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Paralysed by plagiarism

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"'I think therefore I am' is increasingly at odds with the world being created by the web," he claims. "Descartes urged us to look inwards, the web urges us to turn outwards in the search for ideas. Descartes argued thinking was a largely individualistic activity, the web makes it increasingly social. In this 'We Think' world creativity is invariably a collaborative activity that thrives when people share and mix ideas, allowing them to cross pollinate."

While the experience of my student suggests Leadbeater might be on to something, the development may not be an entirely happy one. So fearful was she that she might have been ensnared by "we-think", she had entirely lost confidence in the power of "I-think".

Ironically, given the rhetoric of Web 2.0, this must be a lonely place to be. Information flows into your head and out again, via keyboards and computer screens, but leaving you unsure where any of it came from. As just another node in a multi-billion-node thinking system, the individual loses the joy of original expression and autonomous, critical thinking.

It is not, as Leadbeater suggests, that 'I-think' is being eclipsed (the self-conscious mind is existential not technological), it's that a new ideology is challenging its authority. When done benevolently, this is fine; but when done malevolently, it is comparable to moving someone’s possessions around to try and convince them they are mad.

Leadbeater, like many Web 2.0 admirers, seeks to celebrate the "democratic" amateur phenomenon of Wikipedia. Yet to be suspicious of "we-think" does not necessarily mean one sides with Encyclopaedia Britannica, professions and the other intellectual gate-keepers of the analogue age. It is to side with the individual – often the disempowered individual – who wants refuge for their ideas, safe from the marauding collectivists of the mob. Perhaps they just want to think for themselves?

Society will work this problem out one way or another. Moralistic efforts to paint plagiarism as the ultimate evil are clearly counter-productive, but valorising it under the mantle of "sharing" is no more helpful to those who are caught in the cross-fire. Both sides need to recognise that a large number of students, writers, and artists desperately do no want to use other people’s work.

This being the case, we need to be as alert to the danger of accidentally undermining originality with a soup of "we-think" as we do of deliberately undermining it through more cynical uses of cut and paste. ®

William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch.

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