Unleashing collective genius

Is the internet really the best way to collaborate?

In October 2006, Charles Leadbeater did something extraordinary: he published a draft manuscript on the internet in the hope that people “out there” would help to work it up.

His wishes were fulfilled. The work was downloaded at an average rate of 35 times a day. Hundreds of blogs made reference to the project, and by late 2007 a Google search for the book title, We-Think, and Leadbeater’s name came back with 65,000 hits.

The book, about the creative power of online communities, was published in conventional form last week, and I met Leadbeater to talk about it. In person, he’s infectiously cheerful: indeed, he concedes that the biggest weakness of his book is its optimism.

He argues that technologies such as the internet have created an opportunity for hitherto unparalleled creativity, and can bring people together as never before – perhaps to defeat bird flu, keep communities safe, lend and borrow money, conduct political and policy debates, teach and learn, and tackle global warming.

Others argue, with some force, that his claims for technology are excessive – and that this is hardly surprising, considering the book’s genesis, online, among a community of technophiles.

Leadbeater is not the only author of a new work to argue that technology facilitates unprecedented forms of social behaviour. Another is the American Clay Shirky, whose book “Here Comes Everybody” extols the Facebook protest against HSBC bank charges, flashmobbing in Minsk to show disapproval of the Belarusian government, and the mobilisation of Catholics outraged by stories of priestly paedophilia.

“Everywhere you look,” Shirky’s publicity proclaims, “groups of people are coming together to share information with one another, work together, or take some kind of public action. For the first time in history, we have tools that truly allow for this.”

Really? This suggests a wilful ignorance of history. Gandhi, despite lacking access to the web, somehow persuaded people to join his salt march. Moses, a stranger to Skype, nevertheless put together a pretty decent Exodus.

Similarly, when Leadbeater asserts that Web 2.0 allows people to discover their creativity, rather than passively accept the culture served up by mainstream media, he overlooks any number of outlets for creativity available offline – the visual arts, music, dancing, gardening and cooking.

Elsewhere, Leadbeater argues that Wikipedia provides knowledge freely to people who couldn’t afford to buy their own encyclopaedia. But this overlooks the need first to acquire a computer, and an internet connection, which probably cost rather more.

Andrew Keen, author of the ultra-sceptical book The Cult of the Amateur, knows and likes Leadbeater. “Charlie’s an idealist. But I don’t agree with him.” A Londoner by birth, Keen is a Silicon Valley insider who has done more than anybody to draw attention to the flaws in Web 2.0. He came in for huge criticism after asserting that – far from producing masterpieces – web users have created an endless digital forest of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary, unseemly home videos, embarrassingly amateurish music, unreadable poems, essays and novels.

Additionally, Keen said when I met him on a visit to London last week, Web 2.0 creates an opportunity for people to interact anonymously, in turn leading to a vast increase in behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable or even impossible. That includes uploading home-made porn into the public domain, gambling uncontrollably, spreading malicious falsehoods, stealing intellectual property and paying to commit rape or murder on fantasy-world sites such as Second Life.

Worse still, the vaunted “democratisation” of the web has been a sham. “Despite its lofty idealisation, it’s undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent.”

Take the vaunted “wisdom of crowds”. “What defines the best minds,” Keen argues, “is their ability to go beyond the “wisdom” of the crowd and mainstream opinion.” Wikipedia is premised on a contrary theory of truth that would have seemed familiar to George Orwell: if the crowd says that two plus two equals five, then two plus two really does equal five.

The Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon provides another salutary counterblast: “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

This was amusingly described by the author Nicholson Baker, writing recently of the “lightheaded feeling” he enjoyed on first editing Wikipedia. “Here’s how it happened. I read a short article on a post-Beat poet and small-press editor named Richard Denner. The article was proposed for deletion by a user who claimed that Denner wasn’t a notable figure.” Baker’s absorption in saving doomed entries became overwhelming. “I stopped hearing what my family was saying to me—for about two weeks I all but disappeared into my screen, trying to salvage brief, sometimes overly promotional but nevertheless worthy biographies by recasting them in neutral language, and by hastily scouring newspaper databases and Google Books for references.”

There are wider socio-economic impacts. Every time you look something up on Wikipedia, you reduce the viability of bookshops and libraries. When the government moved TV licensing and pensions online, it reduced the viability of post offices, leading to the latest closure programme, and potentially disastrous impacts on local communities.

Corporate media are threatened too, says Keen. News aggregation sites such as Reddit and Digg cannibalise mainstream news, taking away valuable sources of income. As revenue streams dry up, mainstream media lay people off and become less authoritative and less worthwhile. As they decline, and even close down, there will be nothing left to cannibalise. Already, Keen contends, illegal downloads have destroyed the music business. So the idea that content on the web is “free” is mistaken: it has many hidden costs.

To be fair, Leadbeater acknowledges that Web 2.0 is imperfect. The sheer quantity of information available, he observes, requires us to rely for recommendations on other web users – which in turn leads to a narrowing of ideas. “When people engage in debate on the web they often talk to people they already agree with. Liberal blogs tend to link to other liberal blogs, environmentalists connect with other environmentalists.”

Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to be Free and editor of The Idler, hates the internet. “What promised to be an instrument of liberation has turned into a means of voluntary slavery,” he says. “In the early years, I naively spouted forth on the liberating power of the internet. But I look round today and see a whole generation literally being disabled by computers.”

Hodgkinson recently closed down the forum on The Idler’s website. “It was without purpose. It simply provided a place where people could whinge and procrastinate. They just sat there moaning, a load of self-important show-offs.

“So I pulled the whole thing down and put up the following message: ‘It’s time to stop spewing your bons mots into the ether and go and talk to real people.’ At first, there was a predictable outburst of wailing. But then I started to receive letters thanking me. People were actually arranging to meet up. It seemed I wasn’t alone in despising the substitution of computerised communication for real life.”

Faced with technological overload, Hodgkinson concludes, “the truly radical thing is to switch off and go for a walk.”

His is not a lone voice. Timothy Ferris explains how to overcome the intrusion of technology, and enjoy life, in his best-seller, The 4-Hour Work Week. Among other things, Ferris recommends checking email just once a week and reducing time on the phone to a similar degree. “The office phone should be put on silent and allowed to go to voicemail at all times.”

What if someone has an emergency? “It doesn’t happen. My contacts now know that I don’t respond to emergencies, so the emergencies somehow don’t exist or don’t come to me.”

If this seems outrageous, consider the alternative: more and more enslavement by technology. In the week I was researching this story I had to deal with somebody who failed to reply to my text message. When I got hold of her she told me she was “still in the 20th century” and didn’t use text messaging. This briefly irritated me: I use texts, why can’t she? But by the same token, I daresay I irritate others who use Blackberrys to keep constant watch over email – something I refuse to do. I forgave her at once and decided to turn off my phone for the rest of the day.

Something that has attracted little attention is the sheer amount of energy consumed by Web 2.0, and the associated carbon emissions: sharing files requires a lot of server space, but we tend to overlook this because the “server farms” are out of sight.

One person who doesn’t overlook the energy requirements is Rob Hopkins, founder of the fast-growing grassroots Transition Towns movement, and author of The Transition Handbook, which manages to be both grimly clear-eyed and wonderfully optimistic.

Transition Towns work to create resilient, self-sufficient communities in the face of climate change and peak oil. As with Wikipedia, there’s no top-down control: each community must make its own plans, but the ideas are there to share.

The speed with which the movement has spread across Britain and around the world owes a debt to technology – specifically the internet’s capacity to make ideas viral. But like Hodgkinson, Hopkins believes that technology and cheap energy have turned us into “the most useless generation to walk the planet”.

In seeking to reverse that, Transition Towns have demonstrated that collaboration and creativity do not depend on electronic media.

Transition Towns use a specimen of brainstorming, Open Space, that was originally devised for businesses in the US. “There’s no agenda,” says Hopkins. “Everybody sits there and there’s an awkward 30 seconds after you say, “Go!” They all sit there thinking, ‘Who, me?’ But then it takes off.”

And at screenings of documentaries, Transition Towns routinely disprove Leadbeater’s assertions that old media requires passive consumers. Members of the audience are invited to pair up and discuss their responses to the films, and wall-space is provided for additional written observations, which are later typed up and emailed to participants. “This is very useful for keeping the ideas current,” says Hopkins, “and for making the point that each individual’s thoughts are part of a powerful surge being unleashed within the town in question.”

Hopkins describes the process of building a Transition Town as “unleashing the collective genius of the community” – more or less the same optimistic idea as Leadbeater’s. But by meeting face to face, the collaborative participants in Transition Town events experience a type of community-building that isn’t available even to the most committed writers and editors on Wikipedia: they meet their neighbours.