I presented the McLuhan media tetrad last week in South Africa. [see ‘a world of pervasive networks’ for background on these laws of media]. Societies change their basic organizing structures when the primary mode of communication changes [T+I+M+N]: from oral, to writing, to print, and now to electric (digital). As we shift our dominant communications medium from print to electric, our organizing methods must change as well. We no longer organize as tribes in ‘developed’ countries, but we still have strong cultural and familial bonds. Our institutions have not disappeared but they are inadequate for many of the modern challenges facing us. Faith in markets is declining, as they are found to be inadequate to share wealth in any equitable fashion. We are seeing an increase in cooperation among many agents in the networked society as they try to create new ways living together and exchanging value.
Ubiquitous networks have the potential to extend our humanity as we connect and understand each other. Networked models will obsolesce markets and institutions. For example, the blockchain technology will significantly change banking and financial markets. But networks will retrieve a sense of kinship, as I experienced last week, connecting with people I have only known online, and then spending time in physical communities where the sense of human connection is extremely strong. The way people in places like Soweto connect, recognizing each other each time they meet, may become the norm in a networked society. We see this already with the derision that marketing speak receives on social media. As the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto observed in 1999: “Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.” Corporations represent the declining market model of organizing. But it is not all good news when examining technology shifts with McLuhan’s tetrad. A networked society could reverse into a popularity contest, where our value is only measured in our mediated reputation, such as numbers of Twitter followers, or some other arbitrary figure.
The key to progressing to a new way of organizing human activities in the network era is to ensure that the old models are not allowed to drive the agenda. Neither our tribal leaders (religious, geographical, cultural), our institutions (political, religious, economic), nor our markets (corporations, exchanges, trade deals), have the answers. Only networked individuals, with positive intent, can determine how best to organize the next society. It is a big challenge, but my faith in humanity was restored this week in the many exchanges I had with people facing seemingly insurmountable odds in building a new democracy. An aggressively engaged and intelligent citizenry can be an unstoppable force for change.