This week’s readings on crowdsourcing provide a revealing look at both the benefits and drawbacks of seeking problem-solving assistance through reliance on the online community. As the world grows increasingly interconnected through interactive communications technologies, there can be little doubt that crowdsourcing solutions to problems will gain in traction as a low-cost, highly-creative option for individuals and groups seeking “out-of-the-box” solutions to world problems.
Truthfully, although the internet and digital communications certainly provide unique advancement to the desire for crowdsourced solutions, I was particularly piqued by the relationship of the phenomenon with history. Having recently watched a documentary on the way in which ancient Mayan symbols were decoded, I couldn’t help but notice certain overlaps between this week’s readings and the way in which early-20th Century linguists attacked the interpretation of the Mayan language.
Much like both articles this week, early efforts to decode Mayan characters were similar in that the content was made publicly available, and many efforts to decode the characters came from individuals outside of the traditional academic structures. Indeed, looking outside of the traditional community of linguists and anthropologists enabled the development of highly unorthodox approaches to the question of Mayan semiotics.
Brabham noted the importance of escaping the traditional systems and structures of thought in pursuit of unorthodox solutions to the problems of urban planning. Indeed, in the decoding of Mayan linguistics, the efforts of individuals unshackled by traditional academic paradigms enabled irregular approaches to the problem, culminating in the efforts of one Russian academic, Yuri Knozorov, completely isolated from other experts in the field via the Iron Curtain, to approach the problem of decoding ancient Mayan script in a totally unique (and successful) manner. (Interestingly, when Knozorov saw leaders in the field claiming the text was completely undecipherable, rather than heeding the warnings as valid, he took the claims as a challenge, thus fostering that “game” like atmosphere for himself.)
Current communications technologies enable crowdsourced efforts far beyond those from history, however. For a modern day solution to the question of crowdsourcing, I’ve chosen a slightly irregular example, Stanford University and Sony’s “Folding at Home” (FAH) partnership.
Although Stanford researchers had access to valid models for simulating molecular behavior, they lacked access to computer systems potent enough to actually perform the task, which would require petaFLOPS of processing power. Ironically, borrowing their solution from a similar one discovered by the Iraqi government under Hussein, Stanford and Sony formed a partnership utilizing the processing power of bundled Playstation 3s in pursuit of solutions to the problem, “Folding at Home.” Crowdsourcing the unused processing power of inactive Playstation3 units (with their owners’ permission), FHA essentially mimicked the processing power of a supercomputer via the networking of Sony’s video game consoles around the world.
To award participants, FHA also enabled the realtime observation of the research, as well as access to emergent data. What is more, a realtime global map of other Playstation units engaged in FHA enabled users to feel part of a larger, crowdsourced effort.