The Clothesline Paradox and the Hidden Economies of the Web

Yesterday, I wrote a guest post on the Google Public Policy blog on “the clothesline paradox and the hidden economies of the web“, fleshing out an idea that was raised at the USV Hacking Society event back in April.  I’ll include the video, below, of the conversation that kicked off this thinking:

The idea behind the clothesline paradox comes from the history of the environmental movement, and difficulty in quantifying certain kinds of shifts in economic activity — quoting from Tim O’Reilly on the video:

We take our clothes out hang them on the line. They don’t get moved to some kind of solar ledger. They just disappear. We don’t measure them at all. And it seems to me there’s a lot of economic value on the Internet that is like that clothesline paradox.

I’m interested in what we can do — with the web — to address this particular challenge.  Specifically, I think there’s an important opportunity for a coordinated effort, across the web, to gather data and stories about the economic and societal impact of networks and the web.  And I would like to see this happen in a web-native way.

Slash Awesome is a part of this — a distributed effort to collect stories of empowerment and opportunity.  But ultimately, I hope we can build something that encompasses more real-time data about the wide-ranging economic impacts of networks and the web.  An open data platform and API, across the web, for impact metrics.

One thing I didn’t have space to get into in the Google post is the role that they, and other major web platforms, might play in something like this.  One of my favorite examples of the power of open data is the story of Google Transit and worldwide transit data.  I’ve been meaning to write up something longer about this, and probably will soon — but in a nutshell, the combined power of a major consumer focal point (Google transit directions on google maps) paired with a lightweight data format (GTFS), lead to the creation of a powerful worldwide platform.

My hope is to work towards something similar here — a way for web platforms to publish impact metrics in a lightweight, machine-readable format, that can then be aggregated and made interesting and useful in some form.  I don’t have a complete answer to the Clothesline Paradox, but I do think we can work on ways to build a clearer picture of what’s happening on the web.

Anyway, thanks Google for inviting me to guest blog — it was fun!

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