Time for a collective swig of gin

by Jay Cross on April 24, 2008

The message from the stage at the Web 2.0 Expo: We are at an inflection point in human history. Doug Engelbart’s vision of harnessing our collective intelligence is unfolding. We’ve only just begun. The turning tide is frightening or wonderful; that’s a matter of perspective.

Tim O’Reilly told us Web 2.0 is becoming the platform for everything. It’s an amazing tool for harnessing collective intelligence. It is turning the enterprise inside out. It is the platform beneath a new way of living. We are at a turning point — a huge change in the way the world works.

Tim retold a great story from Clay Shirky. IBM’s Thomas Watson predicted the world would need about five computers. Clay points out Watson was wrong. Not in the direction you think. Watson overstated the number of computers by four. It’s all one cloud. Web 2.0 is evolving into cloud computing and the internet operating system. Ambient computing is on the way but it rides on mobile phones and sensors, not computers. It converging into one platform for the world.

Participatory is too uninspiring a word to describe what’s going on. Since the middle of the last century, we’ve received a gift: discretionary time. Confused, we didn’t make good use of it. When we weren’t taking instructions (at what we call “work”), we became accustomed to doing nothing: sitting back and letting the world go by. Watching the idiot box. From now on, we have to make better use of this gift of time. We must build and share; we must co-create the world we live in. This is a mind-blower on the order of the Industrial Revolution.

In that revolution, abandoning country life to live in cities and working in factories instead of farms put people into a state of perpetual disorientation. One thing enabled them to cope with the crisis: gin. People escaped mental chaos by becoming blotto. Gin pushcarts rolled down the streets. Swilling gin by the tankard blocks out everything.

Clay Shirky told us about one about a four-year old girl searching for something around and behind the family television. Her father asked what she was doing. She asked, “Where is the mouse?” To a four-year old, a television without a mouse is broken. If something doesn’t include you, it may not be worth sitting still for.

What are we doing collectively? Instead of drinking gin. We’re looking for the mouse.


The Blogopolis room here accommodates about a hundred people. As I write this, three or four huddles of them are recording interviews. I am sitting on the floor, beside a large screen. Three people in front of me are waving their arms in the air; they are air-bowling with Wii handhelds; the screen is their virtual bowling alley.

This is the blogging room, a freebie for people who self-identify as bloggers. You want to do something besides sit in a chair listening? This is the place. To the right, several 1′ high robotic dinosaurs are shmoozing. To my left, two people are slumped over the backs of chairs, receiving massages. Scoble’s here. Stowe Boyd is here. Dan Farber sits on the other side of the screen writing a story. A Finnish guy tells me about a web service that warns you of dangerous websites while you are on the net. I mention that for most corporate leaders, this room looks like an outtake from a science fiction flick.

As the keynotes conclude, the Blogopolis is shoulder to shoulder. Soon, people will be fanning out to continue the Expo 2.0 Expo conversation in bars and restaurants. A mash-up of Twitter, Upcoming, and an interactive map will enable them to locate friends via cell phone. They can also get a map — and a report on how big a crowd is at the bar. That’s part of the message: the formal event closes down for the day but the conversation continues on. Care for a pint of gin?

Dorothy Parker:

I like to have a martini
Two at the very most
After three I’m under the table
After four I’m under the host.

Gin is not my drink of choice. I wandered through the one-time wasteland that is now Yerba Buena Gardens reflecting on the day. Serendipity kicked in. Two guys were walking along Mission Street, next to Yerba Buena. Clay and Tim. I re-introduced myself and told them their presentations were awesome. I wasn’t buttering them up: jointly, they had delivered a wake-up call.

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