Friday, February 13, 2009

Long-Handled Spoons and Collaborative Technologies

Part of what makes it exciting for me to be alive right now is the degree to which the Web as a participative medium, and computing in general, carry within them collaborative capabilities which have the promise of helping to reshape cultural institutions.   In particular I've been watching, as I've given talks about Open Source Software and Web 2.0, a more general and growing awareness of values and motivations outside of the traditional laissez-faire capitalism mind-set that we seem to have been bound by most of my adult life (clarification:  meaning our acceptance of the pursuit of selfish interest as an economic moral justification).    Wikipedia, I've noticed in particular, has had a huge impact on helping people to understand a world of collaborative work that doesn't rely on traditional quid-pro-quo economics, but instead on the more subtle interplay of passion, apprenticeship, long-term thinking, and wanting to make a difference in the world.

My favorite new story to describe what is happening is actually an old story--indicating that the thoughts aren't new, but it's just interesting to watch how the technology is enabling or encouraging them.  I've seen different variants of this story, which is (apparently) a Jewish folktale.  Here's my own telling of it:
A Rabbi asks to see Heaven and Hell. His wish is granted and he's taken to a room where everyone is seated at a long dinner table with delicious food in front of them.  However, everyone there is starving and emaciated.  This is because, the Rabbi discovers, while each has a long spoon strapped to his or her wrist, the spoon is so long they cannot pick up the food and actually put it in their mouths. They are utterly frustrated and bitterly unhappy. The Rabbi is told that this is Hell. 
He is then taken to another room with everyone seated at an identical long table with delicious food, and each individual also has a long spoon strapped to his or her wrist.  These people, however, are well-fed, for they have learned that their spoons are perfectly designed to allow them to feed each other, which they are doing quite naturally.  They are joyous, happy, and contented.  The Rabbi is told that this is Heaven.
This is a great parable for the world of Web 2.0, I believe.  I keep coming back to it because I have a feeling that those of us who were entranced by Web 2.0 early on and became "early adopters" did so because we were, by nature, already collaborative.  (There is some nuance to this line of thinking because while blogging is a Web 2.0 tool, it can be argued that it's not necessarily that collaborative, so early bloggers may have been more "voices waiting to be heard" than collaborators.)  

What makes this intriguing is to watch what is happening as a more general awareness of Web 2.0 grows:  more non-collaborative people and organizations are starting to adopt Web 2.0.  It's not because these people or organizations are collaborative by nature, but it's because Web 2.0 is the "next big thing."  Which means a lot of attempts to overlay collaborative toolsets on top of traditionally competitive thinking.  A particularly common example is the creation of a social network for an organization where they set a numeric goal for membership.  I can just hear the marketing folks talking about "locking customers in" and "gaining eyeballs"--completely missing the real impact that social networking has in truly connecting with an audience, building transparency into organizational processes, and fostering collaboration in ways that are historic.  

I've noticed in myself that the moment that someone starts to talk about a project with me that isn't transparent, or doesn't involve the users in helping to develop the outcome, or isn't inherently win-win-win (you, me, and our audience) , I just mentally turn off and look to close the conversation.  It's as though in this rich new world of feeding everyone, making a deal that you and I will only feed each other or having to negotiate each bite is just downright dumb, a colossal waste of time, and isn't realistic in a world that depends now more and more on trust and authenticity.  

I know all too well one of the counter-arguments, because I so frequently feel it that I have trained myself to overcome it mentally:  If I just start giving out my ideas and advice freely, haven't I given away everything of value?  No.  First of all, ideas have always been easy--it's the execution that is hard.  And being free with ideas in a world of unlimited conversation is the best way to gather around you a team of people devoted to the same ideas, and it's the team that really counts now, since I've also found that my really good ideas don't end up actually being really good without input from others.  I also think that the mental energy of trying to constrain our ideas is incredibly counter-productive.  I'm sure this sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I will just say that the more that I have been free and open with what I'm working on, the more good work I've had to do.

I don't think this is an accident.  I do believe that it's been particularly enhanced by our new world of the highly-participative Web and by being able to make our own opportunities so much more easily than when we faced the pre-Internet barriers of time and distance.  But I also think we're re-discovering some wonderful truths about being human that have been hidden by how we've thought about business and culture in the Industrial Age.  

I keep thinking about the recent book The Go-Giver, which I bought in an airport to have something to read and have ended up seeing as very much a touchstone in my thinking this last year.  While there is nothing about Web 2.0 in it that I can remember, I think it's all about how we interact with each other in this new world.  And I'm glad to see these changes.  Amidst all the economic turmoil and very real difficulty, I am incredibly optimistic about the future.
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