Crowdsourcing: Proof that Ayn Rand Got (at least some of) It Wrong?

ayn-rand-660_0When Paul Ryan appeared on the Republican ticket last fall, two familiar words burst onto the scene like popcorn: Ayn Rand.

Like for many others, Ayn Rand burst into my life at 19, and I lapped up her entire cannon like a plate of cream. Twice. But the world has changed a lot since I fell for the ideal of hyper-individualism.

It’s not that the Internet Age proves she got it wrong. In fact, it shows that Ayn Rand got a whole lot right. She said the human will is amazing and that freedom and opportunity make it flourish.

Working in social technology, I see how right she was. There’s a deep passion for human ingenuity in this business. Where the stakes are high, the talent is top notch and the work product is fantastic.

Yet there’s another group that plays just as important a role in the Information Age: The crowd.

I can’t help but wonder what Ayn Rand would have to say about the phenomenon of crowdsourcing where the work product comes from an undefined group of mostly (pardon my language, Ayn) volunteers?

Crowdsourcing is the process of tapping the collective for ideas. Turns out, the collective gives them up like gumballs, asks little or nothing in return, and before you know it we have wonderful things like Apache Software and Wikipedia.

The Internet Age shows us what Ayn Rand would call an irrational force—the desire to serve—rocks! I can get Wikipedia on my iPhone instantly for free. The Encyclopedia Britannica, before it went out of print, was cumbersome, expensive, and made the book shelves sag.

When Ayn Rand asks who should benefit from our output, she offers two choices: You or me. Today’s answer is both. The power of the crowd is proof. Sometimes providing value for others is personal gain.

I’d like to think a John Galt of this century would have been among the first to spot the power of the crowd. He dedicated his life, after all, to the pursuit of an inexhaustible supply of cheap energy.

This article was originally aired as a KQED listener perspective.

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