We-think, I-think ... and Groupthink
Paralysed by plagiarism
Column I recently discovered something truly startling from a student. We were discussing the age-old problem of how to make sure an essay answers the question, and the value of concluding an argument by adopting a particular position. It was then that she confided in me something I'd never heard before.
She agreed that while it would be good to be able to offer one's own argument or view, she was paranoid she might mistake someone else's idea for her own. Sometimes, she said, she would have a great idea, but felt unable to guarantee that she wasn’t "stealing" it.
The cause of this paranoia, as she was fully aware, is the relentless moralistic campaign that colleges now feel compelled to wage, highlighting the evils of plagiarism. The cause of their paranoia is equally discernible: the internet.
It turned out, after sharing this story with other tutors, that this student was far from alone. Many others had expressed an identical fear.
Due to the ease with which essays (or chunks of prose) can now be circulated online, college authorities are drumming it into students that they must - repeat must - be sure all work they produce is their own.
If the threat of being tagged a "plagiarist" is now inhibiting students from even attempting to offer something original, clearly the campaigns of universities have backfired drastically. If things continue in this direction, students will end up restricting themselves to the regurgitation of whatever it is deemed acceptable to regurgitate, namely facts, figures, and quotations.
Perhaps if there were some equivalent of DRM for opinions and arguments, colleges would make life easier for students by slapping restrictions on ideas they weren’t allowed to use.
As easy as it is to blame the pre-web dinosaurs for inciting panic, however, it needs to be recognised that there is something profound at stake here, and their disorientation is understandable. One way of understanding this is to turn to a new book by one of Britain's most influential policy advisors, Charles Leadbeater.
The book is entitled We-think, and it is not shy of grand predictions:
"In the 20th century you were identified by what you owned: your car, your house. In the 21st century we will also be defined by how we share and what we give away," he writes.
The argument is exaggerated for polemical purposes. Meanwhile, it seems perverse to ever celebrate the demise of individual, autonomous thought, in favour of an epistemology mediated by the Hive Mind.
We-think sounds like the title of a chilling dystopian novel, in the vein of 1984. For Leadbeater, it's the interchange, the very processes of idea exchange that represents the epistemological breakthrough, and this is to be celebrated:
"'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.