I’ve already written about my reaction to New Clues, the latest instalment from Cluetrain authors Doc Searls and David Weinberger; this serves more as a postscript than as anything else.
Perhaps it was always there in all of Cluetrain. My sense is that it was. But one thing’s for sure, when I read New Clues I felt there was a lot of “we” about it, an “us” about it. Not a “me”, and not an”i”. We. Us. The call to action was to a collective.
I’ve been fascinated by aspects of me-ness and we-ness ever since I was a teenager. The Calcutta I grew up in was for many years a democratically-elected communist state, make of that what you will. The India I grew up in was described in terms like “secular” and “non-aligned” and sometimes even “socialist”. Our 5-year Plans were modelled on Russian examples; while there was an amicable relationship with the UK, with the US and with NATO in general, terms like “bhai-bhai” were used to describe our relationships with Russia and China. We were a democracy then and I hope we still are; but we were also a socialist republic at the same time.
It was a land that celebrated me-ness and we-ness. If push came to shove, the we-ness tended to win. I’m sure it’s common in other cultures, but my personal experience was that everything to do with my identity, with who I was or am or will be, was communal in nature. I was defined more by my context and my relationships than by anything peculiarly “me” about me.
The bureaucracy at the heart of India — the Indian Administrative Service — was a we-ness. The alumnus effect of the IAS would put Western organisations like Accenture and McKinsey or Harvard and Stanford to shame. I chose those four deliberately, given their perceived excellence in managing alumnus effects. The IAS did what an Accenture or a McKinsey did at scale, but that’s not what makes them legendary. The IAS somehow managed to make these effects happen despite the grade structure that is the DNA of most bureaucracies.
Industry was a we-ness. They were either nationalised, in which case they adopted a weaker, less effective IAS-like model; or they were private, in which case they were often run by industrial groups with very strong family links at the senior layers.
There were unions everywhere. Particularly in Bengal. The sounds of Aamader Dabi Mantey Hobey rang out every day in Calcutta streets; I guess the translation today would be something like “Our demands must be met”. They were militant, rampant, as militant and rampant as anything could be in Bengal, especially in summer. There was a reason why Noel Coward said, in Mad Dogs and Englishmen: In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done.
The power of collective action was well understood in India. And the democratic socialist republic knew how to exercise it: nothing else can explain how Congress lost the 1977 election to the fledgling Janata party, how Indira Gandhi lost her own seat, how the only party ever to have held power in India, led by the daughter of the first Prime Minister, could manage to lose an election where most of the opposition had spent most of the electioneering time in jail.
One of my favourite stories about the power of the collective comes from one of Nirmal Kumar Bose‘s books on his life with Gandhi.
Bose had been given the opportunity to interview the Mahatma on the 9th of November 1934, at Mahila Ashram. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his son Ghani were also there. They all went for a walk with Gandhiji that evening. The way the author describes it, Gandhiji could have walked for India at the Olympics. So he rattled off at a serious pace into the fields around the ashram, wearing his customary sandals. The rest of the party followed dutifully, roaming into the gloaming behind the Mahatma. After a little over a mile, he turned back.
And as he turned, he stopped to pick up a few stones. As did everyone else in the walking party. Who proceeded to carry said stones all the way back to the garden of the ashram. Why? Here’s what Bose says:
The fact was, the Ashram was a little way off from the main metalled road, and one had to walk along a sticky, muddy path in the rains to reach it. Some engineer had been called, but his estimate had been too high for the Ashram. So Gandhiji had proceeded in his own direct manner to deal with the problem of road-building. He had promised to collect all necessary road-metal in the course of a few months and this, he expected, would reduce the cost of the road to a considerable extent. Thus, every morning and evening’s walk was meant not only for keeping the inmates of the Ashram fit, but it was also to add to the “wealth” of the establishment in a very different way.
The author goes on:
In Gandhi’s opinion, there seemed to be no problem, however great, in whose solution the smallest individual could not contribute his mite. Indeed, he had the genius of discovering individual solutions in the most ingenious ways. His idea was, if we could multiply the number of dutiful individuals by many, that would lead to the solution of a problem, however massive it might appear at first sight to be.
When I think of the internet, when I think of the web, I am reminded of this passage by Bose about Gandhi. The pioneers of the internet and of the web kept building and evolving a philosophy, some principles, a set of agreements, ways of doing things, that carried this hallmark — the smallest individual could contribute his mite.
New Clues is there to tell us three things:
The context has evolved in scale and scope, but the conversations that started with Cluetrain continue today and will continue tomorrow
There is a philosophical battle, and that battle is deep in Then-They-Fight-Us territory.
And then we will win. But to win, as in the story of the roads at Mahila Ashram, we need to be dutiful individuals contributing our mites.
The Clues are there to help us understand what being dutiful means, and where we need to be contributing our mites.