A nation of shopkeepers? Well... maybe. That's the way things are in the knowledge economy. Individually and collectively we are all trading on ideas, creativity and judgement to make a living. Put another way, this is the thin air business and these are the thin air commodities. The difference is that we're now promoting a new type of brand: ourselves. "Knowledge", states Charles Leadbeater in Living on Thin Air, "is our most precious resource: we should organise society to maximise its creation and use. Our aim should be to harness the power of markets and community to the more fundamental goal of creating and spreading knowledge". Big ideas, but Leadbeater says that for the truly knowledge-driven society, the prize is "radical and emancipatory."
Living on Thin Air attempts to understand and come to terms with the "swirling forces which are shaping our economic lives", forces which Leadbeater describes as "partly malign, but potentially beneficial". It is also a call to action, a proposal to begin reconstituting our social, political and economic institutions so that they are better equipped for the new knowledge era. Leadbeater is passionate in his beliefs and engagingly articulate, however radical, and his sincerity has a warmth which makes compulsive reading. Ultimately, Living on Thin Air is concerned with the task of channelling the tensions and energy between the major forces in society towards a new era of harmonious collaboration. "A society devoted to financial capitalism will be unbalanced and soulless. A society devoted to social solidarity will stagnate, lacking the dynamism of radical new ideas and the discipline of the competitive market. A society devoted totally to knowledge creation would be intelligent but poor. When these three forces of the new economy work together, they can be hugely dynamic," he concludes. Whether or not his vision becomes the new reality, it makes a provocative manifesto.
The opening chapters are constructed around reassuringly familiar subjects (Delia, fancy seeing you here! Diana, what a wonderful surprise!), imparting a self-conscious nostalgia to proceedings, and if the choices are a little arbitrary, the style of his prose has the confidence of a man who knows his subject and believes in his ideas.
Living on Thin Air is an impressive take on the future in the global information age. Better get stocking those intellectual shelves. These goods are at a premium. --Iain Campbell, Amazon.co.uk