This is my 2009 answer to the annual EDGE question. This year's question was WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? Easy, don't you think? Do not quote without permission.
THE AGE OF REPUTATION
When asked about what will change our future, the most straightforward reply that comes to mind is, of course, the Internet. But how the Internet will change things that it has not already changed, what is the next revolution ahead on the net, this is a harder matter. The Internet is a complex geography of information technology, networking, multimedia content and telecommunication. This powerful alliance of different technologies has provided not only a brand new way of producing, storing and retrieving information, but a giant network of ranking and rating systems in which information is valued as long as it has been already filtered by other people.
My prediction for the Big Change is that the Information Age is being replaced by a Reputation Age in which the reputation of an item — that is how others value and rate the item — will be the only way we have to extract information about it. This passion of ranking is a central feature of our contemporary practices of filtering information, in and out of the net (take as two different examples of it — one inside and the other outside the net - www.ebay.com and the recent financial crisis).
The next revolution will be a consequence of the impact of reputation on our practices of information gathering. Notice that this won’t mean a world of collective ignorance in which everyone has no other chances to know something than to rely on the judgment of someone else, in a sort of infinite chain of blind trust where nobody seems to know anything for sure anymore: The age of reputation will be a new age of knowledge gathering guided by new rules and principles. This is possible now thanks to the tremendous potential of the social web in aggregating individual preferences and choices to produce intelligent outcomes. Let me explain how more precisely.
One of the main revolution of Internet technologies has been the introduction by Google of the « PageRank » algorithm for retrieving information, that is, an algorithm that bases its search for relevant information on the structure of the links on the Web. Algorithms such as these extract the cultural information contained in each preference users express by putting a link from a page to another with a mathematical cocktail of formulas that gives a special weight to each of these connections. This determines which pages are going to be in the first positions of a search result.
Fears about these tools are obviously many, because our control on the design of the algorithms, on the way the weights are assigned to determine the rank is very poor, nearly inexistent. But let us imagine a new generation of search engines whose ranking procedures are simply generated by the aggregation of individual preferences expressed on these pages: no big calculations, no secret weights: the results of a query are organized just according to the « grades » each of these pages has received by the users that have crossed that page at least once and taken the time to rank it.
A social search engine based on the power of the « soft » social computing, will be able to take advantage of the reputation each site and page has cumulated simply by the votes users have expressed on it. The new algorithms for extracting information will exploit the power of the judgments of the many to produce their result. This softer Web, more controlled by human experiences than complex formulas, will change our interaction with the net, as well as our fears and hopes about it. The potential of social filtering of information is that of a new way of extracting information by relying on the previous judgments of others.
Hegel thought that universal history was made by universal judgments: our history will be written from now on in the language of « good » and « bad », that is, in terms of the judgments people express on things and events around them, that will become the more and more crucial for each of us to extract information about these events. According to Frederick Hayek, Civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge we do not possess: that’s exactly the kind of civilized cyber-world that will be made possible by social tools of aggregating judgments on the Web.