Keywords for the Age of Austerity 22: Collaboration (part 2 of 2)

“Keywords for the Age of Austerity” is a series on the vocabulary of inequality. Certain words, as Raymond Williams wrote in his 1976 classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, bind together ways of seeing culture and society. These shared meanings change over time, shaping and reflecting the society in which they are made. Some of the words I will consider here are old, seemingly innocent terms that have acquired a particular fashion or developed a particular new meaning in recent years; others are recent coinages. All of them relate to affinity for hierarchy and a celebration of the virtues of competition, “the marketplace,” and the virtual technologies of our time. This series will explore the historical meanings embedded in these words as well as the new meanings that our age has given them. This week’s post continues my  collaboration with Bruno Diaz on “collaboration.”


1) “United labour, cooperation; esp. in literary, artistic, or scientific work.”

2) “traitorous cooperation with the enemy”

Last week’s post on “collaboration” showed how its primary associations with cooperative, especially intellectual labor–artistic, scientific, or otherwise–have been captured for use in the hierarchical modern workplace, from the “teams” of the service sector to the “pods” and “labs” of the white-collar office. Like “flexibility,” and the (forthcoming) “creativity,” it’s an ageless concept with little of the air of novelty linked to entrepreneurship and innovation. The perseverance and reinvention of such timeless concepts are one reminder, of course, that we are indeed living in the most innovative of all possible worlds.

As Bruno Diaz explained last week, “collaboration” is used to refer to any co-operative effort at work, especially across lines of seniority or rank, since the ostensible purpose of collaboration is to flatten hierarchy. Hence, in medical settings, the interest in nurse-physician “collaboration” and, in private business, framing meetings with subordinates as collaborative “coaching” sessions. It is also, of course, a labor-saving device: factory automation, by which human workers are made redundant by mechanical substitutes, has been rebranded as “human-robot collaboration.” This MIT Technology Review headline almost parodies itself with its blithe cheering of our new robot overlords: “Robots are starting to collaborate with human workers in factories, offering greater efficiency and flexibility.”

“human-robot collaboration”

Collaboration has two meanings, though, both synonymous with “cooperation”: the second, political meaning refers to traitorous cooperation with an enemy. The word’s two meanings–the sunnier shared labor that social media and a flexible economy gives us, with its egalitarian suggestion of mutual aid, and the act of traitorous “collaboration”–seem at odds, as no less an authority than Thomas Friedman has already observed. spun this 2013 homily on Silicon Valley “collaboration” as a model to be adopted by Friedman’s version of Washington, where “partisanship” rules and the only “collaboration” is the bad, traitorous kind. Since all of his columns are more or less the same, we need not get in too deep here: Friedman’s routine category confusions, his glib oversimplifications, his pompous and lazy reliance on anecdote, and his power-worship are all on fine display here. Friedman does not want you to think he is some silly polyanna, though. Collaborative though it is, “Silicon Valley is not some knitting circle where everyone happily shares their best ideas.” No, it is instead a place of non-stop manly clashing:

the most competitive, dog-eat-dog, I-will-sue-you-if-you-even-think-about-infringing-my-patents innovation hub in the world. In that sense, it is, as politics is and should always be, a clash of ideas. What Silicon Valley is not, though, is only a clash of ideas.

Only that is what Silicon Valley is, therefore, not. It is, instead, also different–collaborative. Understand? Head over to Richard Branson’s blog, where any lingering doubts about what he calls “the wonders of collaboration,” and the reasons that we are now living in the golden age of it, will only be compounded by his use of the term to encompass every philanthropic virtue. Branson comes closest to making a point (not a good one, but still) when he echoes Friedman’s use of the tech industry–at least its most user-friendly and well-known product, social media–as an example of what “collaboration” portends:

The beauty of the rise of social media is that power has shifted from the hands of small, centralised groups to millions of people around the world, who can make history at the click of a button, on a moment’s notice.

Collaboration’s traitorous meaning is not used explicitly by these new apostles of “social” capitalism, but it looms in the background, as the centralized, divisive, partisan, and old-fashioned foil to the decentralized, horizontal, efficient, and creative economy of our “innovative” fantasies.


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