Architecting Media’s Future
[Editor's note: This post was written by Keith Hammonds, director of Ashoka's News & Knowledge Program.]
One of the more intriguing exchanges I’ve been in on recently came between Jake Shapiro, founder and CEO of the Public Radio Exchange, and Stephen Friend, president of Sage Bionetworks. Both are recently elected Ashoka Fellows. Shapiro is a media guy: PRX is a web-based platform that allows the distribution, review, and licensing of radio content that’s produced by literally anyone. Friend, a medical doctor and biochemist, was previously senior vice president at Merck & Co., Inc. where he led the company’s basic cancer research effort. Among other projects at Sage, Friend has created an online space where genomic and biomedical researchers can convene, interact, share basic research, and build upon one another’s insights in an environment governed by neither academia nor industry — speeding treatments and cures.
Friend and Shapiro are working on very different projects with very different stakes, but they share a defining approach. Both are working to create an “information commons,” freeing content from silos, disintermediating historical institutions, and making information easily distributed and shared.
Their fields tend to gate-keep information in a similar way. In Shapiro’s world of public media, information flow is dominated by a few producers; in Friend’s world of scientific research, data is typically trapped in academic labs. For both, success is about upending what Friend calls the “tyranny of experts.” as Friend colorfully puts it. They must demonstrate that, given the right structure and incentives, information has more value when shared than it does when hoarded.
They’re creating what we call “architectural solutions” for news and knowledge; we’re hoping to unearth more like them in Citizen Media: A Global Innovation Competition, launched by Ashoka Changemakers with the support of Google. Architectural solutions acknowledge that constant change — and dysfunction — persists in every market.
With each new entrant, new technology, or new popular whim, producers, consumers, and regulators gain or lose advantage. When market participants fail to react quickly, supply and demand disconnect. Private profit often fights the public good. The higher the rate of change, the greater the risk of systemic inefficiency and abuse.
In the last decade, we’ve witnessed growing dysfunction in the information realm. Logarithmically-changing technologies and new entrepreneurial strategies have brought us closer to a world where everyone has access to the information they need to be effective, change-creating citizens. But advances also threaten the public good by compromising values that are foundational to democratic society: freedom of speech, broad access, high information quality, and privacy and security, among others.
The challenge: Can we imagine a new, self-correcting information marketplace? An architecture for news and knowledge that responds effectively to whatever change happens? Such a system would ensure appropriate incentives for innovation while preventing dysfunction; keep innovation and core democratic values in productive tension; and balance entrepreneurial reward with the social good.
What combination of policy change and technology advances will safeguard privacy as a human right while ensuring the free flow of information? And how will we guarantee that quality solutions never compromise the freedom of information (a tension playing out most visibly now in China and Thailand, among other places).
We imagine that a new architecture will operate on three integrated levels: Entrepreneurs acting for the social good; tools and applications that support their work; and dynamic systems that keep innovation and values in productive tension. Our goal is to identify potential solutions at all three levels — new entrepreneurs, new tools, new systems — that lead to a world where new and unanticipated entrepreneurs, tools, and systems emerge all the time.