James Currier
Technology Entrepreneur and Chairman of Medpedia

The Power of Distributed Control

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The “major thesis of our lives” is that zero marginal cost technologies like the Internet are allowing systems of control to be distributed, rather than centralized.

James Currier

James Currier is a technology entrepreneur. As an early proponent of user-generated media and viral marketing, he founded Tickle in 1999, which he sold to Monster in 2004. In 2007, Currier founded Ooga Labs with Stan Chudnovsky to incubate consumer Web companies. Currier is currently the CEO of WonderHill, a casual games company spun out of Ooga Labs, and the chairman of Medpedia, a communications platform for the medical community worldwide. Medpedia operates in association with Harvard Medical School, Stanford School of Medicine and several other health and medical organizations.

Currier is a Big Think Delphi Fellow. 


Question: How is the Internet changing the way we educate and cure ourselves?

James Currier: The way I see it is the Internet is now here and that means that we're going to move from centralized to distributed, right? So this is the major thesis of our lives. I mean, all of us who are in 20's, 30's, 40's, and 50's, this is the main thesis of what is happening for humanity right now. Which is we're moving from centralized control to distributed control because of these zero marginal cost technologies like the Internet.

And we've seen is go from AOL which was a centralized control to the Internet. We've seen it in, you know, encyclopedias centralized control to Wikipedias. We've seen it in paper based business directors moving to things like LinkedIn, right, which is distributed control, you know, wisdom of the crowd’s sort of thing. And so as we look at what is going to happen now that these technologies are here for hemospasia, what are we going to do? We're going go heal ourselves.

Instead of always going through the physician, the physician will become one component of a distributed system that heals us. We can help each other. We can heal ourselves. We can heal each other. We can work with every tear of knowledge - every person of knowledge whether it's a patient or a physician and everything in between to heal ourselves. We can educate ourselves. We don't have to go through these monolithic, you know, public school systems to educate out - and it's not about education it's about developing the human mind?

We've mastered our thinking around developing the thinking mind around the words education, school, teacher, classroom, we all have had that experience. We're all **** in that model. It's very hard for us to think outside that model. I've had many conversations with Erudite, incredibly intelligent people who are in charge of public school systems who are journalists in the New York Times. And they have a very hard time thinking outside of the box that we all knew as children with school, and education, and teacher, and classroom. And breaking through that is going to be a real challenge mentally for people even though the technology has been there now for 10 years. And with the iPad and the iPhone, it's just, you know, education still works today like it did based on the 400-year-old technology of the printing press.

And the Internet has touched everything expect for medicine and education and government. These are the places that have not been touched and so we need to heal ourselves. We need to education ourselves. And we need to govern ourselves, and the way I look at it is, you know, that's why we've done Medpedia is because we think that you can see if you're onto something in the medical world within a year of trying it. In education it might take six or eight years and in government it's going to take 30 or 40 years. And so the order which I want to attack these things, is medicine first, education second, and then government third at the end of my life because that's a more dangerous endeavor to try to help governments change the way they govern.

But yeah I think the potential for how we develop the human mind is sitting there and is literally just a matter of ideation and figuring it out and trying stuff. A good example of what I'm talking about is this company Groupon which launched in August of 2009 and just raised money at a billion dollar valuation. The technology to do that has been here since '95, maybe even '94. It's just on one ideated it, no one actually brought it together and suddenly they created a billion dollar company out of something you could have done 15 years ago.

The same thing is happening in education. Gaming in education is a challenge because to build a game cost hundred of thousands if not millions of dollars and only works on a platform at a particular time, right? So if I built a flash game six years ago, flash works so much better than it did six years ago that if I looked at the flash game from six years ago it's a pretty bad experience compared to everything else I'm experiencing, so you'd have to rebuild it at the cost of $400,000 or $500,000. So it's expensive and only short term to actually build a game.

So I think the approach to education is not going to be about games and this is also true about medicine, it's not about medical games like the Wii Fit that will be useful for two or three years but then stop be interesting to people as the technology moves on. Rather, what we need to do is apply gaming principles to education, gaming principles to medicine, and that's going to require much more standardized interfaces, like a Facebook type of an interface and it's going to require wisdom of the crowds and true coloration and communities. So that the best stuff bubbles up naturally rather than is topped down, which is more of a Wikipedia.

I think if you marry a Wikipedia and a Facebook to medicine and education that's where you're going to see the real benefits I believe because those interfaces can be very inexpensively updates, very inexpensively tweaked, tested, ab tested, and very easy to allow ten's of thousands, hundreds, of thousands of people to collaborate and contribute so that they very best comes out at any given time.

Recorded May 27, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont