INTERVIEW - Reflections on a changing world

By June 11, 2008

L'Atelier's very own Dominique Piotet partnered with fellow countryman Francis Pisani to write a book which nicely puts into perspective the biggest Internet trend of the moment. We are all actors on the web and this is changing t

he world.

Most of you are inundated with RSS feeds, blog posts and dozens of other news tidbits. You are living and breathing the Internet on a daily, most likely hourly, basis. If you are based in the Bay area, you are probably both using and inventing the Internet. Sometimes it is nice to take a breath and a step back to contemplate the world we live in, especially when it is changing so rapidly it makes your head spin.

According to Piotet and Pisani, we live in a new world of dynamic relationships where we belong to many small and scattered communities. For most users, technology has become simple enough that it can fade into the background and simply enable communication and sharing to happen unhindered. The biggest revolution, of course, is that one-way, top-down communication is a thing of the past. We no longer simply receive information. We produce information, we publish it, we comment on it, we vote on it and, we act on it. Out of this frantic exchange comes new meaning.

Piotet and Pisani do not entirely subscribe to the concept of the "wisdom of the crowds". However, far from agreeing with the detractors of the Internet who like to jeer about the "stupidity of the crowds", the authors point out that many exchanges do not enrich the general conversation. But given a choice, they would choose this new world of great possibilities any day. They have chosen to invent a new term which is also the title of their book. They prefer to talk about the "alchemy of the multitudes".

Alchemy because pooling many minds together can sometimes create gold, though not always. Multitudes because, according to them, it better captures the fact we are many, unrelated entities with different interests. Another expression they are fond of is "webactors." They prefer this term to the accepted French "internautes" which describes people who utilize the Internet because we are no longer passive users, but active participants.

For French readers, the relevance of the book partly lies in the fact that both authors are embedded in the Silicon Valley, having both lived and worked there for a number of years. While the analysis provided by Piotet and Pisani is interesting, so are the interviews with some famous and less famous local thinkers including Tim O'Reilly, Danah Boyd from UC Berkeley's School of Information, and Office 2.0 founder Ismael Ghalimi. For English-speaking readers who will hopefully get a chance to read the book in English soon, part of the interest might be in the fact that the authors are outside observers with a different set of references than the natives.

Describing the state of affairs using many examples is one thing and a very useful one, particularly for their French readers who might not be as close to the cutting-edge Silicon Valley. But Piotet and Pisani also want to explain the implications both for us as individuals and for companies. An immediate challenge is to find a suitable economic model to reward users who now co-produce content. Another particularly demanding situation is that of the traditional news media which have lost their former authority as readers have become news commentators and producers. On a different level, companies will soon exist "in the clouds". But how soon will this happen and after reaching which technological and cultural compromises?

The authors would have liked to publish their book online, but the publisher would not go for it. For now, you can get a taste (in French) at

By Isabelle Boucq

Comment le web change le monde : L'alchimie des multitudes, Francis Pisani and Dominique Piotet (Pearson, 2008).

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