If “social media” describes the act of creating information as a virtual collective effort, why don’t we label the places we work and study “social” too? It would make sense. After all, much of the work we do academically and professionally is done as part of a team. Knowledge workers –people ostensibly hired to individually produce creative ideas– routinely spend hours a day in meetings and conference calls and sit in noisy open office plans to maximize interaction with others. School projects frequently involve group presentations in which creative compromise trumps individual insights.
“We like to believe that we live in a grand age of creative individualism,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, “but the way we organize most of our important institutions tells a different story. It’s the story of a contemporary phenomenon I call The New Groupthink, [which] elevates teamwork above all else.”
Among proponents of the New Groupthink, she names Clay Shirky, whose books “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus” celebrate the accomplishments of online collectives. In fact, it’s Shirky’s online collective ideal that Cain cites as the reason for the modern obsession with teamwork: its aggregated products, such as Wikipedia and Linux (both lionized in Shirky’s work) have created in us a reverence for the “hive mind.” If such greatness can be achieved by teamwork online, we have assumed, then why not tear down the office walls and quiet spaces in real life?
Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer and author of “You Are Not a Gadget,” sees danger in the cult of the collective, which privileges thought product over the individuals who create it. Of collective efforts like content aggregation sites and Wikipedia, he says “the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle” –a form of false artificial intelligence, constructed of the sanitized and aggregated intelligence of real people. As a result of his own participation in aggregation efforts, he has observed “a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization.”
Could these be the unintentional results of The New Groupthink in the physical spaces in our lives — our workplaces and schools? Perhaps. As Cain discovered through her research, “what may make sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet” doesn’t translate as effectively face-to-face. High degrees of in-person group interaction and lack of privacy, for example, directly coorelated to poor coding performance by engineers, as observed in a study called the “Coding War Games” conducted by the authors of the software project management book Peopleware. In other studies Cain cites in “Quiet,” the constant interruptions that are the hallmark of collaborative work are also one of the biggest identified barriers to productivity in the workplace.
Is The New Groupthink another example of how online interactions are reshaping the structure of physical space and face-to-face relationships? Is it a bad thing?