Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration

Book Review

Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration

Michael Schrage

Random House, NY, 227 pages, $19.95

ISBN 0-394-56587-8

Each one of us is born into the world with different talents and skills. Most of us spend a lifetime trying to hone and develop these native born talents to maximize both our own potential and our contribution to the greater social good.

But rarely can anybody these days maximize his or her talents working cloistered and alone. In this world of increasing specialization and complexity, rare indeed is the individual who achieves great success working independently on his or her own.

Long ignored and overlooked, the wonders of collaborative creativity are just beginning to be understood and appreciated. In an important and revealing new book, Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration, syndicated columnist Michael Schrage examines both the nature of the collaborative process and methods of "fanning the collaborative flame." With frequent reference to legendary creative collaborative teams of the past (Orville and Wilbur Wright, Watson and Crick, Jobs and Wozniak, Lennon and McArtney), Schrage articulates truths that well deserve to be lifted to the forefront of our consciousness.

How This Book Came to be Written

Initially Shared Minds was to be a book about business meetings, and how new technologies can help streamline business meetings. But the author soon realized that the most interesting group work doesn't occur in large business meetings, but in small, energetic teams. So instead of writing a book about business meetings, he decided to closely examine the nature of creative "small group" collaborations. After interviewing many famous scientific and artistic "collaborative teams," Schrage spent a year as a visiting scholar at MIT's Media Lab synthesizing the ideas in this book.

The Personal Attributes of Successful Collaborative Teams

One of the probing questions examined in this book is: "What personal attributes contribute to successful collaborative joint ventures?" How is it that the family team of Orville and Wilbur Wright worked so well together, when other sibling pairs find it a struggle to order pizza together? And what role did Orville and Wilbur's parents play in fostering their creativity and perseverance. (Apparently Orville and Wilbur's mother played a decisive role in showing her sons the methodology of creative invention.)

Along the same lines of thought, what personal qualities allowed Watson and Crick to work together to formulate their landmark three-dimensional model of DNA? True, they had differing and complementary scientific backgrounds. But more than that, they both had a hunger to understand the physical structure of DNA. That intellectual hunger united them in a focused scientific quest.

Speaking on the subject of collaboration, Crick, in his memoirs, sheds light on the nature of his successful teaming with Watson: "Our...advantage was that we had evolved an unstated but fruitful methods of collaboration....If either of us suggested a new idea, the other, while taking it seriously, would attempt to demolish it in a candid but nonhostile manner." Good collaborative teams, therefore, have a tacit understanding that individual ego must necessarily be subsumed to the larger team goal.

Examples of How a "Sharing Ideology" Can Develop

Another subject examined in the book is the similar "sharing ideology" used by great artists and great scientists. There comes a time when human beings rise above the possessive attitude of "that's an idea I thought of first" to the grander attitude of "that's an idea I had a part in creating."

One moving anecdote about collaborative artists occurred when Picasso and his close associates stopped signing their paintings for a brief period in their lives. These artists worked so closely together in producing new art that they genuinely believed that signing any of their paintings would be a misrepresentation of "authorship." In this case, keeping track of who produced which paintings became subservient to the group goal of producing excellent group paintings.

Thoughts About "Idea Development"

At another point in the book Schrage examines the concept of "idea development." How is it that ideas get developed from nascent whims to full-fledged notions? Quoting a modern expert on the subject, John Cleese (the gifted comic writer of Monty Python fame): "The really good idea is always traceable back quite a long way, often to a not very good idea which sparked off another idea that was only slightly better, which somebody else misunderstood in such a way that they then said something which was really rather interesting.... [That's] actually why I have always worked with a writing partner, because I'm convinced that I get to better ideas than I'd ever do on my own."

One perceptive observation in Shared Minds is that some of the best collaborative work occurs in informal, playful settings. The proverbial doodle, hastily sketched on a cafeteria napkin, serves as a forceful reminder of how creativity can best be unleashed in informal settings. Likewise, brainstorming sessions in a formal conference room seldom yield memorable creative results.

All in all, Shared Minds is an important, thought-provoking book. If you've ever spent time thinking about the wonders of collaborative creativity, you ought to find a rich vein of ideas to mine in this book. The very act of reading the book ought to stimulate those areas of the brain responsible for the "open-minded" reception of new and interesting ideas.

Phil Shapiro
[If you're interested in reading further about the subjects of creativity and collaboration, you might be interest in some of the recommended readings at the end of Shared Minds. Here is a list of some of the juicier sounding titles.]

Bijker, Wiebe E., Hughes, Thomas P., and Trevor Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology of and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Boettinger, Henry. Moving Mountains: The Art and Craft of Letting Others See Things Your Way. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Briggs, John. Fire in the Crucible: The Self-Creation of Creativity and Genius. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990.

Crouch, Tom. The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Gardner, Howard. The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Heim, Michael. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York, Macmillan, 1964.

Levine, Howard, and Howard Rheingold, The Cognitive Connection: Thought and Language in Mind and Machine. New York, Prentice-Hall, 1987.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Nelson, Theodor, Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Self-published, 1974.

Stent, Gunther. Scientific Genius and Creativity, San Francisco, W.H. Freeman, 1975.

Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Winograd, Terry and Fernando Flores. Understanding Computers and Cognition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1986.

Zuboff, Shoshana. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Return to book review menu.

Return to front of web site
Return to Phil's blog
Return to Phil's creative writings