Blogging is one way I make sense of the world. I have now written over 3,300 posts on various topics. My ways of seeing the world have changed over the years and blogging has helped to keep my thoughts in a state of perpetual beta — strong ideas, loosely held, in order to deal with constant change while still getting things done. Today we are in great need of sensemaking between citizens as we deal with the complexities of a pandemic, an economic recession, and increasing violence in many parts of the world.
One effect of the network era, and its pervasive digital connections, is that networks are replacing or subverting more traditional hierarchies of our institutions and markets. Three aspects of this effect are — 1) access to almost unlimited information, 2) the ability for almost anyone to self-publish, and 3) limitless opportunities for “ridiculously easy group-forming” as Seb Paquet described the effects of social media.
The desire to relate is what drives people to support global social movements on one hand, and to take shelter in tribal identity politics on the other. In politics, social media extend participation but also make information manipulation by small motivated groups much easier. Understanding this deep desire to relate to others should be foremost in mind in understanding human dynamics.
We will not have organizational transformation, or political reformation, without people feeling like they belong. To counter Tribal populism, we also need to appeal to emotions and our feelings of relatedness. The same goes for education and learning.
Tribalism & Populism
If we want to avoid a return to Tribal conflict and a narrow view of society, we need to build and test alternative network models. We are in desperate need of new models for living, working, and learning. The great work of our time is to design, build, and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world. Failure by current generations to do so will leave the next ones to deal with the reactionary forces of tribalism, corporatism, and perhaps even fascism.
Open information and access to our common knowledge assets is required. We can only deal with complex systems and problems collectively. I used to think that the great work to be done at the beginning of this century was the democratization of the workplace. This is no longer enough. Our great work today is the re-democratization of society. Everything is now being communicated, and fragmented, at an electric pace. Change happens quickly in an electric, and now digital, age.
Self-mastery of our own thinking is necessary to counter the effects of a networked world, where words are electrically extended by social media. Information manipulation is becoming widespread, driving identity politics. This of course makes a fertile environment for demagogues to wave the flag of populism.
In the network era, populism is the first refuge of a scoundrel. A literate, engaged, and networked citizenry gives no such refuge.
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it. ”
—Thomas Paine: The American Crisis, No. 4, 1777
Democracy needs open and transparent communications to exist. The ancient Greeks had a form of democracy but it was limited by oral discourse. Such a democracy could not grow beyond its immediate borders. The printing press enabled the French revolution and it was essential for the American revolution. There is even a postal clause in the US constitution. Communications technologies can enable as well as disrupt democracy. We live in a time where technology provides immense potential for human communications but we lack the organizational structures to take advantage of this. Faith in the future is low, especially in democratic and developed countries.
We are stuck in a period similar to the early era of the printing press. Printed books enabled the Protestant reformation which flamed conflicts like the European wars of religion, and only many years later developed into the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Today we are possibly moving toward an age of Entanglement, but a reversion to tribalism in our times may result in a period similar to the tumultuous 16th and 17th centuries in Europe.
We do not have to have closed borders and homogeneous nationalistic identities. It is time to develop global identities and organizations based on our common humanity, enhanced by diversity, and enabled by digital communications technologies. If we build organizations that enable this we just might survive as a network society.
Here is our collective challenge.
- Tribal values are not democratic.
- Institutions cannot react fast enough due to their inherent hierarchies.
- Markets are focused on competition, often leaving institutions to clean up their messes.
As our institutions are not set up to deal with complexity, we now need new structures that can counter the ill effects of markets, especially crony capitalism and platform monopolies. Changing the dominant policies that guide governments is the right direction to move toward a network society and avoid the reversals to inferior but comforting, tribal, institutional, or market forms. This will take ‘group comprehension’.
“More and more, the unit of comprehension is going to be group comprehension, where you simply have to rely on a team of others because you can’t understand it all yourself. There was a time, oh, I would say as recently as, certainly as the 18th century, when really smart people could aspire to having a fairly good understanding of just about everything … Well that’s the fragility, the hyper-fragility of civilisation right there. We could all be bounced back into the 19th century.” —Daniel Dennett
As organizations get decentralized and work teams more dynamic, individuals need a long-term approach for their professional development and knowledge sharing. They cannot rely on the increasingly temporary nature of companies. Today, all professionals need large and diverse knowledge networks. They also have to find and engage with professional communities of practice in order to continuously change their practice to deal with a fluid external environment. If not, they will fail to create value.
As computers increasingly take over routine work, we cannot turn a blind eye to how they make decisions. Not only do we have to focus on human work, we have to keep a careful eye on what the machines are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are making their decisions.
For complex work we need strong knowledge networks, and loose (temporary & negotiated) hierarchies. With the machines making so many decisions today, we cannot control them with authoritarian organizational models. We should leave the hierarchies to the algorithms.
We can no longer rely upon traditional gatekeepers of information and knowledge.
Each of us must engage with others and develop our trusted knowledge networks. None of us are smart enough to handle all the connections in our digital lives on our own. We need to use both our human networks and our machines in concert. Our professional connections, especially those outside our current workplaces, are our security. They will help us learn, find work, and push our professional boundaries. In the long run, the more we contribute to our social networks and communities of practice, the more resilient we will make them and in return will weave a stronger social safety net for ourselves.
Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be our work teams, or they become echo chambers. In our work teams we can focus on incremental innovation, to get better at what we already do. Communities of practice then become a bridge on this network continuum, being part individual and part interactive.
My observation over the past decade is that most organizations focus primarily on incremental innovation and do not allow time and resources to be expended on social networking activities that are officially perceived to be frivolous. This is a major error in a time of rapid technological, economic, and societal change.
Strong networks and temporary hierarchies need to be connected by learning while working, and sharing knowledge freely.
Today, learning has to be part of work for everyone, and that has to be the foundation of any human organization. The conflict between developing a new society based on the network form versus a retreat to the tribal form is just beginning.
It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world. It starts by each of us becoming better networked learners. Our education systems have not prepared us for this, but I have faith in the power of motivated, curious, and creative global citizens.
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
This is a modified extract from the introduction to Life in Perpetual Beta