Saturday, March 21, 2009

Book Review: "We-Think"

Charles Leadbeater's book We-Think was published in the UK last year; it will be released in the US by Profile Books this summer and I have to say I'll be fascinated to see how it's received. It's an intriguing and unconventional book, and I think at least some of the ideas it contains are worth thinking seriously about as we continue to move into the new world that the web has wrought.

Leadbeater defines "we-think" as his "term to comprehend how we think, play, work and create, together, en masse, thanks to the web" (p. 19). He calls his book "a defence of sharing, particularly the sharing of ideas" (p. 6) and suggests that by promoting "participation, recognition, [and] collaboration" we can change the way we perform certain tasks and, at least theoretically, harness the world's energy to improve our culture and advance knowledge, equality, and personal freedom at the same time. At root, he suggests, he seeks to determine how we can "make the most of the web's potential" (p. 5).

The ideal we-think process involves a quintet of components: a core group of workers, contributions by many others, connections between the participants, collaboration, and, ultimately, creation of some tangible product or idea. He describes various examples of how these components have successfully meshed, from resources (like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia of Life) to games (like Second Life, World of Warcraft and the Sims) to scientific progress (various research projects) and political participation (the most recent and perhaps more important example, Obama's campaign, was just getting underway when the book was written).

Successful implementation of we-think principles involves what Leadbeater suggests is a delicate balance of "gathering self-interest for mututally beneficial ends" (p. xii). People are looking to "connect to ideas they [find] interesting for them, in their lives," and by allowing them to contribute to a greater goal in a way where they can do what they want at their own pace while feeling like their contributions are being recognized, we-think can work wonders. As I read I kept coming back to my own experiences with the Legacy Libraries project at LibraryThing ... while I coordinate the group and facilitate discussions and projects (and answer questions), it is a much larger group who work on the various library projects and bring them to fruition). The Legacy project, and perhaps even LibraryThing in general with its various components (including Common Knowledge) seem to be really concrete examples of a community's use of we-think concepts in a meaningful and extremely productive way.

Leadbeater takes the opportunity to muse about far-reaching implications of his ideas, discussing various applications of we-think to fields from education to librarianship to health care and science. In all of those areas and more I think there are opportunities to think in new and more engaging ways, and some of Leadbeater's ideas may be of use. Since librarianship is the one I can speak to, I will say that I don't entirely agree with the way the author suggests the field is headed, but I do know that a more open, collaborative process must be our goal, rather than something to be dreaded (not that most librarians are dreading it, I think many are just trying to figure out, along with the rest of us, how to make it work).

There are the obligatory devil's advocate arguments here, but Leadbeater mostly shrugs them off while admitting that we still don't really know where the web is taking us and that it is possible that we will squander our opportunities to use it wisely. By necessity, any book of this sort, which comments on hyper-current trends, is out of date even before it appears in print. Some of Leadbeater's examples have already fallen out of vogue, and some things have happened since which aren't discussed. There are several additional very minor errors, and the book does tend to be rather UK-centric (it was, to be fair, published there first), but on the whole it is an argument worth examining and perhaps putting to use under certain conditions.

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