My father, and his father before him, were financial journalists; and for a while so was I, until my father died suddenly in 1980.
They had an unusual approach to vertical integration as practised in those days. They wrote pretty much everything in the journal (with the help of a faithful few), edited it, printed and published it. Every week, around 32 pages of comment, all in English. And all this in Calcutta from 1928 to 1980. They owned the journal, the press, an ad agency and even a restaurant for the print workers.
The “flagship” part of this journal was a weekly 1500 word essay called Clive Street Gossip. Clive Street was the financial heartland of India for many years, until the “political” capital was rudely moved to the Lutyens-designed New Delhi, I think it was in 1910. [Before you say it: I was definitely not around at the time, however old I may seem]. Over the next forty years or so, the importance of Clive Street (and of Bengal, from a financial viewpoint) slowly waned as India lurched towards Independence, and by then it was Bombay that became the financial capital of the country.
Now Clive Street is primarily to be found on eBay, in vintage postcards, interspersed amongst the depictions of the Black Hole and the Great Eastern Hotel. But that was in another country, and besides..
Clive Street Gossip was written by Eavesdropper, the pen-name adopted by my father and his father. I wrote precisely one column using that name. I cannot be sure what images the column name evokes in you, but the reality was quite prosaic. They spoke of markets and of conversations, and of the social life of that information, in something that vaguely resembled a weekly blog with three or four posts every week.
And that’s what put the food on the family table.
So you can imagine what my early years were like. And why I studied economics, why I read voraciously, why I was so struck by The Social Life of Information and The Cluetrain Manifesto. Why I still continue to be struck by them.
But all this was largely before the Information Age; I’d never seen a real computer until 1980, except for a wondrous afternoon playing some form of Star Something on a Commodore Pet in the late 1970s.
What has entranced me since then is the magic of collaboration, the sheer unadulterated joy of co-creation. That may have been influenced at least in part by my Calcutta upbringing: I have often wondered whether it is even possible to do something alone in Calcutta. Anything. [You’re right, I have very fond memories of the place where I spent 23 unbroken years].
So when I think about information, about the internet, about identity and privacy and confidentiality, about patents and copyrights and digital rights and intellectual property, it is always in the context of collaboration.
And currently, I am wrestling with two issues. Particularly as a consequence of the availability of social software at affordable price points in open architectural models, when I can see the possibility of the collaborative magic happening.
One, is there such a thing as group selection, in a Darwinian natural selection sense? Do groups have adaptive capacities? Do social organisms evolve on a natural-selection basis? The concept is not new, but fell way out of favour in the Sixties, and never really resurfaced. And I think it would be really useful to model enterprise behaviour in the context of group selection, both within and well as beyond the enterprise boundary.
Two, was anything ever truly invented by one person in isolation? Here I am not referring to the serendipity aspect, where more than one person “simultaneously” invents something. What I mean is the impact of the group operating around and sometimes under the guidance and tutelage of the “inventor”, or sometimes in partnership.
My interest in the concept of group selection comes from a number of drivers:
- One, I think it is a good way to understand cellular social organisms ranging from modern church movements through to social or professional networks, even terrorist organisations.
- Two, it best explains why we have this counterproductive Blefuscu-versus-Lilliput polarisation about everything that matters nowadays. Groups will tend to attack others and protect their own.
- Three, it allows me to consider and integrate the concepts and issues raised in Emergence and in Linked and in The Tipping Point, amongst others. On relationships and networks and flow.
- Four, it lets me work in that hard-to-find space where religion and science aren’t necessarily in conflict.
- And five, it helps me understand, define and defend altruism.
To move this forward, I am currently reading some of the works of David Sloan Wilson, amongst others; if anyone knows of other works they would be prepared to recommend, I’m all ears. Or should that be eyes? Conversations. Ears.
I am also looking as deeply as I can into the process of invention and of music/literature creation. Who did the inventing or creating. Who helped. How they learnt from mistakes. What the original idea was, and what was patented or published. What type of patent. What the time delta was between original thought, the experiments and failures, the final patent or product. Were Lennon and McCartney collaborators? An author and his/her editor? A husband and wife? Is a family a group that behaves selectively? No Man is an Iland.
To move this forward, I am busy acquiring hardcopy of original patents and a whole pile of literature ranging from scientific papers through to biographies and autobiographies. And reading them. Again, if anyone out there has some pointers to give me, I’d be grateful.
I think these two aspects are crucial to our understanding of collaboration. Does group selection exist, and if so how does it work? Is invention or music/literature/art creation a solo process or is it truly collaborative and only superficially solo?