Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Don Tapscott & Anthony D. Williams:
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything [2007]

      Our group differed quite widely about this book, with ratings ranging from 1 to 9 (on a scale of 0 to 10). The average for the group as a whole was a middle of the road 4.6.

      Rosie liked the book a lot, and gave it a 9. She said she enjoyed it very much, and particularly enjoyed the specific examples of collaboration given in the middle part of the book. She thought the authors did a good job of explaining their points. She did think that there was a lot of repetition in the early and last parts of the book, which showed the book could have used some better editing.

      John, on the other hand, didn’t like this book at all. He doesn’t think that collaboration is all it’s cracked up to be, and that a lot of the book sounds like schemes to get “something for nothing”. He added specifically that the “Web 2.0” idea is way overblown. Philosophically, John objects to the basic premise on the grounds that “people need to get something monetarily out of their efforts”. John thinks there are a lot of problems with the book, and that it read like a Ray Kurzweil “novel” to him! (Kurzweil’s books are so far out that they seem like “novels” to many!) Overall, John thought that the authors painted a lot rosier picture than is appropriate.

      Kevin pointed to the cover which, around the picture of the Wikipedia puzzle-globe, shows the names of a number of other collaborate projects: Linux, MySpace, Flickr, Second Life, YouTube, the Human Genome Project and InnoCentive. He pointed out that maybe only a couple of the organizations listed on the cover actually share the wealth in any significant way. The book, Kevin says, is mostly about non-economic (non-profit) sharing of values or activity. Wikipedia itself is like this. From an economic point of view this sort of collaboration has not been all that successful, he adds. This sort of collaborative effort “tends to fall apart as soon as it is ratcheted up as a profit-making venture.” Kevin therefore sums this up by saying “I don’t think they’ve figured out how to monetize sharing yet.”

      However, Kevin liked that part of the book which focuses on how new forms of collaboration are changing and improving how work is done within corporations. But he didn’t care for the way the book was written or for the economics ideas in it. But the topics were OK. Kevin rated the book as a 5.

      Barbara found the book interesting and educational, and said she learned a whole lot, especially about the many new services available through computers. She said the book “was very stimulating for me as a beginner with computers”. She gave it a rating of 6.

      Scott had strongly mixed feelings about the book. He says it is basically just a business book, primarily directed towards CEOs and other managers of corporations. That aspect, that businesses should embrace collaboration and be willing to give away some of their own intellectual property in order to better make profits from their “core” ideas and expertise, doesn’t interest him at all. In fact everything about promoting the profit motive totally turns him off, regardless whether the suggestions will actually achieve that or not. (Scott agrees with John and Kevin here that the actual potential for accomplishing this sort of thing is way overblown in the book.)

      On the other hand, a major theme of the book is that of the value of collaboration, and that collaborative efforts of large numbers of people lead to the emergence of lots of good new ideas, in the economy just as everywhere else. This is a notion dear to Scott’s heart, and a key point in the theory of the mass line which he is always talking about. Even though there are indeed severe limits as to how effective this sort of collaboration can be under capitalism, and especially when subordinated to the profit motive, it is still an important and even inspiring feature of the present society.

      Under capitalism the cooperative impulses of the people have been terribly restricted and constrained. Even their tendencies to spontaneously make suggestions for improving production are seldom seriously listened to. And why should a worker even make a suggestion towards improving production when he knows it is unlikely to be listened to, and even if it is listened to and adopted, it is unlikely to benefit him and his co-workers?

      But with the advent of personal computers and the Internet has come a spontaneous outpouring of unpaid collaborative efforts by the masses, of which the Linux and Wikipedia projects are good examples. People do have these cooperative and creative urges, and modern technology has finally presented a means by which many of them can satisfy those urges in their spare time.

      Scott points out that the early shoots of a new socioeconomic formation, namely capitalism, actually developed within feudalism, as when early forms of capitalist production and trading developed in Venice and then in what is now Holland four centuries ago. In a similar way, there are some new shoots of the future socialist and then communist society that are developing under capitalism! The most commonly recognized development along these lines is the strong tendency towards capitalist monopoly, which leads toward the idea that these massive monopolies should be nationalized and to somehow be made to work for the public interest rather than the private profits of the relatively few big shareholders and top managers.

      However, the spontaneous cooperative and creative impulses of large numbers of people in very useful projects such as Linux and Wikipedia are much clearer “sprouts of communism”. They show that under the proper conditions people really are willing to work for the public good even when they are not being paid anything whatsoever! Of course under capitalism, you must ordinarily have some income in a regular job before you are free to pursue such spontaneous free labor in your spare time. But in a communist society, where all the necessities of life (at least) are free to all, then there would actually be far more scope for such free labor, and even far more desire of all normal people to participate in it. In short, such things as the nascent but limited forms of spontaneous unpaid collaborative labor under the present system already show that—contrary to what bourgeois ideologists always say—communism can really work! The supposed free rider problem is not the disproof of the workability of communism that the bourgeoisie always claims it to be.

      [OK, Scott, wrap this up, so we can move on to what other folks have to say about this book...]

      Scott is only giving this book the very low rating of 2 for the reason that it is primarily a business book, and tries to show how the cooperative and actually communistic inclinations of the masses can be perverted in order to produce corporate profits. But a perceptive reader might recognize and consider some things here that the authors themselves are incapable of understanding.

      Rich said he actually enjoyed the book. But he thought it was more a book of prediction than any good description of the current situation in business. The author claims that the business model is changing, but this remains to be seen. Rich noted the similarity of themes to a previous book our group read, The Wisdom of Crowds. He remarked that we can all benefit greatly from the collaborative nature of the Internet, and that tapping the greatest wisdom of humanity is a great idea. All in all, Rich says, this is a useful book to read, and he gave it a rating of 6.

      Ron, though, really hated this book, and rated it as only a 1! He said it was the biggest pile of crap you can find except under an outhouse! Getting people together to solve problems is not a new idea. The example of cooperative barn raisings had been mentioned earlier in the discussion, but Ron said that those involved in barn raisings do so for purely selfish reasons; they would be ostracized if they weren’t there. [Scott, keep your mouth shut at this point; you’ve had your say!] Ron pointed out that in order to engage in free cooperative work you must at a minimum have a paying job elsewhere (which of course is true under this economic system). Overall, Ron thought that the book was an attempt to put lipstick on a pig.

      Rosie was somewhat annoyed with the negative opinions and ratings that some of the rest of us had regarding the book, and thought that some of the statements made against it were due to not having finished reading it. (Scott, for one, only read the last 25 pages after the meeting, but finishing it didn’t change his opinions in any way.) This seems to be one of those books which, more than usual, people rate based on their own pre-existing ideas.

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