We think: Charles Leadbeater and the Digital Humanities

Charles Leadbeater, We-think, Mass innovation, not mass production: The Power of Mass Creativity, London, 2009 (Updated Version)

Review with respect to digital humanities

Charles Leadbeater is an authority on creativity in organizations in the English-speaking world. In particular he worked on knowledge-driven innovation strategies. Leadbeater is inter alia Member of the influential London think-tank Demos and the Oxford University’s Said Business School. He is considered an important supporter of the Pro-Am [ateur] revolution. The question arises as to the relevance of his ideas for the digital humanities.

We-think is about the creativity of the masses and discusses participatory approaches for innovations in science, economics and politics. True to his vision, Leadbeater in 2006 published a draft of his book on his Website with the request for feedbacks, the definitive version in 2009 finally included 257 “co-authors”. Nevertheless, it would be misleading, he writes, to say that the book is the product of a “collaborative activity”. Preparing the final version took place between him and the publisher. The „trick” lies in finding the right way to “combine” professionals and amateurs. In the end, this resembles the product of an orchestrated conversation. Leadbeater’s experiment shows what could be the lifecycle of a book in the information society.

„Boulders“ like universities or libraries are still there, but the new business is really “pebbles”, Leadbeater says: Wikipedia is a huge collection of factual pebbles, YouTube of video pebbles, etc. Even science is increasingly held in digital networks. The Internet is more than an instrument – it links the pebbles. It is still young – but its impact in the media are already enormous: the overthrow of the music industry, decline of the U.S. newspaper industry, the rapid growth of Google. And that is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Nicholas Carr, Susan Greenfield and others fear the loss of the position of experts and institutions and complain about the cacophony of opinions and superficial knowledge in the net. Leadbeater sets this against the participation and critical thinking. Optimists predict even a new communitarianism: “collaborative” and less hierarchical communities, in which knowledge and power are distributed more egalitarian.

Leadbeater is certain: The net has the capacity to create a collective intelligence of extraordinary proportions. The more we are connected, all the richer – of ideas, resources, talents – we are, he says. What began decades ago with the exchange of files among scientists, will change the global culture, our thinking and our relationships. In the economy of ideas, we are what we share. The web is the ideal platform for groups to organize themselves, to combine ideas and knowledge and thus create new things. We-think is based on three principles: participation, appreciation and cooperation. The real „currency”, a bonus for cooperation is recognition, Leadbeater says.

The net revived pre-industrial organization and forms of cooperation such as the tradition of common resource pools (“commons”). These are not overused, if the users manage them themselves, the use is easy to monitor and sanctions for reasons of reputation are effective. We think is so powerful because it combines old and new, Leadbeater says. It can create complex, rich things: encyclopedias, software, games, reports, scientific theories, poems. This requires a nucleus around which the community is formed. If it is missing or experiments are too costly (in time and money), feedback is too slow, processes too complex and the community too small, We Think does not work. The project must be attractive. The necessary tools for participation must be provided and tasks must be divided into small chunks, around which subteams can be formed. It needs clear rules to bring together these modules again and a peer review for quality assurance of their results. Blogging, even scientific, is part of the We-Think-movement, but at the far end of the spectrum: a lot of participation, little cooperation.

Innovation is traditionally a linear, sequential process, from the invention to development and from there to the application – very expensive and unproductive. We think opens innovation the dimension of mass. Open source communities provide a framework for open, creative, critical discussions and resolve the tension between efficiency and innovation better than corporations. The coordination works over common goals, the modularity of the production and the evaluation of performance by peers. Open source communitites distribute the work among themselves. We think relies on the creation of norms and rules by which individuals can take on many responsibilities for small bits of the production. Modern organization means to orchestrate creative conversations.

We think changes access and organization of information and will shaken libraries, newspapers, publishing houses etc. heavily. The British Library for example is facing some major challenges: what to collect? Modern media and information are very disparate. How to convey? Against the competition of Google no one succeeds. On the other hand, barely used monographs could be communicated. Therefore the British Library digitizes a lot of publications with the help of Microsoft. New forms of public-private partnership open up. The digital library will function as a file-sharing system of institutions and private user groups. There will be Pro-Am-librarians and a new relationship between the institution and its customers. The library of the future is a platform for participation and cooperation.

Leadbeater‘s book experiment shows what could be the new Life Cycle of a book in the information society. The question then is: who is its author and who its manager? We think is an exciting, well-sold food for thought, as many agree. The liquid, pictorial, zeitgeist-compliant notation disguises that Leadbeater basically follows a technology-driven approach (for change). There are missing – from continental European and historical perspective – important sources: Michel Foucault for the dissolution of the unity of author and work (please see my separate post to that), the Frankfurt School for the social conditions of innovation. With regard to copyright and other law issues, the discussion of models such as the creative commons licenses is lacking. The protection of personal privacy is hardly discussed. And: New dependencies are romanticized, entitled as “recognition as a currency for participation”.  Nevertheless, Leadbeater’s approach provides an important impetus for the development of the digital humanities who seek more collaborative research models. Much of what Leadbeater predicted 2009, is debated and implemented in the field of humanities and social sciences – in Switzerland for example by infoclio.ch and in France for example in the Open-Edition-applications revues.org and hypotheses.org. The further development will be interesting.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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