Keith Sawyer's Group Genius

On the long flight from Boston to Shanghai, I read R. Keith Sawyer‘s recent book, Group Genius. It’s definitely a worthwhile read for anyone who cares about how innovation really works as a functional matter; anyone who runs any kind of an organization; and anyone who ever struggles with trying to do something creative, whether alone or with others. Sawyer takes on the romantic myth of the solo author/inventor/genius with a persuasive argument about “the unique power of collaboration to generate innovation.” I happen to be pre-disposed to thinking he’s right, but the many examples he gives (Morse, Darwin, Picasso, companies like Whole Foods, YouTube, and Google, and so forth) helped to clarify my own thinking about innovation and creativity and how they come to pass.

A few thoughts that the book sparked in me (Sawyer talks a lot about “sparks”), for which I am grateful:

– Urs Gasser, Colin Maclay and I have a long-running series of conversations about collaboration across institutions, interdisciplinarity, and international comparative work in our field. It’s our shared (I think!) view that it would be very, very hard, if not impossible, effectively to study what we study — the implications of changes in information technologies on society, with an emphasis on law and policy — without collaborating with others. The Berkman Center, our shared professional home, works best, in my view, when it makes possible collaboration between creative people, some of whom work at Berkman/HLS and others who are just friends. In a more formal sense, we work deliberately with other institutions, like Urs’s Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen; JZ’s Oxford Internet Institute; Lawrence Lessig’s Stanford Center for Internet & Society; Jack Balkin and Eddan Katz’s Information Society Project at Yale Law School; our partner institutions in the OpenNet Initiative (the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab; University of Cambridge; and OII); and so forth. I am not certain that we are accomplishing “group genius” through any of these collaborations, but I am quite sure that our work would be much less richly rewarding without them. As the Berkman Center morphs from an HLS-based institution to one that draws more formally on the work of others at Harvard in the next year, we hope that our work will continue in this direction of more interdisciplinary, more comparative, and more creative.

– It made me reflect, too, on Urs’s recent blog-post about his two week stay with us in Cambridge this summer. We spent a good bit of time (never enough, of course) talking about what we want to say in the book that we are co-authoring, Born Digital, and what we hope to accomplish in the related Digital Natives project. This is a field in which many, many good and smart people have been working very hard to understand how young people use new information technologies and what it means. We hope for our work on this book and this project to be complementary, not competitive, to this emerging body of work. As lawyers, but also scholars interested in interdisciplinary work, we’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what our “comparative advantage” is — what is it that our training and mode of analysis can enable us to offer to an increasingly rich body of literature. Our goal has to do with both understanding what others have come to know through good empirical and qualitative study; to use a global, not local, lens in assessing this emerging population (rather than generation) of digital natives; and then to offer useful thoughts on how to move forward to head off the worst problems (encroachments on privacy, intellectual property concerns, information overload/credibility issues) and take advantage of the opportunities (innovation, new modes of teaching and learning, civic activism, semiotic democracy). After conversations with Urs, Ethan Zuckerman, danah boyd, and others, I’m freshly persuaded that meaningful, lightweight collaboration is essential to doing sound work in our field (not that we’re there yet, but working on it, and the Group Genius argument helps a lot in this regard).

– Fundamentally, I’m persuaded also that our highest calling at the Berkman Center may be to create an environment in which scholars and teachers can do better work than they’d do on their own.

A few modest critiques:

– Sawyer’s last chapter talks about policy approaches to “Creating the Collaborative Economy.” Several of his proposals relate to intellectual property. Curiously, this chapter was the least persuasive to me of the book’s 11 chapters, even though I expect that I roughly agree with what he argues in his seven proposals. I think I was left unconvinced in part because it’s hard to talk about copyright terms, patent reform, mandatory licensing, non-competes, the standards-making processes, and other complex legal puzzles in a paragraph each. There’s at least one counter-argument for each of the arguments he makes that’s worth exploring, in most instances from the point of view of an economist. Also, with some of the arguments, such as “3. Legalize Modding,” I agree with the gist of the argument, but I wonder about the specifics of what Sawyer writes. First, how much of a problem there is in reality — is the DMCA Section 1201, with its current exceptions, standing in the way of much modding (other than very specific circumvention of TPMs that surround copyrighted works) in practical terms? Maybe, but there’s a serious empirical question to be answered. Sawyer claims: “There are thousands of people like the extreme bike jumper who invented a way to keep his pedals from spinning. One reason they don’t share is that those modifications are often illegal. The U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act — designed to prevent users from making illegal copies of software, music, and movies — has the side effect of making it impossible to modify the products consumers purchase.” (p. 223) While I’m no big fan of DMCA Section 1201, to which Sawyer refers here, it’s not the case that most consumer modifications of things they buy in general are illegal. The DMCA 1201 makes illegal just the circumvention of effective technological measures designed to protect copyrighted works — a much more narrow statement than the one that Sawyer makes here. So, the ban he refers to is the ban on the act of circumventing a certain set of technologies, not the making of modifications to something you’ve bought (copyright, separately, might disallow certain modifications under the exclusive right to make derivative works, but that’s a different argument). I realize that the act of circumventing and making the modification are related, but they’re different, to be sure. In short: while the punchlines may be right in this final chapter, the analysis perhaps warrants its own book, rather than a short chapter.

– One thing in the book puzzled me; I am not sure if others who have read it had the same question. On p. 108, he’s talking about how the most creative scientists also happen to be the most productive. The argument, building upon the work of Dean Keith Simonton, reads in relevant part: “… the sheer productivity of a person — the raw output of creative products — is correlated with the creative success of that person … it turns out that for any given creator, the most creative product tends to appear during the time of most productivity. Paradoxically, slowing down and focusing on one work makes a person less creative.” (pp. 108 – 9). In the graph on that same page, titled the Distribution of Scientific Productivity, I think it shows those scientists with the fewest articles to the far left of the graph (with the greatest number of scientists on this end of the graph) and the most articles (and fewest scientists accomplishing this feat) on the far right. (Separately, I wonder if it is a Pareto distribution?) In any event, the text seems to place Darwin at the “left in the figure” (emphasis mine), whereas I would have expected Darwin to be at the right of the figure. (p. 108) I might be misreading this section or misunderstanding the graph, or perhaps it’s just a typo. It’s not that important; I think I get the point of the argument.

Separately, on recommendation engines: As an aside, I logged into Amazon.com to link to Sawyer’s book there. I noticed that my first recommended book in Amazon is William Gibson’s Spook Country. The Amazon recommendation engine is clearly getting good: that’s the most recent book I bought, at Logan Airport before I left (sorry, Amazon; nice try, though!).

3 thoughts on “Keith Sawyer's Group Genius

  1. Thank you so much for that thorough review, I am honored that you read my book so closely.

    You’re right about page 108, that IS a typo and should say Darwin is at the right on the graph. Good catch! and thank you…

    I appreciate your comments about Chapter 11 on IP. The more I read in this area, the more I am awed by the sheer legal and technical detail involved in these issues. My law school colleague here at Washington U, Chuck McManis, has shared with me law review articles in this area, and I know that it takes a substantial amount of knowledge and a sophisticated understanding of law to resolve these issues. I certainly confess to simplifying the issues, and that a full book would be warranted (but others have written such books, including Lawrence Lessig); but I’m glad you think I got the punchlines right.

    Just in the past month, I’ve been invited to participate in two intellectual property conferences, so it’s interesting that lawyers are beginning to bring in creativity researchers, and I look forward to continuing this dialogue.

  2. Hope you enjoy Spook Country!

    Let me know if you want to borrow any of Gibson’s other books.
    He’s the greatest!

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