Making a New World Up as We Go

First published April 10, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The frequent flier blitzkrieg continues. This week’s stop, Sydney, Australia for SMX. In the opening keynote, Danny Sullivan asked Google’s Marissa Mayer what keeps her at Google. Her answer was that there are just too many really interesting, really hard questions still to be answered. She likened it to the world of scientific discovery and pegged the current state of search and online as analogous to the 15th or 16th century. Sir Isaac Newton has just discovered gravity.

From a timeline perspective, I think Marissa’s analogy works. There’s no doubt we’re at the early stages of something, but what that something is remains to be seen. The difference between us and Isaac Newton is that Newton was exploring the guiding principles of the real, physical world. We’re building a new world up as we go. More correctly, a new world is emerging organically from the efforts and thoughts of millions of people. It’s a world defined in an ethereal middle space, a world of mind-spawned musings and accomplishments, shared and propelled one packet at a time. We’re not discovering anything, we’re building something entirely new. At any given moment, hundreds of millions of us are making it up as we go along. It’s a Darwinian experiment on a grand, grand scale.

The other difference is that the physical world afforded us a certain leisurely pace of exploration. Apples were falling from trees for millions of years before Newton finally got around to wondering why. Even Darwin had the luxury of time to define his theory of natural selection. Not much happens in the way of evolution in any time scale that we can perceive.

But this online witches’ cauldron we call the Internet moves much quicker. It is a world driven by innovation, and it is the fastest innovators that will not only survive, but prosper. Mindful musing is a luxury we can’t afford. Things move too fast.

Despite the seemingly blank canvas that stretches before us, there are limits to the world we create, and these limits are those imposed on us by our human nature. The virtual world we create must fit within the sphere that defines us as a species. It must not take advantage of our foibles and failings. It must empower the best of us. The human mind is a convoluted, complex mechanism that is only 5% rational. The other 95%, the really fun part that makes us human, brews under the service, messy, murky and sometimes manipulative. And the truly scary part is that we know almost nothing about this dark underbelly of our minds. We’ve discovered much of the world that lives outside our skulls, thanks to Newton, Darwin, Galileo and their scientific brethren. But we’re only beginning to discover the world that sits locked in our three pounds of grey matter.

Humans haven’t really changed much in 250,000 years. Yet man’s greatest creation, our society, has changed by leaps and bounds — and the pace of that change is still accelerating. The creation of the Internet is perhaps the most significant leap forward yet. We are literally redefining the structure we use to build society. This, I suspect, changes everything. Our challenge, then, is to use our technology, our passion and our intellect to create a society that breaks the restrictions imposed on us not just by our physical world, but also by our baser human instincts.

I can understand why Marissa Mayer still wants to get up and go to work in the morning. She’s driven by the same thing that drives many of us who have chosen to dedicate our passion to this new online world that is the biggest group project in history.

Maybe, just maybe, this time we’ll get it right.

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