In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson demonstrates a real knack for taking 21st century concepts and terms that have received a great deal of bad press, like “crowdsourcing” and “hive mind,” and turning them on their heads to examine the possibilities they open up for productive learning and thinking. In the digital world, one big criticism of crowdsourcing is a sort of a variation on the “tragedy of the commons”: if no one feels responsible for the larger product, there’s a fear that the end results may be degraded in quality. In the world of composition studies, there is an additional fear of collaborative learning and writing: that it encourages consensus-building, which is often facilitated by glossing over dissent and difference. Marxist scholars like Greg Myers worry that collaborative learning, as it is commonly built into classroom pedagogy, simply reproduces harmful ideologies rather than calling attention to them. Davidson, however, insists that if difference and diversity are valued and emphasized, crowdsourcing has immense promise for its ability to innovate by combining the strengths of a number of individuals to find more creative, useful solutions than anyone could produce alone.
Davidson’s praise of crowdsourcing for “assum[ing] that no one of us individually is smarter than all of us collectively” (64) reminded me of a wildly popular TED Talk I watched several years ago, entitled “When Ideas Have Sex.” The speaker is Matt Ridley, a British journalist with a particular interest in the concept of collective intelligence as the primary engine of human progress. In the short video clip below, he explores the basic math of how different human skills can be pooled to create “combinatory” tools that both innovate new solutions and save us time. If you have the chance, watch the whole original video—it’s only a little over 15 minutes and, I think, well worth it.
There are certainly some strong connections between Ridley’s and Davidson’s arguments—connections that are particularly clear if you watch the longer version of Ridley’s talk. They are both convinced that differences in human ideas can interact and combine to create something much more powerful and interesting than can be produced by an individual.
But rewatching this video after reading Now You See It, I was reminded that simply emphasizing and celebrating difference does not guarantee the shift in our attention that Davidson so compelling argues is necessary for us to see new possibilities. Ridley’s (rather positive) take on the increasing specialization of human labor called my attention to the strangely fine line between difference as specialization that efficiently divides labor to maintain the status quo, and difference as a generator of productive friction that “distracts us” into seeing in new ways. That is, it seems to me that attention to difference is a double-edge sword: it can be employed in service of both complacency and innovation, depending on how it is mobilized. If we already account for difference in our thinking as specialization, our differences may be complementary and productive, technically speaking, but not innovative. Complementary division of labor for efficiency above all else is part of the industrial-age mindset that Davidson argues is now an outdated form of learning and creating. As she notes, ideally “crowdsourcing is suspicious of expertise, because the more expert we are, the more likely we are to be limited in what we even conceive to be the problem, let alone the answer” (64).
This fine line is something I am already struggling with in my classroom as a first-time writing teacher this semester. For Davidson, the usefulness of crowdsourcing/collaborative learning hinges on its ability to “jolt” us out of our normal patterns of seeing and doing by noticing the different ways that others see and do. Her discussion of classrooms that are using these attention-altering techniques extols the virtues of team-based learning. Partly due to their size, teams seem to provide an ideal environment for alternately building consensus (internally), highlighting difference (internally and externally, across groups), and forcing that sudden shift in attention toward new ways of seeing/doing (by seeing how others approach the same task).
Like many other teachers, I try to set up peer groups in my writing class to do just this. As students read and critique one another’s writing, I ask reviewers to try first understand what the writer is saying—to try to see through her eyes—before pushing back. Though before reading Davidson, I wouldn’t have put it this way, it’s my hope that this setup generates the most productive feedback for innovation by creating a two-way shift in attention: the reviewers are forced to see an idea through a new lens, and the author hears someone’s understanding of their ideas and then, perhaps, even some totally new ways of thinking about them.
What I haven’t done, however, is assign collaborative writing—and it is in large part due to my fear of falling into the old division-of-labor model of collaboration, where no one seems to learn anything from one another. But collaboration on a product seems to be central in all of the successful, innovative classrooms that Davidson discusses, and it is certainly a key feature of ‘real-life’ crowdsourcing in a digital environment. I’d love to hear from more experienced teachers about if and how you approach collaborative authorship in your own classrooms, and how you ensure that such collaboration really facilitates that elusive, radical shift in attention that opens minds and affords new possibilities.