I had an interesting conversation with a colleague this morning that centred on the idea that “the path is wiser than the walker the path is more wise than the walker” (whoops, forgot grammar for awhile there). So, if you’ve come over here to get away from discussions about where the line is drawn on consent, apologies. I’m about to get all conceptual.

The path is more wise than the walker. It’s an interesting idea, and one that ties closely to the kinds of Web2.0 conversations that are all over the internet at the minute. The origins of the idea are apparently Middle Eastern, probably Arabic, and centre on the way in which paths form over time to accomodate the passage of many individuals.

My first thought on hearing it was, “not particularly original idea if you’ve ever watched a path evolve”. But then I realised that most people live in cities or towns where paths have been established for a long time.

For a small town boy like myself though, watching paths spring up in the developing or formerly rural parts of the neighbourhood is normal. When a new road is created you walk on the grass next to it (because a footpath hasn’t been made), and over time a rut forms. And that rut will stay there no matter what.

So again, not such a revolutionary idea. The shortest amount of observation will lead you to noticing it.

Why I found the idea so interesting is because of the environment it developed in. When I was in Australia myself and a couple of friends made a long trip out into the Central Desert. The deep desert as they also call it. It’s some of the most inhospitable landscape on Earth, but life exists there, as have people for tens of thousands of years.

What struck me on that trip was how obviously superimposed the road we travelled was. This road had been pushed in more or less a straight line into the desert, oblivious to the environment itself, and ignorant of the way the land lay. We’d often travel strange distances from water sources for example, and large stands of stubby trees would disappear far on the horizon. But, had we been walking then these features would have been a necessary fixture of our journey. You’d want to get close to any water, and you’d want to find that shady spot under a tree. The modern road ignored these needs though, because we, as modern men, made our own path and struck them in direct as possible a way.

Around us though, the desert ignored us. And that’s the thing about deserts, man can’t change or control them they way he can more ‘user-friendly’ landscapes. You have to adapt, or a desert will kill you in the blink of an eye.

So when you make a path through a desert, you adapt it to it. The path is dictated not by convenience, or how a man thinks it should unfold, but by the environment itself. And more importantly, that path is rarely the product of a single man. The path is the combined footsteps of many men necessarily following the dictates of the environment. The path is in effect the combined responses of many men trying to get from where they are to where they’re going, all of them responding in a similar way to the deserts hostility.

In a way, all these Web2.0 and social media applications we’re constantly talking about can act like that path. Books like the Wisdom of Crowds and Here Comes Everybody have already stated these ideas with a focus on modern groups controlling the internet environment, but the aphorism ‘the path is more wise than the walker’ made me think that it is possible for the nature of something to necessarily dictate how the crowd itself will respond.

We’re kind of swept up in the idea that we are in control of the Web with 2.0, but there is still the possibility that it continues to dictate to us the way in which we travel and interact with the interweb as a landscape. And that is a very interesting idea, because it introduces a subtle change to any thinking about the wisdom of the masses, one that forces us to take a closer look at how applications and social processes will influence the continuing development and evolution of Web2.0.