We-Think: Documenting the Present

by on July 5, 2008

I’ve recently read We-Think by Charles Leadbeater, having attended one of his talks a couple of months ago. I thought I’d record my thoughts on it.

Books about the socio-political or cultural effects of the Internet are rolling fast off the presses right now. I’m now feeling a little less like the pallid geek I once was. The penny has dropped, even in the hallows of Downing Street (Leadbeater was a Labour advisor under Tony Blair for a while), that something rather important is happening out there in cyberspace. Territory is now being claimed by everyone from the plainly trivial likes of Macolm Gladwell and Andrew Keen, to the highly constructive, if sometimes baffling, Clay Shirky and Seth Godin.

Leadbeater sets about documenting the various phenomena he finds on the net to support his formulation of what he calls “we-think.” In a nutshell, we-think is the practice of solving problems or enhancing the quality of life by the free exchange of ideas and resources. Such activity tends to move from the periphery to the centre until – if it survives – it pervades the normal way of doing things. Examples of course are free/libre and open source software, but also offline activity evident in grass-roots initiatives in developing countries that spring up independently of governmental or official sanction. All this, he says, may be a new phenomenon in modern history, but a return to aspects of ancient modes of life which hitherto had been sunk beneath the waves of industrialism and refinements of capitalism that came with it. Well, I’d by that for a dollar, even if I can’t understand Leadbeater’s connection between a third-world micro-loans system and playing World of Warcraft.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the Internet in the last five years will be familiar with Leadbeater’s general theme, and he turns over a nice collation of heart-warming examples; the YouTubes the Craigslists. I can’t decide whether his other examples are spurious though: the human genome projects, the barefoot engineers. Do they have much to do with the connection of personal computers to free networks running open protocols? Nevertheless, he has a somewhat coherent argument for us to recognise all this as something to embrace and encourage. But by the end of the book, I felt as if it had been ghost written my Malcolm Gladwell.

Oh dear. Readers of this blog may be familiar with my disdain for Gladwell. Ever since I read his book The Tipping Point and it made me angrier than Ian Paisley, I have been wary of what I might call the “journalist thinker.” I recall my politics master at school quipping that “Politics is history with the work taken out, and history is politics with the brains taken out.” Journalists are, fundamentally, writers of stories; chroniclers of events; scribes. This would be unproblematic if that was all they did, but the likes of Gladwell and, I am sorry to say, Leadbeater, present the journalist approach as analysis when in fact it is by definition no such thing. Perhaps the most succinct illustration of this from The Tipping Point is, after a large number of exhaustive examples of the same phenomenon re-told, a tiny footnote appears on a page against the words “chaos theory.” This footnote explains the phrase as being a branch of mathematics dedicated to the analysis and prediction of apparently unpredictable systems. In any reasonable analysis of a “tipping point” phenomenon, surely chaos theory would deserve more than a cursory mention? No, because that would involve some genuinely hard insight – something not within the ambit of journalism. Where then, on a scale of Gladwell to Hawking, is Leadbeater? Sadly, not very far from the bottom, in my opinion.

Indulge me for a moment as I judge a book by its cover. The dust jacket shows a picture of the man, a benevolent smile across his lips, writing with what looks like a nice Parker fountain pen (rather like the one he signed my copy of his book with). Not for him the image of the Apple laptop, or other 21st century icon. This is a man who worked for The Times for ten years. I do not mean to imply that you cannot write about the Internet unless you read Boing Boing and have a laptop wrapped in duct tape, but there are … limits. For instance, I find it deeply odd that Clay Shirky, the undisputed guru of networks, society and culture, is nowhere to be seen in the bibliography. How can a book about collaboration and its social effects not reference his work? Cynics might wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody was published around the same time as Leadbeater’s and is, apparently, a better work on the same subject.

Whatever the reason for his apparent lack of depth, Leadbeater comes across as rather starry-eyed a little too often. In his construction of three tests against which to judge whether the Internet in its current “we-think” mode will be good for democracy, equality and freedom, he gives for each a flat “yes.” For the most part, I accept his arguments for that conclusion, but the big problem is that nowhere is there any assurance that the net will stay in that mode for very long. For me, this is this question that needs answering before indulging in merry journalism about what we all are currently experiencing. Just as economists can only be any good if their theories help mitigate the impact of recessions, so it should be that the likes of Leadbeater and Gladwell attempt to analyse and predict what might happen with the current formulas change.

Fortunately, Jonathan Zittrain does just that in his book The Future of the Internet – and How To Stop It. If you want to get some insight under your belt, then Zittrain’s book is in my opinion the one to read. It is all very well knowing that millions are collaborating for no material reward to make an operating system that surpasses the best efforts of a huge corporate entity. What we need to know is what to do about the collateral phenomena of spam, identity theft and the fact we may well throw away the utility of the “we-think” effect entirely if these effects are simply too disruptive to contain with mere ethics and good intentions. Spam, viruses and abuse of the commons, unglamorous and faintly boring though they might be, are at the truly beating heart of the issue of online collaboration and open systems as we have known them. The future of information exchange, power and democracy for all societies hangs right now in the balance. Leadbeater merely dances around the edges of this and so, in my opinion, fails to progress us to any real understanding.

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