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Last night we had a great lecture from Charlie Leadbeater discussing his new book We Think. The book has got interest and praise, not just for its content but also how it was written – collaboratively, via Charlie’s website. It may well be the first wiki-book

One connection I made was between Charlie’s thesis and Brooke Harrington who spoke here last week on her book Pop Finance. I asked Brooke whether Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and the foremost exponent of the breakdown in social capital, was interested in the 20 million Americans taking part in investment clubs.

Brooke surmised that Putman didn’t investigate this on the grounds that investment clubs aim to make money. But, as she points out in her book, there’s no correlation between the financial success of the club and its long term future. There are clubs which make no money but are still meeting and investing, just as there are some clubs which are financially successful, but break-up due to personality clashes. In the final analysis, it’s all about people voluntarily doing stuff together.

I similarly asked Charlie what he thought about Putnam’s thesis. Does the rise of forms of on-line collaboration like Wikipedia and Linux disprove social capital theory.

The answer in part is Putnam was looking at distinct forms of social capital, arguing that the capital communities most need is the type that is declining fastest. So for instance, in deprived communities, what’s needed is ‘bridging capital’; people who are not in work having contact with those who are and thus creating opportunities through networks and connections.

The problem with the simplistic social capital thesis is that it seems to imply that after 150,000 years of human evolution in which we have been hard wired as a social species we have suddenly decided to retreat from the public sphere.

What I take from both Charlie and Brooke is that Putnam was mapping less a fundamental shift in human nature and more was the decline of old collectivist institutions. These institutions – think political parties, think trade unions, think established churches - are characteristically bureaucratic, rigidly hierarchical, and culturally self-denying (‘you have boring meetings to make the world a better place’).

What Putnam didn’t see was that alongside the decline of these institutions what would occur is the emergence of ‘new collectivist’ institutions – like investment clubs and on-line social networks - which are less bureaucratic, more dispersed, more subtly hierarchical, and more self-actualising (or what ordinary people tend to call ‘fun’).

Human beings do still want to do good stuff together, but because our lives and our expectations have changed we want to work together differently. This is what we’re trying to do here at the Society. RSA Networks is one way of doing that, but there will no doubt be others – such as this blog. One way of defining my mission for the RSA is to build on the great traditions of this old collectivist institution, but work with Fellows to turn it into an exemplar of a new collectivist spirit.


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