If you’re around my age, you probably remember a time near the beginning of the PC revolution when there was a vague concern that home computers would serve to isolate us and separate us from each other because we’d no longer be forced to interact.
Instead, we communicate more easily and frequently than ever before with email and texts. We catch up with people we haven’t seen in years on social media. And most exciting of all (to me, at least), we build life-changing apps and websites via crowdsourcing. Wikipedia may be the most widely known example, soliciting contributions from the entirety of the online community rather than just one source or supplier but here in Israel, all the buzz has been around Waze. Waze is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of our development community. And “jewel” isn’t too far off the mark: Google recently purchased Waze for over a billion dollars.
Have you used Waze? If you have, you’ve helped build it, too. It’s a navigation app – the most popular one in Israel – but its maps are created by users who simply use the app while they drive around. The very act of driving creates the map. And users can also update Waze with all sorts of information helpful to other drivers: where to find cheap gas, the location of stoplight cameras, stretches of road that are under construction or where traffic is jammed, etc.
Waze also uses techniques from the gaming world to encourage users to perform various tasks. So by collecting rewards like cupcakes and earning a spot on the leaderboard, users are also adding functionality to the app.
From a psychological point of view, it’s interesting that a social app like this relies on two somewhat contradictory aspects of human nature: the drive to compete with each other and to “win” and the drive to help each other and to work together. Both are deeply rooted in the human spirit, and great social apps like Waze harness both tendencies.
What I find most exciting about this app, though, is that it represents a power that has only begun to be tapped – the immensely useful things we can make thanks in part to our sheer numbers and the ingenious engineering that can put those numbers to good use. It’s like the old science fiction trope of the “hive mind” – the ability of a number of consciousness to fuse into a single consciousness greater than the sum of its parts, like “The Borg” on Star Trek (only without the hybrid ‘Queen’). With social apps like Waze (and others we will undoubtedly learn about in the years ahead), this hive mind is science…but it’s sure not fiction.