Five books that shaped my thinking

My thoughts are shaped more by life than books. The world is a book that we read implicitly. If the problems of the world do not engage us and inspire a response, a book will do nothing for us.

The following books have played an important role in guiding my work in the past decade. I have read many good books in this time, but these five stand out. The common factor is that they inspired me to break with ideas that I had become comfortable with and seek out new lines of inquiry. As Thoreau said: ‘A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting’.

1. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2001)

I read Empire in 2001, in the final year of my doctoral research. I was writing on the relationship between Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, two of the most important European thinkers of the 20th century (some years later I published a book on this topic, Foucault’s Heidegger). Meanwhile, I was following the progress of the anti-globalization protests that erupted about the world after the Battle in Seattle in November 1999, participating where I could. Empire provided me with a theoretical perspective on these events that shaped my research output between 2002 and 2008 and fed directly into the script for Coalition of the Willing.

Hardt and Negri’s argument in Empire is that neo-liberal economic globalization should not be understood as a kind of imperialism (where a hegemonic power invades other countries to capture their resources), but a new form of empire that tolerates no external limit and seeks to incorporate all life within its order. This empire employs the internet to organize the global multitude into a productive force; yet as it does so, it enables the multitude to form swarm-like pockets of resistance that coalesce across borders to challenge the status quo. Hardt and Negri propose that the multitude will eventually realize its collective power and establish a new political order based in the productivity of the commons.

Empire was derided in its day for its utopian tone and the obscurity of its theoretical references. I still believe the argument is on target. It was simply too far ahead of its time.

2. Wikinomics: Why Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams (Atlantic 2008)

Wikinomics, which I read in early 2008, was a revelation for me. It helped me connect the theoretical research I’d been doing on web-enabled social movements to the emerging reality of Web 2.0 innovation and commerce – the work of ‘wikinomics’. It dawned on me, at this point, that the social transformations I’d been charting in the political realm were just an aspect of a broader and more complex set of developments. I started paying serious attention to social media, which was clearly instrumental to these developments, and refocussed my thinking about how new forms of online collaboration and co-creation were changing us on a cultural level, in terms of our imagination of social life and our willingness to experiment with new social forms.

It was around this time that I started working with Simon Robson on Coalition of the Willing. The social change network that we map out in that film was directly inspired by Wikinomics. The rallying cry that animated our polemic combined the political focus of my earlier academic work with new insights into how Web 2.0 was transforming culture and economics: ‘Let’s take our lead from Web 2.0 and the strategies of open source culture. It’s time to recover the true spirit of the 60s counterculture, with an internet-based swarm offensive aimed at triggering a 21st century culture shift’.

3. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner (Chicago Uni Press, 2006)

One idea that stood out for me in Wikinomics was the notion of the ‘prosumer’. A prosumer is an individual who participates in producing the content that they thereupon consume. Tapscott and Williams use the term to encompass a wide range of co-creators, including product hackers, bedroom DJs and remix artists. I am convinced that the idea could be (and should be) applied broadly to refer to the cultural class of social media consumers.

Social media is the realm of the prosumer. By posting, tweeting, commenting, liking and most importantly sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, we collectively produce common pools of content that we consume.

The more I thought about prosumers, the more I came to wonder where this cultural form emerged from. Prosumers seemed to have erupted onto the cultural landscape in the noughties with the rise of Facebook and Twitter. But virtual communities that participate in creating common pools of content clearly predate these sites. Fred Turner’s brilliant study of the memetic connections between the hacker movement and the 60s counterculture (embodied in the ambassadorial figure of Stewart Brand) brought things into focus for me. I realized that the prosumer culture implicit in social media originally came into its own in the free software movement of the 1980s and ’90s. We can trace its lineage back to the 60s communes, where the uneasy mix of libertarianism and communalism that characterises both hackerdom and social media prosumerism initially was developed.

Turner’s argument is pivotal to the story I tell in my classes on Philosophy and Social Media.

4. The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric S. Raymond (O’Reilly, 1999)

If not for Linux, where would we be today? If not for Eric S. Raymond’s magisterial book on open source culture, I’d probably still be waffling on about swarms and social change. Raymond puts his finger on the cultural logic that drives open source production: gift culture. When I integrated this insight into my thinking on prosumers, I realized that gift culture was the link between hackerdom and social media prosumption. Mark Zuckerberg’s fondness for hacker culture fed directly into the construction of Facebook and his vision of ‘frictionless sharing’. As I say in a recent post, it is enlightening to think of your Facebook feed as giant, ongoing, potlatch ceremony.

Another mind-blowing insight I took from Raymond was that the mainstreaming of open source that happened around the turn of the millennium was the product of a marketing campaign spearheaded by Netscape’s CEO, Jim Barksdale. In 1998, Netscape, who had been singled out for destruction by Microsoft for their dalliances with open source, made the strategic decision to throw its lot in with the emerging culture, and released the sources of the Netscape client onto the internet. This led to the creation of the Mozilla Foundation and the strategic branding of ‘open source’ as a viable mode of economic production. Raymond, who was employed by Barksdale to head-up the marketing campaign that accompanied this shift, hammers home the irony of this event. Open source culture was marketed to the world by an internet corporation (Netscape). The whole effort was conceived and undertaken in a top down fashion by Barksdale who, as Raymond says, ‘got the clue and imposed that vision on the people below him’.

Which just goes to show, sometimes you need a benevolent dictator.

5. The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls (Harvard Business, 2010)

The Intention Economy is not a book I would have read five years ago, much less recommended on a list of my top five. The fact that this book has resonated with me so strongly, and is now reshaping the direction of my thought, is testament to the life-changing impact of the four books listed above, which have steered me away from what I now see as an abstract, unnecessarily theoretical, and overly utopian focus on the power of organized social movements (led by non-profits) in the internet age, to a more grounded, empirical, and prescriptively cautious perspective on the progressive cultural shifts associated with online social media.

Searls (co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto) argues that so-called ‘big data’ will ultimately work in the consumer’s favor as a new generation of hackers and entrepreneurs turn the tables on the advertising industry and provide consumers with the means of controlling their data and managing their relationships with vendors. Searls claims that this will give rise to Vendor Relationship management (VRM), the customer-side counterpart to Customer Relationship Management (CRM). I am still wrapping my head around the implications of the book, which is jam packed full of provocative ideas and perspectives. The core ambitions of the book may seem ludicrously out of reach. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see them realized within the decade. Searls, I suspect, is tapping a deep vein of truth. Spring your fangs, bite in and feast.


  1. David Airth says:

    “Empire” was an excellent choice because I am a fan of globalization. This is what I wrote about it back in 1999, if I may:

    The turbulence wrought by globalization has many advocating that the process should be reversed. Let’s be realistic. We can temper globalization but not reverse it. Yet, if such a thing is possible, it won’t be in the best interest of the world or its sovereign states.

    Globalization, for the past 500 years [since Christopher Columbus], has had an incremental effect on civilization. Today it amounts to the salvation of humankind. It has united the world by engaging it in a central task of economic life. Thanks to globalization we have overcome potentially destructive intransigencies such as isolation and protectionism, which in the past have led to wars. The Cold War would not have been cold, nor would it have ended, if it wasn’t for globalization.

    Canada and the U.S. have benefited greatly from globalization. Their economic lives were revitalized by competition from abroad, especially in the automotive industry. It is in much the same way that the Asian and Russian economies will be revitalized. Globalization has encouraged accountability and accommodation throughout the world.

    Having said that, let’s give credit to critics of globalization. Criticism motivates us to re-examine ourselves, reform if necessary, and do better. It certainly helped Canada to shape up, give it the will power to deal with mounting debt and atrophic ways that were making Canada unproductive [and uncompetitive].

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