by Nicholas G. Carr
illustration by Peter Hamlin

Is there a fundamental flaw in the thinking of those who believe greatness emerges naturally from the interconnections of the crowd or network?

Greatness, it has always been assumed, lies within. That’s been true in the realm of culture, and it’s equally true in the realm of commerce. For artists and craftsmen, greatness is an expression of individual skill and creativity, of personal genius. For businesses, it springs from the combined know-how and ingenuity of employees, nurtured, coordinated and directed by professional managers. Greatness is an expression of organizational aptitude—what’s commonly referred to as core competence.

But technology is turning the old assumption on its head. In the Age of the Internet, it’s often claimed, greatness lies not within but without. Greatness is not an expression of the aptitudes of individual persons or organizations, but a consequence of the connections between them. Greatness is a network effect. It grows naturally out of the interactions of a crowd—it emerges, as the chaos theorists say. In the Old World, we could aspire to—and occasionally achieve—greatness. In the New World, we’re fated to be nodes on a network. Our role is to contribute to the greatness of a larger whole, not achieve it in ourselves.

Look at Google’s search engine. There was a time when, if you wanted to sort through a lot of information and rank it according to quality or relevance, you would have hired a team of experts— editors and librarians and scholars—and set them to work. That, in fact, is exactly how Yahoo! created the original Web directory back in the mid-nineties. Google, though, has replaced experts with algorithms. It sucks in loads of data on all the little decisions people make as they navigate the web—what they read, what they link to, which links they click on and which they don’t—and it runs all that information though a software program that automatically generates its search results.

The greatness of Google’s service does not come from within—from the work of talented specialists inside its organization. It comes from without—from the many millions of people who traipse through the Web every day, unconsciously leaving behind billions of bits of data for Google’s machines to harvest and spin into gold.

The Google-ization of Business
The Google model has been spreading quickly with the arrival of the next generation of the Internet—what’s often called the Participative Web, or Web 2.0. Many of the new start-ups springing up on the Internet today are designing their services to tap into the so-called “wisdom of the crowd,” as expressed through its myriad interactions online. Tim O’Reilly, the technology publisher who coined the term “Web 2.0,” calls this practice “the harnessing of collective intelligence.” Successful new Internet companies, O’Reilly writes, “build systems that get better the more people use them.” A product’s value—its greatness—is simply “a side effect of [its] ordinary use.”

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