Doing the network hokey-kokey

By Mute Editor, 10 September 2000


Including: Reports on Tulipomania and, Josephine Berry on International Browserday, Stewart Home on life and work with Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit, Anthony Davies and Simon Ford on Culture Clubs, Michel Houellebecq interviewed and Roy Ascott, Sara Diamond and Geert Lovink on the net status-quo + Ben Seymour on Empire and Steve Beard on Dromographic Stress Disorder.

On the radio the other day, I belatedly came across my first live new economy guru, UK-style — a man named Charles Leadbeater. Apparently, he is highly thought of in Whitehall and the BBC.

Leadbeater was talking about ignorance: the value of it, the lack of recognition it enjoys in our lives as well as its pivotal role in Europe’s knowledge economy. He told a funny and convincing tale of how not knowing things, or forgetting large chunks of information, opens up crucial spaces for innovation. He also made special reference to technology which, with its intricate structures and bedevelling operations, would conceivably suck up entire swathes of our being were we not to — consciously or unconsciously — jettison the desire to ‘know’ it.

If not quite by happy coincidence, I soon encountered Leadbeater’s name again — in this instance as co-author (with Kate Oakley) of a Demos publication on the UK’s creative industries: The Independents. Quietly influential (it is cited deferentially in many an institutional environment, e.g. ‘The Club’, about which more in this issue), it is a more overtly instrumentalised piece of blue sky thinking.

The reason Charles Leadbeater is interesting — and why I’m paying him a disproportionate amount of attention — is because he is paradigmatic. Not only because his views on globalisation and social cohesion demonstrate the staggering article of faith ‘knowledge’ has become (dismissing the intellectual cul-de-sac of community/market oppositionality, Leadbeater impels us to harness ‘brainpower’ and entrepreneurial energies to create wholly new and inclusive civic-corporate structures promoting democratic self-governance), but also because Mr. Ignorance-is-actually-embryonic-knowledge characterises himself as paradigmatic.

When Leadbeater lists his erratic affiliations ("I am neither a business consultant nor a civil servant. I have no job title nor job description...I work from home, sometimes writing books, sometimes reports, often for a think-tank, sometimes for a government or a company") he describes the crème of a labour market whose overall logic cultural critic Andrew Ross calls ‘sacrificial’.

In Ross’s formulation (recently spelt out at the Tulipomania DotCom conference, see pages 10/11) the prototypical free agent (and subspecies like the flexecutive, portfolio worker etc.) sacrifices autonomous life hours and some form of institutionally or collectively enshrined security for questionable gains (cool environments, cool toys, cool travel). In Leadbeater’s, one presumes, no such trade-off can exist because the bloody-minded onus on knowledge makes all thoughtwork operationally functional, irrespective of whether it is produced ‘in’ (The Firm) or ‘out’ (Home Alone). And anyway, in a networked environment, the old ‘in’s and ‘out’s melt away (the song now goes: "in, in, in, in and shake it all about").

Leadbeater’s ‘Independents’ text concerns the creative industries, not the knowledge economy as a whole. But since many look to this sector for clues to that entire economy, someone should really have sold the poor man some consultancy on his misleading title. What about ‘The Flex-acrifice’?

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <>