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.