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Solving big questions through “Ready, Fire, Aim!”

It’s -20C here in Lanesboro this morning, which means it’s really too cold to do anything other than throw logs on the fire and read articles that pop up in my aggregator. (Typing, you see, requires removing the hands from the gloves, which is a bad thing, whereas I can page through feeds with my fingers protected.) It’s evidently a good day for big ideas. David Weinberger, my favorite big thinker, is one of twenty intellectual heavyweights featured in the Harvard Business Review’s “Breakthrough Ideas for 2007” – he writes about “accountabalism“, which is where accountability goes over the edge and into cannnibalism, sacrificing people who make honest mistakes in the hopes of reaching an unreal ideal of business perfection. The most useful, to me, of the twenty ideas is Clay Shirky’s observation that open source software succeeds because it fails so much more cheaply than commercial projects – I’m stealing this for an article I need to draft today once my fingers unfreeze.

If ideas the size of Linda Stone’s continuous partial attention aren’t your thing, Wired may have you covered with “What We Don’t Know“, an excellent overview of a wide set of unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) scientific questions. Fortunately John Hodgman is on hand to answer six of the trickiest, leaving us with the lightweight challenges like “How do entangled particles communicate?” Questions like this make me very glad I didn’t study physics – the big question of development economics, “Why are some nations rich and others poor?”, is generally big enough to keep me distracted for weeks at a time.

The big question that interests me these days is “What will the Internet look like when a billion more users connect?” Another version of that question is, “Is it true to say the Internet links a billion people if those people aren’t able or aren’t interested in talking to one another?” This is the question I tried to raise in the interview I did recently with New Scientist, and it’s the question we’re trying to address with Global Voices. (Since we’re proposing a solution before really exploring the problem, we’re embodying the “Ready, Fire, Aim” strategy of open source development that Clay refers to in his HBR piece.) My friend Rezwan read the interview and responded with a terrific post on his blog, The 3rd World View:

I also think that the notion of a common global internet is really an illusion. Because the infrastructures, internet penetration, the level of education, language, culture varies from country to country. The developing countries are following the developed countries and the gap between them is clearly visible.

For an example in Bangladesh, a nation of 140 million people, the internet penetration is less than 1% (about one million). And I have been following the Bangladeshi blogs since 2003, and the countable English language sphere (except symbolic presence in ‘my space’ and likes) has not grown more than one thousand

Rezwan goes on to point out that the Bangladeshi blogosphere is growing now that there’s a platform which allows people to blog in Bangla. While this is a great step forward, it means that there’s a conversation taking place which non-Bangla speakers don’t have access to, pointing to the need for efforts to bridge between conversations in different blogospheres. Without these bridges, we may well have a future with billions of people on the Internet, but very little flow of ideas between different cultural and language communities, which would be a very sad missed opportunity.

Is Global Voices – an English-language project based out of Harvard University really the best way to build these bridges? Almost surely not. But through the process of “Ready, Fire, Aim”, we’re getting better, with an impressive Chinese edition (the volunteer effort of the extraordinary Portnoy Zheng and his team of translators), a Spanish site under development and plans for sites in French, Arabic, Bangla and as many other languages as we can cover, we’re entering rapid fire mode. Is it the ultimate solution to creating global dialog? Nope. But it’s one answer to a big question, and I’m increasingly convinced it’s the question I’m most interested in trying to answer.