I am not the obvious reviewer of a book on the power of the web, being a technophobe who until a few years ago had to ask my assistant to print out my e-mails. But although I found the argument difficult at first, I was gripped by Charles Leadbeater's erudition and passion for the subject.
Leadbeater is an optimist about the information technology revolution. He notes Richard Sennett's pessimism in his own observations on the internet, and although Leadbeater admits that the web is 'tailor-made for shadow networks of shadowy people', he believes that the web is transforming our world for the better.
I must admit to disliking Leadbeater's title We-Think. It is his term for how, thanks to the web, we can come to think, work, play and create en masse, and therefore co-exist. I much prefer his description of the phenomenon as a hybrid of 'the geek, the academic, the hippie and the peasant'. But Leadbeater's argument - that creativity in science, culture, business and academia emerges when people with different vantage points, skills and knowhow combine their ideas to produce something new - is attractive. He sees the web as providing us with a platform that lets us be creative on a scale previously unimaginable.
I find fascinating Leadbeater's analysis that the medium, at its best, is our version of the 18th-century coffee house, the forerunner of learned societies that fuelled not only the Enlightenment but so much of our scientific and industrial revolutions.
Collaborative creativity has been a goal of mankind since the fall of church supremacy. Creativity and innovation have become the modern Holy Grail and we have all been struggling to find this intellectual path to righteousness.
Leadbeater cleverly substitutes Descartes' dictum 'I think, therefore I am' for his own, 'We think, therefore we are'.
The book's theme is as big and as bold as it gets. Its thesis is that 'we are witnessing the birth of a different way of approaching how we organise ourselves, one that offers significant opportunities to improve how we work, consume and innovate'. In the 20th century, its author argues, we were identified by what we owned; in the 21st century, we will be defined by how we share and what we give away.
Leadbeater observes that the culture being created by the web is an amalgam of post-industrial and anti-industrial ideology, set against the revival of pre-industrial ideas of organisation. He sees the web as encouraging and reviving the social approach to creativity, by empowering a mass of amateur folk to create and show content. In 1993, just 130 websites existed in the world, but by mid-2007 there were 135 million registered host names and 61 million active sites - revealing the fact that millions of people are content-creators as well as receivers. Over the next few years, says Leadbeater, we will see the growth of a vast digitally enabled vernacular culture that will be more collaborative and creative - and more democratic - than anything we have seen before.
But he also notes that it will be raucous and out of control. People will be creating art they enjoy rather than relying on the cookie-cutting culture so beloved of state-funded bureaucrats. The spread of the web will mean that more people than ever will 'have their say, post their comment, make a video, show a picture and write a song'.
The writing of the Bible could be seen as one of the first series of texts to be created by such a collaborative process. The Iliad and The Odyssey also developed over many years, with contributions from hundreds of poets from all over the Greek world. With the web, we now have a vehicle that can reduce the act of creation from centuries to weeks and even days.
But the web is not only a new way to illuminate and transform ancient means of creation. Leadbeater charts the myriad ways in which the web is changing so much of our lives. He comes up with many memorable phrases and sentences like 'the camera-phone is now a ubiquitous tool for citizen journalism'. It's staggering how open-source concepts have transformed the web into a place where contributors seem to be interested not in legal protections but in the freedom to share knowledge.
Leadbeater does not labour over the potential (or actual) dangers, though he does observe that 'politicians could easily lord it over a Lilliputian rabble of ill-equipped, amateur bloggers'. Blogging, in my opinion, could become the self-abuse of the 21st century. It may not, as the old wives' tale goes, make you go blind, but it can blind the user or abuser to honesty or sensitivity.
In his chapter 'The We-Think Business', Leadbeater is sharp on many business models. 'A job is now a set of tasks rather than a craft demanding devotion,' he observes, and 'leadership has become little more than bonus-driven performance management'.
His argument that the We-Think philosophy offers capitalism a way to recover the social or even communal dimension that people at work are yearning for is a compelling one. Whether you accept it or not, Leadbeater's book should be compulsory reading for all who seek to understand the driving force of this century.
We-Think: Mass innovation, not mass production
Profile Books £12.99
- Colin Tweedy is chief executive of Arts & Business.