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An iterative series of long-distance collaborations soon began. Engineers started to erect the Usenet infrastructure, first with relatively sluggish Unix shell scripts, and then with speedier versions written in the C programming language. By the mid-1980s there were multiple Usenet "browsers" with names like readnews, rn, and trn.
As Usenet's infrastructure was being created, its users were flocking to discussion forums with names ranging from alt.sex to sci.math and rec.music. Soon data volume was roughly doubling every year. (It's now hovering around two terabytes a day.)
Usenet helped define the term FAQ, or Frequently Asked Questions, a kind of early wiki project. Volunteers typically contributed entries that, over time, built FAQs of surprising depth and scope. Even today, for instance, the FAQ for comp.ai.genetic remains the best online introduction to the topic of evolutionary computation, dwarfing the brief Wikipedia entry.
Other examples abound. The history of the GNU/Linux operating system follows a similar path marked by international collaboration and increasingly capable software. So have many large open-source projects, from the Apache Web server to the Perl 6 programming language. Majordomo is one "groupware" project for managing mailing lists; another, even more popular one is called Mailman.
This phenomenon is what Hayek had in mind with his definition of "spontaneous order." The term refers to the marvel of complexity that happens every day in society when people work together and interact voluntarily, without a central authority dictating what happens.
If this mechanism were created intentionally by human design, it "would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind," he wrote in a 1943 book called "The Use of Knowledge in Society." Hayek understands such recognition well: He would later receive the Nobel Prize in economics.
The Internet itself is an iteration of spontaneous order. It wasn't centrally planned by the Federal Communications Commission or the United Nations but instead arose organically among those who used it, effectively built site by site, protocol by protocol.
Programmers have long relied on complex systems to build even more complex projects. Since 1995, the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network has amassed a huge collection of ready-made components to do everything from Web automation to creating MPEG movies. The Revision Control System software permits dozens of programmers to collaborate on one project without interfering with one another.
Now what seems to be happening is that writers, photographers, and Web designers are borrowing collaborative techniques from the programming world. And wikis, standards like XML and RSS (and newer ones like trackback and tagging) have become popular enough and capable enough to make that collaboration happen.
Revolutionary? Probably not. But a telling example of how the simple concept of spontaneous order yields remarkable results.