Limitations of Technology and “Right Size” Challenges
Last week, I read that a hiker had come across the remains of adventurer Steve Fossett’s airplane near Mammoth Lakes, California (full story here). What was unique in the search for the downed plane last year was the nature and extent of the search and rescue effort. Thousands of people on their computers joined together to scour pictures taken by aerial photography in hopes of saving Fossett or at least finding the crash site. This distributed search network was part of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – which breaks down massive tasks (like scanning through thousands of aerial photographs) into small portions that can be performed by thousands of individuals, taking up only a few minutes of their time.
Professor Yochai Benkler has been writing about these types of collaborative networks, most recently in his book The Wealth of Networks, and I’ve recently been thinking a lot about them too, especially what they might mean for the future of work (and accordingly, traditional labor and employment law doctrine). But before getting too excited about these new forms of distributed collaboration, I have to sound a note of caution.
After all, the Mechanical Turk searching didn’t end up finding Steve Fossett’s plane last year. Was it hubris to think that new technology could solve the problem of search and rescue? Well, perhaps it was one of those intractable problems – according to this account:
“rugged mountainous, tree-covered terrain gave … less than a 10 percent probability of detecting debris from the wreckage during aerial fly-overs. . .. The fact that a large portion of the small aircraft was fabric-covered and that the aircraft quite likely burned on impact leaving very little exposed fabric or metal, also made it harder to find.”
This doesn’t mean that the Mechanical Turk/distributed work technology isn’t useful, or that this type of search and rescue effort won’t be successful in the future. But perhaps this was too ambitious a task. My co-author Rob Rogers and I asked similar questions when I was writing about a different kind of collaborative knowledge gathering tool – prediction markets. Picking the “right size” challenge may be an important part of promoting these new technologies – instead of choosing problems that would be a wonderful advance, but which might be likely to fail. Which types of problems could be benefited from a distributed networking solution? Which will get them? Which will assist the development of the technology, and which may hurt it? In the meantime, RIP, Steve Fossett, who strove to explore new frontiers – even in death.