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Switchboard Operators of the Network: Dropping a Link into the Stream

Switchboard operator

In reading the profile of economist Austan Goolsbee in the October 2008 issue of Technology Review, there are a lot of things that stand out. I’d like to focus on one quote in particular.

“In 1910,” Goolsbee says, “If someone could have gone back and told people then how many phone lines would exist today in the U.S., they’d have responded that that was physically impossible, because every American would need to be a telephone exchange operator. That few switchboard operators exist today, nevertheless, isn’t a sign that all those people are unemployed.”

Goolsbee is talking about the process of creative destruction with regard to jobs. Job types are constantly being destroyed and created in a dynamic economy. And given the state of maintaining the Network as it existed then, switchboard operators were key to keeping data flowing and connecting through the Network.

But the thing that struck me was the similarity between the job of the switchboard operator and the process of consuming multiple microblogging streams, and other media and lifestream feeds. We can look at the current state of human-computer interaction around micro-blogging, and the real-time web, and say this could never grow because every American would need to be a highly skilled switchboard operator. But maybe it’s easier than we think.

Today the Network is filled with switchboard operators who keep information flowing and inspire discovery as thought objects radiate out through the rings and circles of microcommunites on the Network. Whenever you drop a link into the stream; whenever you pick one out of the stream and follow it; whenever you’re inspired to drop a new link to connect two thoughts; you’re running a new kind of switchboard. New jobs are being created, and the Network is hiring.

Published in economics hci innovation network