What happens when statistics and masses replace institutions?

[Reposted from First Movers. Law and other fields are beginning to see what free software/open source has seen for a while, as more and more skilled people move to the web and begin to give away their knowledge, displacing established (read: knowledge hoarding) institutions along the way. Clay’s post, linked within, made me write about this in the legal context.]

I’ve long thought that in open source software we are seeing a trend away from trust in an institution (think: Microsoft) and towards trust in ‘good luck’- i.e., in the statistical likelihood that if you fall, someone will catch you. In open source, this is most manifest in support- instead of calling a 1-800 # (where someone is guaranteed to help you, as long as you’re willing to be on hold for ages and pay sometimes very high charges), one emails a list, where no one is responsible for you, but yet a great percentage of the time, someone will answer anyway. There is no guarantee, but community practices evolve to make it statistically likely that help (or bug fixing, or whatever) will occur. The internet makes this possible- whereas in the past if you wanted free advice, you had to have a close friend with the right skills free time, you can now draw from a much broader pool of people. If that pool is large enough (and in software, it appears to be) then it is a statistical matter that one of them is likely to have both the right skills and the right amount of free time.

Clay Shirky today makes an argument that this isn’t just something that is occurring in open source, but is hitting other fields of expertise as well: “My belief is that Wikipedia’s success dramatizes instead a change in the nature of authority, moving from trust inhering in guarantees offered by institutions to probabilities created by processes.” Instead of referring to a known expert to get at knowledge, you can ask Wikipedia- which is the output of a dialectic process which may fail in specific instances but which Clay seems to suggest can be trusted more than any one institution’s processes in the long run.

So does this have any implications for the law? My sense is that it might. The Berkman Center’s OpenLaw project experimented with generating briefs via volunteer input years ago, but never quite got the critical mass needed to take off and become self-sustaining. So it might not be that we’re writing briefs by public collaboraiton in a wiki any time soon. But Wikipedia is already an excellent resource for double-checking interpretation of important cases, SSRN downloads are being used to supplement (and perhaps eventually replace?) journal placement as a metric of quality of scholarly output, blogs are being cited in Supreme Court decisions, and we’re seeing some of the first computer systems that make legal decisions, and allow external input.

Clay would take from this that our legal orthodoxy and leading institutions are being challenged- in many cases, instead of first looking to what the Leading Journals tell us, we’re looking to what blogs, wikis, and other systems of shared expertise tell us. His extrapolation seems to be that this will eventually change how we feel about authority in our field. I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far- but based on some of the data points noted above, I’ve got a hunch we’ll end up a lot closer to his end of the spectrum than we currently are.

[No comments on my blog; if you want to comment, go to the original post at First Movers.]