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This article is from the In-Depth Report The World Wide Web Turns 25
See Inside October 2008

All Together Now: Unleashing the Web's Synergistic Possibilities

Understanding how novelty emerges from complex systems is a new frontier

Remember synergy? It was one of the buzziest buzzwords energizing the dot-com era of the late 1990s. The Internet was making it easier than ever to pull people and organizations into cooperative networks, and legions of start-up companies exuberantly leapt in to take advantage of the new efficiencies and marketing opportunities. Expectations were rife that the whole would exceed the sum of the parts, although proponents were sometimes vague about how (and how to build a real business proposition around it).

One decade and a boom-and-bust cycle later, the synergistic promise of the Internet is in force. Thanks to the collaborative enterprises of Web 2.0, people routinely reveal their life histories on Facebook, share photographs via Flickr, contribute to wikis, and Twitter their passing thoughts to anyone who will read them. Synergy may take a backseat to “social networking” and “user-generated content” as boardroom jargon these days, but information technology has indeed made this a golden era for collaboration.

Tim Berners-Lee, the author of the Web’s technical protocols, believes that the phenomenon of the Web’s growth deserves its own study, as he advocates with Nigel Shadbolt in their article. Something has made the Web fantastically successful at inspiring and empowering innovation; the trick is to find out which of its features have been most instrumental to that end so that they might be enhanced further or duplicated in other situations.

As an example of the enterprises emerging spontaneously through the Web, Shadbolt and Berners-Lee do not cite the Open Prosthetics Project, which journalist Sam Boykin writes about in “With Open-Source Arms,” but they could have. As battlefield veterans and accident survivors who have lost their arms know tragically well, the available prosthetic limbs are poor substitutes. Unfortunately, because the commercial market for such prosthetics is so small, improvements have been slow to materialize. Recently, however, a community of sympathetic designers has started working on the problem, modeling their Web-based collaboration on open-source software projects. Boykin describes some of their amazing progress to date.

Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, but I suspect that study of digital networks and their emergent properties may someday yield a premium of insights into how biological networks behave, too. Certainly there is no shortage of mysteries in that area that need illuminating. For instance, neurobiologists are still in the early days of understanding how networks of interacting neurons in the brain deliver fairly elementary cognitive functions. No one can yet say how a quality as abstract as intelligence is wired into the brain. Studies have nonetheless shown rather conclusively that some component of intelligence as measured by IQ tests is hereditary and so must be represented in our genes.

Yet as science writer Carl Zimmer explains in his article on “The Search for Intelligence”, the nature of that genetic component is hard to pin down. Researchers can point to specific bits of DNA that can each add a tiny amount to IQ but to never more than a few points. Unless those studies are missing something, the totality of those genes somehow gives intelligence a boost that exceeds the sum of their individual contributions. So whether or not it is a currently faddish buzzword, we all have synergy on the brain.

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