By David Alan Grier, September 11, 2012

The gentle revolutionary fervor

Guest post by David Alan Grier, President of the IEEE Computer Society, and Author of “When Computers Were Human”.

Two years ago, a group of us awoke to a stunning realization that enough people were involved in this thing called crowdsourcing to form a community. We hoped to build our community at an annual conference where we could share common interests and learn from each other. In the heat of the moment, we also believed we were the vanguard of a new revolution in work. The hour had come. The old ways were in retreat. It was time to stand triumphant upon the ramparts and declare a new industrial revolution.

The revolution has not declined, nor have we lost the sense that we are seeing the start of a fundamental shift in the nature of work. A recent visit to an entrepreneur in Washington, DC, shed light on this point. With a couple of full-time employees and a few interns from local colleges, the startup’s operational model relied almost solely on crowdsourcing. Web services, web development, accounting, and marketing were all crowdsourced.

Even more fascinating was crowdsourcing’s effect on the firm’s hierarchy. Each full time member of the company, including the interns, was an acting manager. They were responsible for requesting services, procuring services, and assessing the results of those services. It’s an organizational structure that looks quite different from the one that operated 20 years ago, and probably only hints at the organizations we will see 20 years in the future.

The time we occupy probably has much in common with the beginnings of the software industry. In 1968, programs were unique to each computing site. Few programs were ever shared. None were shared across different brands of computers. Over the course of 12 years, the position of the programmer changed substantially. Instead of apply the labor of programming to one company or one site, the new industry amortized programming skill across hundreds or even thousands of sites. It gave industry a new common base to exchange information.

Crowdsourcing is now at the forefront of building a common base for all workers. It will bring to industry the value of aggregated labor. It will bring to workers the value of aggregated demand, which should include a greater choice in work and more opportunities to gain skill.

In the end, we may be too close to the daily ins and outs to fully understand the changes being wrought. Just as software pioneers didn’t quite grasp that they were restructuring the way programming work got done, so we don’t quite see how we are restructuring labor as a whole. So we come to CrowdConf to talk and reflect, to see what we have accomplished in the last year, to anticipate what will change in the next 20, and to share a common vision throughout.

David Alan Grier
President, 2013 IEEE Computer Society
Author When Computers Where Human, Too Soon To Tell, and The Company We Keep