Reflecting on “Free Culture” and Lanier’s Digital Peasantry, part I

Category: Business & Economics | Media & Technology
Published on Jan 14, 2010

I’ve not had an opportunity to read Jaron Lanier’s new book, You’re Not A Gadget, but it’s virtually impossible to avoid the debate raging (see here and here, for example) around its core premises. Let me say upfront, Lanier raises some very poignant issues that will shape the way our knowledge economy evolves in the decades to come. But I’m not sure he’s drawn all of the right conclusions.

Lanier dislikes mass collaboration, arguing that “We shouldn’t want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation.”

The way I see it,  mass collaboration on the Internet is not inherently about “collectivism” as Lanier describes it. It’s not about “everyone doing everything.” Nor is it about sitting in committees, arriving at mediocre decisions, or producing lowest common denominator outcomes.

On the contrary, mass collaboration provides an alternative to hierarchical, command and control management systems that are typical of industrial age institutions. This top-down modus-operandi is manifestly incapable of solving many of the issues that confront humanity this century — issues that require collaboration by definition because there is no single authoritative institution that possesses the knowledge and skills to solve them alone. Why Lanier can’t see this, or chooses to ignore it, is a mystery.

Sure, Wikipedia is one example of a product produced by the so-called “collective” that Lanier despises. But mass collaboration is also about a few like-minded people transcending the boundaries of time and space to work together on issues and challenges. Companies, governments, scientists and non-profit organizations are doing it to reach beyond the boundaries of their “closed organizations.” It allows them to tap into knowledge and capability over the Internet to create superior outcomes, not inferior ones. Mass collaboration does not replace competition or competitive rivalries. In fact, I’ve argued the opposite. Mass collaboration is a better way to compete because the organizations that do so can marshall more talent and capability with greater speed and agility than they can using conventional management models.

Indeed, as Don Tapscott will argue in our forthcoming book, the world is increasingly embracing these collaborative models of problem-solving. For individuals and small businesses this is an exciting new era—an era where they can participate in production and add value to large-scale political and economic systems in ways that were previously impossible. For large companies, new models of mass collaboration provide myriad ways to harness external knowledge, resources, and talent for greater competitiveness and growth. For society as a whole, we can harness the explosion of knowledge, collaboration, and business innovation to lead richer, fuller lives and spur economic development for all. Let’s hope not too many people get discouraged by Lanier’s myopia.

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