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Charles Leadbeater and the social media academics

March 26, 2009

Today I went to a workshop on ‘Innovative Media for the Digital Economy’, part of the Digital Economy programme run by the UK Research Councils, in which various social media academics presented the first fruits of research which had received seed funding through this scheme.

Charles Leadbeater

Charles Leadbeater shares some thoughts

The day kicked off with a keynote speech by Charles Leadbeater, author of We Think, the very good book which I had previously referenced in my inaugural lecture and elsewhere.

In a slightly longwinded question to him, I was pleased to be able to thank him for reminding me of the power of Ivan Illich (mentioned in We Think as one of the precursors to the spirit of Web 2.0), who had fired my sociological imagination back in the day. You don’t necessarily expect to be reading about Illich’s radical and brilliant Tools for Conviviality in a book by a ‘leading business thinker’.

He said many interesting things, which I won’t try to type out here (see his website for a range of useful resources), but here’s just one. When asked about Wikipedia, he noted that it’s a useful starting point when looking into a topic, and added: “If you’re a teacher and the answer to your question can be copied from Wikipedia, you’re asking the wrong questions”. What a brilliant point. I will be using that next time one of my colleagues wants to ban Wikipedia, as someone usually wants to, soon.

After this, the academics made a string of presentations about their research studies. These were mostly interesting projects focused on particular online products or services and the ways that people did, or could potentially, use them.

There were, for instance, excellent presentations from Jen Southern (and colleagues), and Andy Miah, on finding new ways that artists can collaborate and rethink their social role; interesting stuff on how mobile technology could help us make much better use of public transport by identifying spare capacity in the system, on the spot; and some thoughtful comments on Facebook and identity from Udi Butler.

As my contribution to the panel discussion at the end of the day, I suggested to the roomful of academics — somewhat bravely, I thought — that it was interesting that it was the ‘corporate’ speaker, Charles Leadbeater, who is an ‘industry’ person, a business consultant and journalist, not an academic, who had been prepared to discuss big broad social issues in his book and his speech — doing the job of an Emile Durkheim or Max Weber in looking at these new technological social phenomena and their role in public life — whereas the academics were mostly presenting narrower stuff, evaluating products and services, or particular case studies, and not really dealing with ‘big’ questions. I noted politely that as academics we all have to work on particular projects, of course, and that probably they aspired to deal with big questions too. I added that maybe the fault lies with the way academics have to align themselves with funding councils.

Nevertheless you’d think that the role of academics would be mostly raising big questions. I have no problem, of course, with Charles Leadbeater’s intelligent and well-referenced mass-market paperback, and don’t really care whether it’s officially an ‘academic’ book or not. But it’s a bit odd if academics are not really covering those big issues on the grand scale, isn’t it?

Is this what happens when funding councils emphasise academic links with ‘industry’ all the time — academia just gets a bit smaller-minded, whilst ‘industry’ responds by producing the superior grand thinkers?!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Annamaria permalink
    March 29, 2009 4:44 pm

    I was in the audience, David, and wanted to say (but didn’t have the chance as there was a long queue of questions) that at a previous Digital Economy event — the Wealth of Networks II event – I organised a panel on Trust, where one of our panelists, an academic, mentioned precisely Durkheim and Weber – if that is a sign of big thinking. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a real problem with the increasingly instrumentalist understanding of research that seems to inform the research programmes of funding councils, and which does threaten to push academics more and more into a corner where, if they want to obtain funding at all, they have to prove that they can be of service to industry or commerce.

  2. March 30, 2009 8:11 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Annamaria. Of course I don’t think that people should necessarily be mentioning Durkheim and Weber (!) – I meant that we need people doing that big broad thinking for today. Which, of course, some people do. But I’m glad I was not alone in my concern about the instrumentalism of research councils…

  3. December 12, 2009 4:59 pm

    I was intrigued by your posts. I agree with Leadbeater.

    Many people have the wrong opinion of Wikipedia. That’s because they’re used to the old way of thinking about research. If you view Wikipedia as a print publication that simply online, then you’ve missed the point.

    Wikipedia isn’t the end of research, it’s the beginning!

    The point in having an editable online enclyclopedia is to take the combined knowledge of great masses of people who should cite their sources and give each topic a central starting point.

    The topics should interlink based on the building blocks of that topic. This gives us the ability to dig down and find the history behind many of the topics we search for.

    Wikipedia should be embraced as a tool that helps us to start finding and sharing information rather than disdained as an inaccurate resource that doesn’t have the final answers.

    Likely the best way to look at Wikipedia is to look at it as a search engine. Sometimes search results can have things that shouldn’t be there. But, the search engine itself is still a useful tool. The person doing the research should simply verify everything they read and report.

    – Tony Darrick Baker

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