In physics, the greatest (theoretical) latent power in the universe is dark energy, waiting only for us to find a way to tap it (and to prove it actually exists; in the meantime it powers fictional superheroes). In people, the equivalent is "spare cycles"--the human potential that isn't tapped by our jobs, which for most of us is a lot of it. People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free. Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they'd rather not be. The guy playing Solitaire on his laptop at the airport? Spare cycles. Multiply it times a million.
I am at this moment, somewhat randomly, in the Salisbury (MD) regional airport. It is tiny airport like thousands of others across the country. But, like all the others, it has to meet standard TSA security standards. There is a flight (which I am on) at 2:30 pm. It is the only flight out of this airport for the past hour. There will not be another flight out of this airport for another hour. Yet we need our full TSA apparatus. That includes the local police, who are represented by a sheriff.
I'm watching him right now. He's in his room, labeled "Sheriff". Young guy. He's watching a movie on a portable DVD player. That's fine--he won't be needed for another half hour. But of course "needed" isn't quite the right word. "Required" is closer to it. He will be required by policy to stand by, gun in holster, while I take my laptop out of my nerd backpack. He may, fingers crossed, go his entire career without a terrorist going through that security checkpoint. He may indeed never unholster that gun in the line of duty.
That sheriff is watching a movie because he has spare cycles. Spare cycles are the most powerful fuel on the planet. It's what Web 2.0 is made up of. User generated content? Spare cycles. Open source? Spare cycles. MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Second Life? Spare cycles. They're the Soylent Green of the web.
In the next issue of Wired we've got a great story about a woman who cyberstalked the lead singer of Linkin Park. She correctly guessed the password to his cellphone account. The rest was easy. She was a technician at a secure military facility, the Sandia National Labs. When eventually confronted, she explained that her job only took her half an hour a day. The rest was spare cycles. She used them to stalk the lead singer of Linkin Park.
Web 2.0 is such a phenomena because we're underused elsewhere. Bored at work, bored at home. We've got spare cycles and they're finally finding an outlet. Tap that and you've tapped an energy source that rivals anything in human history. Solitaire Players of the World Unite!