A spectre is haunting the information age – the spectre of communism. If you don't believe me, listen to Bill Gates. In a 2005 interview, when asked whether the idea of intellectual property was being challenged by the net generation's habit of downloading, using and sharing content for free, Gates disagreed. "I'd say that of the world's economies, there's more that believe in intellectual property today than ever. There are fewer communists in the world today than there were," mused the uber-geek, although "There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises."
Gates's views have since been ridiculed throughout the tech community (though they recently received some elegant support in Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur). But the tycoon's anxieties were not baseless. In particular, Microsoft faces a swarming battalion of services on the internet which promise everything the software giant does – email, database, operating system – for nothing. These services have mostly been developed by digital idealists committed to a vision of knowledge and culture which – if not communist – then at least revives the old idea of a "commonwealth", a realm of resources available as of right to free men and women.
The flurry of brand names from web culture in our news stories – Google, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr – are fuelled by the free labour, and avid attention, of the netizens of this commonwealth. The only sustainable way these web giants have found to make money is by demonstrating to advertisers that potential consumers are watching. So it would seem that, at least at the networked end of things, capitalism is parasitic upon collaboration. No wonder Gates would rather try to mitigate Aids in Africa than deal with this head-splitter problem.
If there's any group poised to profit from the bewilderment of executive managers in the midst of turbulent markets and trends, it is business consultants. And Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, as they say in these circles, are certainly built to last. At times, Wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything reminds you of the famous quote from the nobleman in Lampedusa's The Leopard: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." If the corporate West wants to keep making money out of the circulation of information and culture, the whole way it does business will have to turn on its head.
Tapscott and Williams present themselves as the hand-holding guides of trembling CEOs and managers through this scary landscape. A land where copyright can barely be protected; where powerful companies have to open products and services to collaboration with hackers and amateurs; where new technologies propelled by irrepressible geeks can unravel existing markets.
They do their best, but most of their attempts to bolt the usual scarcity-and-control models of money-making onto these collective processes are remarkably tenuous. For example, they suggest that the most active participants in YouTube or Flickr be given star status, and granted a small share of the ad revenue that their impassioned participation helps generate. Can you imagine the resentment if a lucrative star system began to appear on these platforms? The very altruism and creative spirit that vitalised these networks would quickly evaporate, and distortions for profit would ensue. Talk about "not getting it".
Many of Tapscott and Williams's other recommendations to big business are inspired by an ideal of scientific practice – peer-support-and review, the open sharing of knowledge – which is as much about Enlightenment as capitalism. Let's not forget that the web itself came out of the purely scholarly vision of Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist who wanted to help his fellow researchers freely exchange information.
There's a weird blindness at the heart of this book, with its gushing celebrations of how corporate collaboration might produce the next Boeing airliner, or a new kitchen wipe. As the peer-to-peer visionary Micheal Bauwens has written, the problem is that we regard what is truly plentiful as scarce (information), and what is truly scarce as plentiful (our finite natural world). There is virtually zero consciousness in Wikinomics of the limits to global corporate activity that our environmental crisis must impose. Indeed, with an award-winning cheesiness, the book opens with an anecdote about a goldmine – revived, of course, through wikinomical means.
As Jeffery Sachs noted in his BBC Reith Lectures this year, mass collaboration through informed networks will be one of the key tools whereby we might heal the planet, environmentally and geopolitically. You would hardly learn of that grand ambition from this comically opportunistic book. The spectre of consultantism hangs over it more oppressively than anything else.
Pat Kane is the author of 'The Play Ethic' (www.theplayethic.com)
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