Web Meets World

My talk last week at Web 2.0 Expo in New York was entitled “Web Meets World.” I covered this theme from two directions:

  1. The idea that in the future, Web 2.0 “collective intelligence” applications will be driven by sensors rather than people typing on keyboards. What’s more, this idea is also key to “enterprise 2.0.” Dell’s integrated supply chain, which takes real time demand feedback from purchasers, and sends that information all the way back to suppliers in a kind of autonomic process, is more Web 2.0, in many ways, than their heralded Dell Ideastorm initiative. The opportunity for big companies is to turn their IT departments from a back office operation into the brains of their enterprise, enabling autonomic response to constant stimuli from their users. Understanding what WalMart has in common with Google is more important than understanding how to apply Facebook to customer interaction.
  2. The idea that the big problems facing us as a world renders the outsized focus of developers on lightweight consumer applications a bit silly. “Stop throwing sheep and focus on stuff that matters” was how CNet described this part of the talk, and that’s probably a fair summary. In retrospect, though, I realize I need to make the connection between the two parts of the talk clearer: there’s a huge contribution that Web 2.0 techniques can make specifically to the world’s biggest problems. <a href=http://www.instedd.orgInstedd‘s approach to early detection of infectious diseases, Ushahidi‘s approach to crowdsourcing crisis information, Witness‘s harnessing of consumer video to report on human rights abuses, and AMEE‘s APIs for exchanging carbon data between applications, are all part of the “instrumenting the world” trend that I was talking about in part one of the talk. And in classic “watching the alpha geeks” fashion, they are a key part of the early warning signs that have led me to conclude that this is the next big trend. As I delivered the talk in New York, I think I failed to make the connection as explicit as I should have.

Here’s the video of the talk. Let me know what you think.

One more question: at the end of the talk, I urged everyone to register to vote, and to take the election seriously. In the course of making that request, I let my personal politics show (I am a strong Obama supporter.) Most people in the audience seemed enthusiastic, but some have complained about politics intruding at a tech conference. What do you think? (I think that the current election is going to have a huge effect on our future, and is very much grist for Radar. But I’d love to hear arguments, pro and con.)

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  • I found the sheep throwing slide surprising given that Max Levchin, CEO of Slide and its sheep-throwing SuperPoke, was a keynote presentation at Web 2.0 Expo in April. Slide is again on your stage at Web 2.0 Summit in November.

    1 slide saying do more than throw sheep and two keynotes this year promoting the company best known for throwing sheep, ranking your friends, and adding glitter to your photos.

  • Niall –

    Two things (the first a nit): The sheep-throwing application I showed was not superpoke but a knock-off, although it might as well have been.

    Second, and far more importantly, I’m saying that we (and that means all of us, including me) have been spending too much time focusing on stuff like this, and not enough focusing on stuff that matters.

    The current sense of crisis in financial markets, the state of politics, and global warming, are causing me to spend some time urging people to think beyond the stuff that has been exciting up to now, and to perhaps change focus a bit.

    Sheep throwing and the iPint were dramatic examples to make a point.

  • Tim, I’ve wondered also about whether I should announce the candidate that my company is supporting. On one hand, if my decision were based on personal reasons such as support or opposition for the right to burn flags, then it does seem out of place. But the policies of the presidential candidates seem likely to have significant impacts on my business and my customer’s ability to purchase my products.

    Specifically, my customers are conferences. Conferences rely on people being able to afford to attend in person. Therefore it is actually relevant to talk about which candidate has a better energy plan.

    I read with interest the discussion you had with attendees of your interview of Ariana Huffington. I think the two people who complained have a valid point that they were briefly a captive audience for your political views and had paid for that honor. I hope that doesn’t limit your comments to non-captive audiences reading your material for free, i.e. Radar and Twitter.

    FWIW, CrowdVine supports Obama in the belief that he has a stronger energy plan, is more likely to follow through, and is less likely to burden my customers with debt from unnecessary military action and bailouts of financial institutions that should have known better. I have other personal views that effect my opinion of both candidates, but those may be better told face-to-face to people I know personally.

  • Incidental correction: music emphasizing “sample/modify” neither originates in nor is a hugely important aspect of rap, which is mainly about improvisational poetry (as in the historic Homer).

    Sample/modify hit a lot of genres at once and no one of them really “owns it” so your linkage there is culturally suspect and people will look for ulterior motives to the link (well, I know I am… you got there from a connection labled “lawlessness”, roughly speaking).

    Also, it’s nice that you admit that the genomics firms are engaged in unregulated, unsupervised, not-meaningfully-consensual human subject research.


  • Who is this Obama guy? The election is between Harper, Dion, Layton and Duceppe.

  • It’s also funny how you implicitly define a “so so” entreprenurial idea as one that VC’s reject.

    VC’s don’t reject or accept ideas at all. They accept or reject applications of ideas by specific people and in specific contexts. But they conflate the two, just as you did, and that’s a large part of why they suck as currently manifest.


  • And to the financial market, politics, and disease, may I add education to the list of areas that Web 2.0 can potentially revolutionize.

    The best part of web2.0 to me is the massive public goods is supply’s. The developing world is in great need of a strong web2.0 / Open Courseware platform.

    And in the wealthy west, the education market (elementary and secondary) is ripe for the picking by the first vendor that really understands network learning. The existing Learning Management Systems (Blackboard et al.) are terrible, stuck in 1990s paradigms.

  • Our dear CIA must love collective intelligence, if privacy of individuals could not be protected well during the collection of intelligence.

  • Your point about the Web 2.0 using more sensor data is all but inevitable. Today, the ‘collective intelligence’ is all cerebral – the result of cognitive outputs like decision making. The next step is clearly to put that collective intelligence into the real world environment by adding sensors. This seems to be a natural extension of Gibson’s idea about the interconnectedness of the real and the virtual worlds. We already use some of that sensor data when we use iPhone maps – the traffic speeds are displayed on the freeways as color-coded lines.

    Regarding your pitching for Obama, I found that a bit incongruous. Yes, do ask for everyone to register to vote, do explain the consequences of not voting, even go so far as to explain the consequences for technology, but don’t pitch for a party or candidate in this forum. Use another venue for that.

  • Hmmm –

    I said *I* supported Obama, but I basically did just ask everyone to register to vote, regardless of party affiliation, and to do research to make sure that they made an informed vote. I didn’t make a pitch for others to vote for Obama.

  • Robin Benson

    A perspective from outside the US …

    A solid and reasoned talk – good to also hear something of your political position Tim: most of the world can’t figure out why Americans can’t understand that if people completely separate politics from everything – ring-fence it out on its own – then for many Americans it never really enters their sphere of thought (suits some politicians more than others). The ultimate irony of this is that politics touches everything. America’s greatest weakness is quite possibly it’s reduction-division-isolationist approach to politics: it’s nice and clean to separate out the hard stuff from the rest of your soft, warm, comfortable and fluffy lives … you’re living in a world that you’ve constructed in your mind. Just don’t be surprised when us non-Americans refuse to live your illusion.

  • I think you presented your point about elections in about as neutral and non-partisan a fashion as you could while still mentioning the candidate you’re supporting, but politics is an intensely passionate, personal thing and many people are likely to get their hair up about it if you mention something that’s not in line with their personal thinking. Recommending that people get informed and then get out and vote – good. Mentioning your preferred candidate, regardless of who it is – ruffles feathers.

    On a related note though, you’ve managed to change my thinking on a hot, political topic – energy and the environment. I have long been a believer in the notion that humans are probably not the prime mover of climate change / global warming. The area I’m writing from was buried under a mile of ice not all that long ago (in geological-time) and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that the glaciers retreat from this latitude was our doing. Likewise I suspect that the current change is probably part of an ongoing trend; the Ice Age is finally ending and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it. So why invest in the effort? Because, as you’ve pointed out there are benefits to the investment even if we fail: advancement of energy technology, oil independence, etc. Like the wrestlers in your poem, we will fall short of our goal, but come away stronger for the effort. I like that.

    P.S. – I’d like to read the rest of that poem. Where can we find it?

  • Tim: “I didn’t make a pitch for others to vote for Obama.”

    I think that is a little disingenuous, or perhaps over modest. I listened to the end again, very carefully, in case my first impression was wrong. You not only explain why you support Obama, but why you don’t support McCain. When you announced that you supported Obama, there was a cheer from the audience. In toto, I think that would send a message to unregistered or undecided voters that the “right way to vote” is for Obama. I appreciate that you expressed uncertainty about this, but I would ask you to reflect on your influence as a “tech celebrity”. Had it been a media celebrity, no one would doubt that an endorsement of a candidate would be a suggestion to “vote like me”.

    You’re a thoughtful person, I’m sure that you wouldn’t even have raised the point if you didn’t have some doubt about your actions, whether from close confidants or self-reflection.

  • Ken Williams

    I think it’s completely appropriate to raise politics at an event like this. Tim as a person and O’Reilly as a company have always held strong opinions about what’s good for society, in a way that’s never been limited in scope to purely technological issues.

    IMO it’s crippling to our national dialogue to insist that people with loud voices (the media, celebrities, power-holders, etc.) must be silent on the important issues. Many people look at e.g. a news reporter who always gives equal credence to two viewpoints, no matter how outrageous one of them might be if the viewer truly understood it, and come away with the impression that the two alternatives are equally desirable. This drives me crazy.

  • Hi Tim

    Seeing as I have a one-track mind, as you know, I feel I need to mention Fluidinfo :-)

    I like the sensor comment, and agree that there will be an inevitable rise in the number and kinds of sensors, in their connectivity, and in the variety of data they are producing.

    But where will they put their information?

    That’s precisely the sort of thing we’re building Attribase for. No-one need anticipate what sorts of sensors might pop up or what sorts of information they might generate. The people connecting them to the internet do not have to ask permission to add their information to anything they want to add it to (e.g., I want a sensor to attach a count of the number of free car spaces outside O’Reilly in Sebastopol). And once the information is added, you have hosting, search, mash-ups with other data, and an API – all built in.

    IOW, all these sensors are going to need (or be most useful with) a good information architecture to hold their results.

    The focus on sensors also a good way to illustrate that this kind of storage need have nothing whatsoever to do with URLs and the web (though it can be accessed there, of course). Attribase knows nothing about the web or URLs. It’s all just information.

    BTW, you mention entrepreneurs who mortgaged their houses to fuel their startups. I *sold* mine :-)


  • Terry Jones – I didn’t mention you by name, but it was you I had in mind when I mentioned entrepreneurs who were so committed they mortgaged their houses. Sorry I didn’t get it right. You’re even more committed than that.

    Really good point about how the sensor web is going to need new infrastructure to make sense of all the data. Here’s hoping you’re on the front end of that wave!

  • @Alex Tolley –

    I wrestled for days with whether to put in the political stuff, but ultimately decided to for the reasons outlined so clearly by Ken Williams and Robin Benson. At O’Reilly, I’ve always used my bully pulpit to talk about issues that matter – for example, advocating open source when it would ruffle feathers at Microsoft, publishing about Microsoft and bringing them to OSCON even though it would ruffle feathers among the open source faithful.

    I believe that this election has grave consequences for our country. I tried to be fair in my comments, while at the same time raising some of the issues that I think people should be aware of.

    I’m sorry if it made some people uncomfortable. But I’ve made some people in the tech world uncomfortable many times, while trying to be fair all around. I think I’ve done a good job standing up for what I believe is right, without worrying too much about what people will think.

    And if I can do that in tech, why not politics? This is not a game. I really do believe that decisions we make over the next few years are so important that they may change the course of human civilization.

    I’m thinking of writing a long post about why I support Obama. Trying to figure out whether to publish it here or on an explicitly political site.

  • You ask: “Are we working on the right things?” I say it takes those kinds of goofy applications to perform simple functions, that then become widely used. THEN, someone comes along and aggregates them all into a useful, world-changing function.

    Twitter is a PERFECT example: I love the idea of everyday devices/machines/plants tweeting on their own. Without someone applying a purpose, Twitter is pretty useless. It takes smart users to help uncover the genius behind the benefits.

  • > it was you I had in mind

    It was?!? :-) That’s really something, thank you. And of course it’s not important if it was slightly wrong!


  • Tim, if you decide to write a long post on why you are supporting Obama and post to another venue, please post the link here too. I’d certainly be interested in your reasoning, particularly with regard to specifics in science & technology policy, for which there is a significant divide between the candidates.

    I don’t think so much that your comment made some people uncomfortable, certainly not me. Rather, I found it inappropriate, perhaps a faux pas. While the majority of your audience was probably American, there were likely many foreigners too. Put yourself in their place, would you want to hear a short spiel on which $COUNTRY leader the speaker supported? Would Paul Krugman make similar comments at an Econ conference?

    I entirely agree that politics is not a game. I also agree that the future course of America will affect human civilization. The parallels with Rome have been noted before. As a Brit, I am quite aware of how quickly the British Empire, upon which the sun would never set, fell apart. However I also don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing for Britain, and certainly not for the rest of the world. Perhaps because of that, I am less wedded to national trajectories than to that of Enlightenment thinking.

    I’m pleased to hear that you thought very carefully about your decision. That seems very in character and is one of the reasons that I find your thoughts worth following.

  • @Dan Reardon: You can find the full text of the Rilke poem here:


  • We have been focused on bringing web 2.0 tools to enterprise operations in the (geo)spatial data industry. Our goals are to illuminate the deep web and dark internet digital assets of this industry using a combination of library appliance services and direct monetization capabilities. In short, we are trying to incentivize the players in this industry through cost efficiencies and revenue generation to expose and release their content stores.

    While we get a lot of positive feedback from business units and individual participants in the industry, the IT departments in medium to large organizations are very conservative. Robert Cringley has been writing a series on IT departments (here is the first one), and I think he illuminates some of the problems with enabling “enterprise 2.0”, specifically the gatekeepers in IT have not necessarily bought into the objectives.

    Success with a couple of key players will demonstrate the validity of an internal enterprise 2.0 approach, but I wonder if we are going to need to see a generational switch in IT leadership in order to see wide spread adoption and release of deep content to the greater community. Do you see examples of more wide spread enterprise 2.0 adoption within IT departments in other industries?

  • Great talk, Tim. Very inspirational. Your pitch for Obama at the end of your talk really summarized your entire message of personal commitment to something much bigger and more important than the trivial fluff that consumes our daily life. Kudos.

    Vincent Serpico

  • Tom

    “Dell’s integrated supply chain, which takes real time demand feedback from purchasers, and sends that information all the way back to suppliers in a kind of autonomic process, is more Web 2.0, in many ways, than their heralded Dell Ideastorm initiative.”

    Care to elaborate?

  • Jim G.

    I find it interesting that there’s so much discussion on the relatively minor question of Tim bringing up politics, and so little discussion of the meme “focus on stuff that matters.” That’s probably because questions like “what really matters?” are much more difficult to address.

    There are other questions raised by the video that I have trouble wrapping my brain around but are worth the effort. “What strategy is robust even in the face of global and economic collapse?” Hmm.

    Along these lines, today is “Global Overshoot Day” for 2008. This is the day that humanity has consumed all of the new resources that nature will produce this year. From here until the end of the year, we’ll no longer be “living off the interest” and instead will be “eating into our capital.” For more information see:


    Living with our means and not burning up the planet. Now THERE is something that matters!

  • Jeff


    It was a great and inspirational talk that you gave, however myself and some of the other attendees I talked with afterwards were left wondering exactly what sorts of opportunities you see for Web 2.0 techniques to be applied to climate change. Maybe you’d care to elaborate on this a bit more in future talks or posts? It seems that much of the needed innovations are in fields such as EE and biotech, so would be curious as to how you see the web fitting in.

    Also 3 of the 4 examples you gave are non-profits. I can certainly see how Web 2.0 can advance a number of social causes, when when you encourage web innovators to focus on some of these larger challenges, do you mean that as a business opportunity? A lot of the web innovators out there have not made their millions yet and so still need to worry about making a living while they go about this.

  • I agree with you 100% i could not put it better then you
    they do need to see the to see the big picture or as you put itthe brains of their enterprise
    Israeli Web News

  • Tom, Jim G, and Jeff –

    You all ask such good questions (and raise such good points) that I think I’m going to answer them with new top level blog entries. Will try to get them out this week.

  • Dear Tim,

    I think it was an engaging talk which still remained grounded and briefly mentioning your politics on your companies web site is totally appropriate. This election and the resultant policies will likely influence your business and your field.

    Kind Regards,

    -Siri Dhyan

  • Arden

    Why talk about Web 2.0 and then urge people to vote? Wouldn’t it be better if we used Web 2.0 for governance instead of occasionally voting for one person to control our lives?

    Check out the Metagovernment project:
    (or the many other smaller projects out there doing the similar things)

  • I would encourage you and anyone with a pulpit to speak up about politics at such an urgent time as this.

    Using a post right here to explain “why Obama” would certainly be fitting. The importance of the coming election cannot be overstated. If you share the views of many Americans that ‘Register to Vote” is in itself an insufficient message, then by all means, tell us what you think of Obama, and why.

    We have had eight years of an administration governing through half-truths, distortions, lies, corruption, cronyism and fear. The economy has produced the greatest deficits in history, lost jobs, and expanded only the ranks of the working poor.

    McCain graduated 894th in a class of 898 at the naval academy, and Sarah Palin took six years at five colleges to get a journalism degree with no accessible word in print to her name. McCain has produced no specific ideas (“greed is bad but so is regulation” is not a formula for reform), his voting record on energy and the environment is barely discernable from Bush’s (Arctic drilling being the singular exception), and Sarah Palin is a shrewd, vicious dimwitted beauty queen who knows how to read a teleprompter like a pro.

    Obama has ideas and plans and a voting record; he is a product of the best America has to offer: a meritocracy that at times allows the brightest among us to rise to leadership despite economic background or, hopefully, even race.

    If this is not an appropriate time to bring up politics, Tim, then when is? What if we were in Germany in 1932 and the election was coming up, would the appropriate message be: “register to vote, but it is not for me to tell you how I will vote?”

    So expressing how you are voting and why and what you think it means to your chosen profession and the economy is certainly fair game. Which is different than monitoring or pressuring employees’ votes, or making politics company policy. Lead by example, as you have always done. I look forward to reading it–and thank you!

  • The importance of this election led us to apply our tech skills to build CountMore which encourages college students to vote.

    The more general concept of working on stuff that matters (we call is “social tech” or “civic software”) led us at Front Seat to build projects like Walk Score, Better Bills (productized at Positive Energy) – two environment-related projects that influence resource consumption by giving people interesting ways to look at information about the real world.

  • I read with great enthusiasm your attempt to get the developer community to move beyond triviality and to start focusing on things that matter. As you rightly point out, the world is facing incredible challenges and the economy is just the tip of the melting iceberg. Climate change, deforestation, poverty, peak food and peak oil. The beauty of these challenges is, as you suggest, that the technology community actually could harness its enormous reach to make a positive impact on the world while simultaneously innovating new web 2.0/mobile solutions and achieving scale and profitability. I applaud you for encouraging such a transition because despite those fun golf and beer Apps I can get on my iPhone, I would encourage more companies and developers to apply their incredible talents to something a bit more productive. It is amazing how the emergence of mobile and web 2.0 could be used to bring about enormous positive change.

  • Yes…my plan to take over the world is slowly coming true…

    1) write open source wireless stack
    2) make devices to improve agriculture efficiency, disaster relief logistics, outpatient medical monitoring
    3) take over the world
    4) walk my dog

    FreakLabs Open Source Zigbee Project

  • Jason

    THANK YOU for urging people to work on stuff that matters and reminding me to keep focus on stuff that matters and not the money stream.