Have you noticed how much of a nethead you are these days? As one of these writers puts it, the internet gets socially interesting when it becomes technologically boring – when its tools become as banal to us as pen, paper, TV or telephone. Both these essential guides to web society could easily gather under the title (with a nod to Richard Hoggart), "the uses of techno-literacy". But those uses turn out to be more important than serving the narcissism of the connected classes.
In Clay Shirky's account, the power of the web is that its networks make it "ridiculously easy" to form groups. In the UK, this might sound familiar: the "little platoons" of civil society, as outlined by Smith, Ferguson and Burke in the 18th century. The cheaply printed and distributed pamphlet or journal drove "gentlemen of ideas" to coffee-houses in Edinburgh and London, as a blog forum can enable devotees of a cause to turn up in a front room in Hampstead or Halifax.
What Shirky is claiming as revolutionary is the combination of power and cheapness that social software offers – greatly amplifying our natural desire to create associations. If traditional organisations want to get large groups acting together, they usually need a costly hierarchy of management to orchestrate their thousands, or tens of thousands, of employees. And organisations, particularly commercial ones, will only do those (profitable) things that justify the expense of all that managerial structure.
What the fecund social chaos of the net reveals is that so much group activity can easily happen, if the "transactional costs" of organising it (as the jargon has it) are brought close to zero. Which is exactly what Web 2.0 does. Take the exemplar of this new world, Wikipedia. This extraordinary resource exists because the web allows it: those who have an idealism about education and knowledge (remember the Enlightenment?) can easily come together, mutually monitoring their contributions to a global encyclopedia. They can take their own time, too: when there are no institutional overheads, "you don't have to be efficient, just effective".
However, when the LA Times turned its op-eds into "wikitorials" in 2005 – open to emendation by all – it was an abuse-ridden disaster. Many suppressed voices finally got their chance to rail at editorial pomposity. Wikis work "when people are committed to the outcomes... when they augment community, not replace it". Our social tools, says Shirky without a hint of a blush, "are turning love and care into a renewable building material". If people stopped believing in the Wikipedian ideal, and used its tools for vandalism, "it's unlikely the whole enterprise would survive a week".
Shirky attempts to be as usable as the technology he writes about. He provides the clearest explanation I have yet read of why Microsoft is being challenged by open-source software communities like Linux. In an echo of Beckett's "fail again, fail better", it turns out that the costs of perpetual innovation in open-source are amazingly low. It might look an uneven and erratic process from a Microsoft manager's perspective, but all this perpetual tinkering ("more like accreting a coral reef, than building a car") is enough to produce an operating system immensely cheaper but just as robust as Bill Gates's offering.
Here Comes Everybody has a refreshing interest in activism, rather than yet more digital pabulum for worried CEOs. Shirky is interested in how social software can help human-rights protesters in Belarus, the Philippines or Egypt raise a stink; how it can allow Catholics to protest against Church corruption, or help frequently-stranded flyers demand a bill of consumer rights from aviation behemoths.
He evinces a Tom-Paine-ish belief in the power of informed grassroots democracy, but effectively throws his hands up faced with the flipside of US politics – how these social tools can also "increase the resilience of networked terrorist groups". The spread of the web is like "steering a kayak" in an unstoppable technological stream. "Our principle challenge is not to decide where we want to go but rather to stay upright as we go there."
To Charles Leadbeater, who used to advise Tony Blair and quotes both the young Milibands in his acknowledgements, such a hands-off approach to steering social development is anathema. Covering many of the same case studies as Shirky, the tone of We-Think is more like a benign guardian looking over the playground of the web, hoping gently to encourage or discourage particular behaviours.
Leadbeater raises some useful questions. No one could object to sprawling processes of "mass innovation" creating public encyclopedias and seed banks for developing countries, turning cities into giant learning spaces and citizens into journalists. Leadbeater's mantra "we are what we share" could conceivably become "an economy's motive force", particularly if consumerism begins to hit the limits of ecological sustainability hard. A vision of living as an active, creative player-with-others has inspired this particular reviewer for many years.
But, as he reminds us, some areas – such as care services – won't be affected by We-Think: "you cannot change a wet nappy with a text message". Nor harvest food, nor extract minerals, nor generate energy. Although the participatory structure of the web was founded by a singular mix of values ("the academic, the hippie, the peasant and the geek"), there's no guarantee that happy ethos will guide all behaviour within its halls.
Are we ready for open-source biology, for example – a process of mass innovation based on our "sharing" of the genomic code? Do we want pro-ams in their garages fooling around with viruses and proteins, or accredited professionals? There are under-theorised questions of governance and control (and, maybe more importantly, self-control) in web culture. Leadbeater is right to alert us to them.
We-Think concludes, correctly, that the message about the developed world that web culture delivers – trust, collaboration and shared goods, in pursuit of better ideas, based on solid evidence – is much more attractive than the "Coke and carbines" that too much of the planet has been used to from the West. He holds out the tantalising prospect that these soft, pliable new tools from the master might be more enthusiastically grasped and applied by developing countries than by our own. If that happens, then the daily banality of the web may herald the most exciting of historical processes. There's more than YouTube, Facebook and viagra spam to come down those wires yet.
Pat Kane ( www.patkane.com) is the author of 'The Play Ethic', and one half of Hue and Cry
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies