In The Unfolding Internet Age Even Sophisticated Knowledge Will Be Democratized – If People Can Learn How To Make Things On Their Own, Will This Be The End Of the Modern Corporation?

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By Paolo von Schirach

November 5, 2012

WASHINGTON – Bloomberg Businessweek gives considerable space to a strange story, (The Post-Apocalypse Survival Machine Nerd Farm, Nov. 5, 2012). It is about Marcin Jakubowski, a Polish born scientist who wants to democratize economic development by developing easy to use “how to” systems that average persons may be able to learn, so that they can build tools and machinery that one would normally purchase from specialized firms.

Know how for everybody?

Imagine a future in which a farmer can build his own cheap by efficient tractor, create water treatment systems, and so on. It sounds far fetched, doesn’t it? We are used to think about technology as a super specialized endeavor with high barriers to entry, as it requires huge amounts of capital, expensive tools and the best brains, not to mention powerful marketing machines that will help place all these products in a super competitive market place. But if knowledge could be easily transferred, people could learn how to make things on their own; and so the old industrial-technological-economic parameters would no longer apply.

Still the early dawn of the Internet Age

Who knows how long it may take us to get there. But this is not an unreachable goal. Do remember that we are still in the early dawn of the “Internet Age”. It is a safe bet to assume that “we haven’t seen anything yet”. At the moment, the internet provides amazing new opportunities for communications, exchanges and collaboration. But it is still rather clumsy and generally complicated. The notion that now “everybody is connected with everybody else” is largely theoretical. There are huge linguistic, cultural and psychological barriers to productive communications. Most people, while in principle they have the whole world open to them when they go on line, tend to revisit the same places, simply because they are familiar and therefore easier to understand.

By the same token, Google is a gigantic library. But it is poorly organized. Impossible to select the good stuff and junk the garbage. The fact is that there is just too much garbage out there, and this makes web navigation slow, time consuming and often frustrating.

Elite universities making specialized course available on line

That said, we are definitely going towards an era in which high quality information and training will become easily available on line, in a user friendly and easy to assimilate fashion. We are going there. We are beginning to see the first shoots. Major universities, like MIT and Stanford, once the reserved territory of small intellectual elites, are now beginning to offer some of their best courses on line. Think of it: the most prestigious lecturers used to be accessible only to the pre-screened happy few who paid top dollars in order to gain the right to sign up for their courses. Now, at least in principle, millions can follow the same courses on line. And this can be done free of charge or at a nominal cost.

Impact of a knowledge revolution?

At some point this will lead to a qualitative knowledge revolution. Instead of having a few super trained individuals, we may have millions. And these millions may start interactive, collaborative networks that will hasten the pace of innovation in all sectors. Impossible to predict what the outcome of more knowledge, more widely disseminated will be.

New public education models

By the same token, Khan Academy, on line tutorials that began almost as a hobby, has now morphed into a serious education tool backed by the Gates Foundation. This may be the precursor to a real public education revolution.

Union driven American public schools are generally wasteful and inefficient. Children are forced to listen to mediocre and often unprepared instructors who know little, earn little and teach even less. Imagine instead on line interactive material, ably presented by really competent and engaging teachers. Imagine that all this becomes available to all. Then we may as well close down the inefficient schools, as they would have become irrelevant. Home schooling, now a small, elite phenomenon, may become dominant, as parents would have a panoply of on line superior, yet easy to use, tools to educate their kids.

In a do it yourself world, end of the modern corporation?

Back to the “do it yourself” manufacturing idea, I recognize that it may be just a distant dream. But, given what is already going on in related fields, including 3 D printing that allows individuals to “make” products on a small scale, it is not inconceivable that even sophisticated technological know how can be democratized and become available to all.

If and when that happens, then it is good bye to all we know about modern, pyramid-like corporations led by brilliant CEOs fighting for more market share. Right now their claim to fame is all about their unique know how. But if all can learn the same stuff, then their niche is gone. What will come next, nobody really knows.

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