Internet evangelists like to talk about how the Internet has enabled a new era of mass collaboration. And I agree with them. However, I disagree that collaboration is a new thing; collaboration is a basic human organizational form, and creativity and innovation have always resulted from collaboration. In my book Group Genius, I tell stories from the 19th and early 20th century of collaborations–many of them distributed, open systems–that resulted in inventions as different as the telegraph and the board game Monopoly.
In the Wall Street Journal this weekend, Alan Hirshfeld reviewed two new books about collaboration through the centuries, and how groups and organizations fostered scientific and scholarly advances. The first book, The Clockwork Universe, describes the history of “scholarly societies” throughout Europe, extending back to Rome’s Accademia dei Lincei in the 1600s. But most of the book is about London’s Royal Society, founded in 1660. Isaac Newton became the group’s president in the early 1700s. As always, the real history of science shows that the “solitary genius” image is a complete myth.
The second book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, is about the 18th century collaboration between four Cambridge University students: the mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed the world’s first programmable computer; the astronomer John Herschel, who would go on to make contributions to the new technology of photography; William Whewell, who coined the term “scientist” in 1833; and the political economist Richard Jones, who worked to ameliorate poverty. They met for breakfast every Sunday. They corresponded constantly. They debated everything. They convinced the Royal Society to base membership solely on scientific merit (it had been an avocation of the moneyed class) in 1847. And even though they advocated for increased specialization, their creativity was enhanced by the diverse backgrounds of the group.
In today’s world, creativity is always collaborative. And it’s not just because we all connect to the Internet; it’s because human creativity has always been deeply collaborative, always emerging from social networks and groups.