Perhaps we have just witnessed the biggest and most important ‘wisdom of crowds’ experiment we could never have imagined.
Over the last 18 months we have all read about recessions of the past century; searching, sometimes desperately, for leanings from history. Maybe its time to start taking stock of how this one played out. Here’s the way things look now – assuming another calamitous crash does not befall us:
• We stared into an abyss- the real risk of a global economic depression
• An unprecedented and intense global conversation took place
• The smartest specialists debated in open forum with the populace
• We analysed the heck out of the problems
• We discovered bold and sometimes novel policy actions
• We found, recruited or promoted brave leaders into place to act
• We turned the ship around moments before it hit the iceberg
The global financial system came within one or two days of complete meltdown last year at the point when Lehman collapsed. That episode is still to be formally investigated and documented by historians so let me paraphrase statements I heard from one person close to the action at the center of the global financial system – ‘we were less than 48 hours from the stone age, it was simply becoming a question of which timezone’.
Since then a massive global conversation has taken place. Recently I heard a business news interviewer ask a notable economist rhetorically ‘have we really been playing this policy debate out in the interviews and op ed articles of the financial news system?’ I think the answer is broadly ‘yes’ – or ‘yes AND..’
And many of those op eds and interviews were on web video and podcast
And all those online texts, videos and podcasts were commented
And all of those comments were linked into blogs
And all of those blog entries were linked into others
And all of those observations were facebooked and tweeted
And the discourse was word clouded and social network analysed
And the PR companies selected key themes from the patterns
And organisations directed their ideas to those themes
And journalists uncovered new questions to pose to other economists
And more op eds were written
Rinse and repeat.
This incredible global, real time conversation amongst vast numbers of actors wasn’t available to help analyse and resolve economic problems in 1920s and 30s or the 1970s and 80s. Indeed it was only a tiny shadow of its current capability during the last recession of 2001, when far fewer people were online and many of the tools mentioned here didn’t exist.
Maybe, just maybe in a few years time, business historians will note that this was a moment when the Internet helped save the world economy and mankind took step a giant leap forwards.