Collaboration has come a long way. Not too long ago, it was a dirty word. A collaborator was the lowest of the low. Collaborators would sell out their friends and neighbors for a quick buck. Collaborators cozied up to the biggest bully around to save their own collaborative skin.
Not anymore. Collaboration is the name of the game. In my time here, I’ve seen Brown tout collaboration with everyone from Goldman Sachs to the Department of Defense. We don’t shoot collaborators anymore. We give them grants and listen to their TED Talks on how if we just all work together in a veritable conglomerate of raw non-ideological collaboration between the noble private sector and the trustworthy public sector and the altruistic well-heeled nonprofit-of-the-week, there’s no problem we can’t handle.
The dark side of collaboration, of selling oneself to a powerful entity in exchange for resources and prestige, doesn’t really get talked about. It’s part of the kindergarten-level morality peddled by college administrators and earnest big-city mayors alike, where we just need to Work Together to Get Things Done. No time for those petty ideological divisions of the sixties. We’ve got to Innovate and solve the Big Problems we all face. This anti-ideology-ideology that gets relentlessly blasted at us from peppy administrators and spokesmen is meant to infantilize us, to give us a place to snuggle up safe from the scary and complicated world of conflict and consequences.
History must be annihilated. The Big Problems that today’s supercollaborators are concerned with are mostly data points that came from nowhere. No time to talk about why it is that Westerners need to swoop into Africa and dig some wells, no reason to consider just why it is that, gosh, illiteracy is so darn high in those poor benighted inner-city neighborhoods. These collaborators are Problem Solvers with a scheme as half-baked as it is data-driven, and they’re here to help.
But it’s a lie. Gut-wrenching poverty and violence and universal economic insecurity did not come from nowhere. It’s no longer controversial to say that there exists a vast international machinery, composed of complicit states and rapacious firms, that spends most of its time slowly sucking up the planet’s wealth through a hose. Poverty doesn’t exist because we lack data.
Being at Brown puts us in an uncomfortable place within all of this. As an intensely rich and high-status university, Brown gives students access to an incomparable network of leeches, plutocrats and scumsuckers. The Corporation itself hosts a nasty collection of financial criminals and scandal-prone billionaires. All of them have piles of cash ready to dump into the next urban revitalization district that comes their way.
It’s an ingenious system because it doesn’t force you to give up your idealism or abandon your dreams of doing some kind of vaguely defined “good.” You can do good and have a nice office plus a big wad of cash. All you need to do is embrace the warped ethics of a world where certain financial institutions can decimate entire Providence neighborhoods and also be committed to good corporate citizenship. All you need to do is collaborate.
The supercollaborators are right: Building collaborative networks is the only way to change things for the better. It’s on us to find the people worth working with. There are millions of pissed-off people out there who know full well that the system is broken, that dramatic action is badly needed. There are people and organizations who don’t profit from maintaining the status quo. We can support them.
Collaboration? Building Bridges? Working Together? We need these more than anything. We have to be collaborators. But we also have to tell certain people, the ones who butter us up and offer us cushy jobs and give us a risk-free, vague, unsatisfying and ultimately futile sense of purpose, to get out and never come back.