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Picnic ’08 – Charles Leadbeater, Creativity and Collaboration

Charles Leadbeater leads off the PICNIC ’08 conference in Amsterdam with a talk on mass creativity and mass collaboration. Leadbeater’s book, “We Think”, looks at the revolution around participatory culture. He offers a metaphor – media as we know it has been about moving, aggregating and defending boulders – big, immobile, static standalone entities. Our new culture is being built differently – by participating and creating content, we’re all creating pebbles and assembling them together.

Beyond distributed creativity is collaboration – finding ways to coordinate our creative actions so we can participate in new and more complex ways. Leadbeater (oddly, I think) chooses the online game I Love Bees as an example of this collaboration. I Love Bees was an alternative reality game built by 42 Entertainment to promote Halo 2… sort of. The url appeared in a trailer for the Halo 2 game. When visitors loaded the site, they found what appeared to be a personal blog of someone who loved bees and published recipes to use honey. The recipes had been replaced with GPS coordinates. As 4,000 core players – who called themselves The Beekeepers – explored the game, they discovered that the coordinates corresponded to phone boxes around the world. On a specific day, the game engineers started calling these phoneboxes and reading off lines in a drama. The participants, scattered around the world, had to reassemble the drama from the individual lines.

If you can get people to participate in “this mindless game to promote a Microsoft game”, what could you actualy accomplish if you attached this newfound capacity for collaboration to social goals? Leadbeater believes that this capacity for collaboration is what lets us build open source software or collective works like Wikipedia.

He acknowledges that collaboration can lead either towards conformity, or towards chaos. To avoid conformity, you need diversity, people who can see problems from different vantage points. You need to enable collaboration, building systems that let people participate, using modular design, and letting people collaborate as easily as they would add Lego bricks to a structure. You need a shared sense of purpose, but individual payoffs so everyone feels rewarded. And communities must be able to make decisions – it’s a mistake to concude that these new collaborative spaces are structureless. They’re not egalitarian, but open and democratic.

One of the most exciting places for collaboration is in the world of science. Leadbeater points out that scientists, especially those in emerging fields, are some of the most creative authors of tools. He refereces a social scientist who argues that the scientific method is experiencing fundamental change, that the old models of hypothesis and testing with experiment, is shifting towards a collaborative method that involves massive simulation, like those hosted at Nanohub. He references Public Library of Science, an open source scientific database where contributions include not only academic papers, but videos, datasets and the raw materials to replicate experiments.

How do we know if a system is properly collaborative? Leadbeater suggests we should look for systems that are designed to work with you, or allow creation by you, rather than doing things for you or to you. Learning, Leadbeater feels, mostly was done to him, not with him… and when politicians say they want to do something for you, they mostly want to do something to you. (Health, perhaps, is worse.)

Will an internet world allow for different ways to interact? Will we find ways to work together, rather than doing things to one another? He references Gerrard Winstanley, and his movement – the Levellers – who took over public lands in 17th century Britain and planted communal farms. That movement was part of an upheaval in English politics, and it didn’t last very long – about three years – and then the forces who’d had power previously regained their power and influence. Is the Internet going to be this brief moment of collaboration, a weird, wacky moment where people want to share? Or is this a permanent change?

He closes by referencing Sir Tim Berners Lee, who was recently asked whether our social ambitions were too grand for the web. He offers the advice, the danger is not that we ask too much of the internet, but that we ask too little.

Clay Shirky, who’ll be speaking tomorrow, joins Leadbeater for a dialog on these issues. He asks the difficult question, “When doesn’t this work?” Leadbeater concedes that he probably doesn’t want to receive a hernia operation from someone who’s only read about it on Wikipedia. There’s a need for expertise even in a collaborative world.

Clay worries that these new collaborative systems are highly gameable – “I could write an article titled ‘The seven hottest babes of science fiction movies’ and it’s guaranteed to make the front page of Digg, because it works precisely within Digg’s system.” In discussing the issue, the two seem to argue that this is a more exceptional case – more generally, it’s very hard to know which of these systems will and won’t work, and our understanding of these systems is more like that of the weather, not of a neat, mechanized system.

A discussion of the implications of the collaborative revolution for businesses leads to a discussion on timescale. The rise of pro/am culture, the collaboration between professionals and amateurs, is a long rise, and this rise might take many decades. This comes as a relief to large organizations, Leadbeater says, because they’re only really able to make serious changes in the very long scale.

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