We Think, Therefore We Are

In his latest book, We-Think, Charles Leadbetter argues that if the 20th Century was one of mass production and mass consumption, the 21st Century will be one of mass innovation and collaboration, the sharing of ideas being the currency on which our future prosperity depends:-

“In the economy of things you are identified by what you own – your land, house, car. In the economy of ideas that the web is creating, you are what you share – who you are linked to, who you network with and which ideas, pictures, videos, links or comments you share. The biggest change the web will bring about is in allowing us to share with one another in new ways and particularly to share ideas.”

At least two questions immediately come to mind. If the new economy is about sharing, what is it that is going to encourage people to share and to give away, rather than trying to cash in on their ideas and maximise their profit, according to the natural laws of self-preservation, natural human tendencies to self-interest etc etc. And in a world where it is rapidly becoming easier to organise on a global scale, what is going to prevent individuals and organisations from using the power of the internet for destructive rather than constructive purposes?

On the first issue Leadbetter is optimistic. It’s not that he believes we-think will entirely replace the market-driven economy but rather that there will be a balance between  market and non-market ways of organising the networked economy. In other words, individuals and organisations will survive according to their ability to sell and to share freely their ideas in the right proportions, a mix of collaboration and commerce, community and corporation. He believes that what motivates people above all else is not wealth but the quality of the relationships they are able to develop, alongside a sense of worth and a recognition of their talents, especially by their peers. This is threatening to traditional corporations with hierarchical structures, which operate on the basis of status and authority within the organisation rather than the creativity of individuals, and in the next few years we will see an increasing struggle between this dysfunctional world where decisions are made for us rather than with us and an alternative world in which we are, in the words of Pat Kane, “players”, where we are engaged and participating fully in the process of our own lives.

The challenge, according to the author, is to create a sense of order and security without undermining our capacity for sharing, for sharing can also spread diseases, infections and viruses, ideas and identities can be stolen. Furthermore, those who have top-down control, whether private corporations or governments, will fight to retain it. However, he believes that within organisations managers and professionals will struggle to retain power based on privileged access to information as those they govern  become less deferential, acquiring their own voices and finding their own information.  Secondly, more forms of peer-to-peer control, including surveillance, will provide the transparency needed to provide the security we all seek. We will get used to rating one another and being rated by our peers – something which is currently an accepted form of self-regulation in the scientific community but which will spread to many other walks of life. Finally, Leadbetter argues, we will have to encourage and develop in people more self-control so that they use their increasing technological power more responsibly. Enter the role of education and educators. He puts it succinctly like this:-

“That means, at the very least, children learning the skills and norms of media literacy and responsibility; learning to question and challenge information as well as copy and paste it.”  Reassuringly, this has echoes of the following statement from the new Literacy and English framework in Curriculum for Excellence:-

To help me develop an informed view, I am exploring the techniques used to influence my opinion. I can recognise persuasion and assess the reliability of information and credibility and value of my sources.

Never has the role of the teacher been more important in guiding and supporting young people as they develop that “informed view” for themselves as independent learners and thinkers.

2 thoughts on “We Think, Therefore We Are

  1. Hi Bill,

    Interesting as ever:

    The question you (or Charles) pose – …what is it that is going to encourage people to share and to give away, rather than trying to cash in on their ideas and maximise their profit, according to the the natural laws of self-preservation….

    implies a tension between sharing and self-preservation. Does this tension really exist? Or has it been artificially created by consumerism/capitalism?

    I would argue that self-preservation is (and always has been) dependent on sharing. If we then accept that a market-based economy needs to obscure this dependency (as we have seen over the past couple of centuries), Charles L’s idea of a balance between market and non-market economic models seems hopelessly naive.

    Gordon

  2. Hi Gordon,
    Good to hear from you again. I think the problem for all of us is that instictively we believe that the sharing/giving notion is naive, as this is what we have been told as we grew up. However, the current recession and the world banking crisis have thrown into serious doubt whether capitalism itself is a busted flush. If that is the case we need to re-think where we go from here and Leadbeater’s ideas seem at least as plausible as anything else I have heard.

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