by Rob Horning

16 June 2006


I’m all for collaborative effort, but Jared Sandberg’s refutation of management-inspired brainstorming in The Wall Street Journal resonated with me (a rare instance when reading the regular “Cubicle Culture” column has reaped some dividends). Sandberg lists the main reasons why brainstorming fails—it degenerates into backslapping sessions because people are more intersted in being liked by everyone else than in producing workable ideas, or the session is hijacked by the loudest prick in the group, who cows everyone else into submission—and cites the hegemonic faith in teamwork as the principal reason the tactic is employed. My primary experience with it has always come in academic situations—mandatory group work, which I resented as a student and refused to institute as a teacher (unless I was underprepared and needed to waste class time). Group work allowed the weaker students to leech off the work of the stronger students, and the stronger students often seemed to be reinforced in their budding arrogance. Group work always seemed less about learning and more about socializing students for corporate bureaucracy, preparing them for middle-management group think, buck passing and contentment with mediocrity—developing strategies for seeing all decisions as someone else’s problem while perpetuating the idea that what’s really important is covering your back and maintaining a superficial level of amiability with everyone else. It’s a phony democratic method, where everyone is given a voice regardless of whether they have done anything to deserve it, regardless of whether they are cognizant of the responsibilities that come with having a voice (if that voice is to signify anything). It tends to obviate the notion that ideas can be fairly judged—that some are stupid and some are valuable—and reduces them to the level of opinions.

Collaboration, unfortunately, can’t be decreed by force—the various failures of collectivism seem to suggest at least that—it only works when people volunteer to cooperate, when they recognize shared goals, shared values, shared faith in specific methods. Everyone has to care about the goal more than having their own ego stroked, obviously, and our culture sepdns a great deal of effort telling everyone its their inalienable right to have their ego stroked all the time. Technology can afford more opportunities for such combinations to occur, and such groups could find more encouragement in a society that celebrates civic activity (as opposed to spectatorship, passive consumption and suburban-bunker individualism), but when these combinations are mandated, participants usually find petty ways to subvert them in hopes of resotring their sense of autonomy. No one likes to be lashed to the mast of a sinking ship, or to be strung together in a kind of corporate chain gang.

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