Matthew Dancona

Charlie does surf. Meet the new wizard of the web

Charles Leadbeater tells Matthew d’Ancona about the riches to be mined from online collaboration — and says that the Conservatives have a chance to launch a new form of politics

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Charles Leadbeater tells Matthew d’Ancona about the riches to be mined from online collaboration — and says that the Conservatives have a chance to launch a new form of politics

The man who brought you Bridget Jones is, you might think, an unlikely guide to the deeper philosophical and cultural meaning of the web. But, as he sips his tea in the kitchen of his Highbury mews home, Charles Leadbeater makes an extremely convincing magus of the online revolution and the new world of Web 2.0.

‘The thing that interests me is not the technology, but what people try to do with it,’ he says, ‘and why they want to participate — they don’t just want to consume. That’s quite big, because in the Eighties and Nineties we were told we wanted to be consumers, and actually this shows that we want to do a bit more than that. People want to connect and collaborate, they don’t want to be completely individualistic.’

Leadbeater’s new book We-Think is a riveting guide to a new world in which a whole series of core assumptions are being overturned by innovation on the web. Exploring open-source software, the development of games, new media political practice, online resources such as Wikipedia and trends in business innovation, he draws a series of remarkable conclusions.

For instance: innovation flows from collaboration as much as from jealously guarded commercial secrets. The engine of creativity is the group rather than the rugged individualist. ‘The web’s significance,’ he claims, ‘is that it makes sharing central to the dynamism of economies that have hitherto been built on private ownership.’ Sharing, in other words, is as likely to generate wealth as the astute investment of private assets. ‘In the 20th century we were identified by what we owned,’ he writes. ‘In the 21st century we will also be defined by how we share and what we give away.’

If this sounds sentimental, it isn’t. Leadbeater is not talking about what he calls ‘Diana remembrances’, mere outbursts of online emotion. Instead, he argues, there is money to be made from heeding consumers: mountain bikes, which now account for 65 per cent of bike sales, worth more than $50 billion, were invented by young Californian cyclists. The Sims, the most successful computer game ever, which has earned $1 billion for its publisher, Electronic Arts, owes 60 per cent of its content to user-developers. Open-source communities are often more economically efficient than rigid commercial organisations. And — crucially — they offer the incentive of speedy applause for success that is not so readily available in old hierarchies. ‘For the majority,’ he says, ‘the main motivation is recognition: they want the acknowledgement of their peers for doing good work that they enjoy.’

Here he quotes from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: ‘What are the advantages which we propose to gain by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation, are all the advantages we can propose to derive from it.’

This is not to say, of course, that the old models of the investor-owned company, the professions, private information or commercial hierarchies, are doomed, and that we will all wake up one day working in a global e-commune. Rather, that success will lie in finding the correct balance between old and new. ‘The trick,’ he says, ‘will be to find the right ways to combine professional and amateur, open and collaborative ways of working with more traditional and closed approaches... The most exciting organisational models of the future will mix collaboration and commerce, community and corporation... The road to prosperity in a world shaped by the web will lie in the interaction between gifts and transactions, sharing and owning; between markets that trade products and communities that breed knowledge.’

Leadbeater, a bespectacled, quietly compelling presence, has gone through several incarnations in his 49 years, earning his spurs at Weekend World in the era of Brian Walden, Peter Mandelson and David Aaronovitch. He worked at the Financial Times and the Independent, where he launched Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, and was closely associated with the Blair Project, both as an adviser and as a stalwart of the think-tank Demos. These days, as one of the most respected management thinkers in the world, he is still well-connected with the key players in the government. In the acknowledgments to the book he thanks the brothers Miliband, David and Ed.

But it is not only Cabinet ministers to whom Leadbeater is indebted. In a classic example of web collaboration, he drafted the book online, inviting comment and criticism from anyone who cared to join in. As a result, the full author byline of We-Think is ‘Charles Leadbeater (and 257 other people)’.

‘It was both invigorating and unnerving,’ he says. ‘It was unnerving because, just at that moment when you are at your most vulnerable, why on earth would you want to share it with so many people? Also, of course, when you do it in that blog world, you have got no idea who is going to reply and sometimes the early replies are cynical and harsh. But after the first sort of “Who the hell are you, and why are you doing this and do we get paid?”, what happened is that it carried on spreading. Then I got hundreds of emails from people — most of them just saying, “Gosh, this is really great that you’re doing this, thank you.” Then a small minority which were, “I’ve read it and I’ve got these thoughts about it.” So it was incredibly energising in that sense.’

This emergence of a core of enthusiastic collaborators exemplifies one of the most important ideas in the book. The web will not yield much of worth if it is ‘more like a bar-room brawl than a moderated discussion’. Hierarchy and deference have no place online: so the precondition for successful collaboration is — so to speak — order without control.

Time after time — in Wikipedia, computer games development and open-source software programming — Leadbeater identifies a group of key contributors that arises ‘to ensure quality and limit vandalism’, something like ‘a tightly networked craft aristocracy’. Though fizzing with optimism about the creative potential of the web, he is not an anarchist or a dewy-eyed utopian. ‘Creative communities,’ he writes, ‘are not egalitarian.’

In fact, Leadbeater believes that the web community is in many respects a reassertion of an ancestral folk culture and a shared ‘commons’ buried by the industrial organisation of the 20th century. ‘This whole thing that the web is new actually gets it all the wrong way round,’ he says. ‘Actually, it can touch things that are really rather old and that’s when it works best.’ The notion that you empower a mass of amateurs to create and share content is the essence of folk culture, updated for the digital era. Peer-to-peer recommendation is at the heart of modern marketing and social networking. But it has deep roots in the notion of peer review pioneered in the 17th-century scientific journals.

‘The web’s potential for good,’ he says, ‘stems from the open, collaborative and even communal culture it inherited from its birthplace in academia and from the counter-culture of the 1960s, combined with pre-industrial ingredients it has resurrected, folk culture and the commons as a shared basis for productive endeavour.’ It is, in other words, ‘a peculiar mixture of the academic, the hippie, the peasant and the geek’.

Some would add ‘the bully’ to that list. Leadb eater acknowledges the concerns that come with such disruptive technology: loss of professional authority; loss of individual-ity; degradation of friendship and reflection. So what happens when ‘We-Think’ becomes ‘We-Sneer’, the intolerant voice of the herd towards its weaker members?

‘That’s not new,’ he says. ‘We are, of course, intensely concerned by how we’re seen by others — the web hasn’t created bullying or flattery or sycophancy. The question is more whether growing up in that way makes you more concerned to please your peers, to get a good rating. That might be so but again I think that’s a sort of old person’s worry, actually.’ He points at himself and at me when he says ‘old person’, by the way.

‘When young people navigate these things they are quite good at understanding what the limits are, and what not to do. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned with bullying and with people who are exploited — but I don’t think it is a killer objection.’ Teenagers, he says, are developing their own web etiquette and conventions that will govern the way they interact in decades to come.

As for our democracy, he agrees that political practice is light years behind what is possible and, indeed, necessary if politicians are to keep pace with this revolution in social practice. ‘They seem so out of touch and so behind, really.’ Gordon Brown has shown little passion for the web. Blair, Leadbeater recalls, ‘was clueless about it, had no idea. He thought it was terribly exciting in principle, but to see him on a computer was hilarious.’

But the potential is huge. The question is who will seize the initiative. Sharing, collaboration, social commons: this sounds like the lexicon of the Left. But Leadbeater is not sure that social democrats will welcome a way of thinking that intrinsically involves letting go, abandoning central control. Just as New Labour emerged from the Left being forced to embrace the reality of market economics and globalisation, so perhaps something new may be spawned by the Cameroons wrestling with the realities of the early 21st century.

‘It is interesting that the politician in this country who has made the most intelligent speeches about it is George Osborne, who is definitely trying to come to terms with it,’ he says. ‘Does political creativity come from people having to confront things they’re not, and absorb them? Could you brand a “collaborative conservatism”? “Collaborative conservatism” seems so odd — and yet, actually, that is precisely what Cameron with his decentralised energy and personal budgets and self-help and welfare is doing. Maybe that’s what they could become.’

The seer has spoken. Over to you, Dave.