says this will also become an early warning system for detecting new disruptive social machines and identifying the ‘tipping points’ where they become ubiquitous.

Her group is studying Twitter networks, as well as Wikipedia and YouTube, amongst other services, to understand ‘activity pulses’ and how they help explain social movements and trends. For example, Wikipedia was a better indicator of a trend around ‘Gangnam style’ than Google with the trend occurring a month earlier on Wikipedia.

She asks how does Government, potentially the original social machine (as one audience member commented), transform itself to take advantage of digital channels to be a better social machine?

How do governments employ gamification, the network effect and web observatories to develop and deliver better policies and services?

How do we address the challenges of the 24-hr news cycle, election cycles and other factors which make developing and maintaining social machines difficult?

Wendy says she can’t help reflecting back on governments from Victorian times, the 19th century, that created amazing long-lasting infrastructure in Britain that still serves the population today. She believes they were amazing social machines and still have lessons to teach us today on how to transform government to address the challenges of the 21st century.

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