Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Collision Course

In his landmark 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, NYU new media professor Clay Shirkey wrote about the many new self-organized groups cropping up on the Web—and how some are already turning the Establishment on its ear:

"...Business models are being transformed at dizzying speeds and the larger social impact is so profound that it's underappreciated. Now someone with a laptop can spark a movement that changes the fortunes of a billion-dollar industry or even help to topple a government."

But now comes writer-researcher Mark Pesce to crank it all up another notch. Pesce, on the conference circuit this summer, says this trend toward self-organized groups is not only accelerating, it's hurling us all into a future that will look "almost nothing like the past." In the years ahead, he says, there will be more power conflicts between these new Web-strong "adhocracies" and the top-down hierarchies that have dominated and defined our culture for centuries.

"The configuration of power has changed—its distribution, its creation, its application,” says Pesce. Trouble is, he says, this transformation cannot be controlled, and "some [people and organizations] will get hurt" in the process.

“….What happens now as things speed up will be a bit like what’s happening in the guts of the Large Hadron Collider: different polities (political organizations) and institutions will smash and reveal their inner workings like parts strewn from crashed cars …Some of these particles and collisions will be governments or quasi-governments; some look nothing like them ...These institutions are first and foremost the domain of people, people who are ill-prepared for the whiplash or the sudden impact of the dashboard. Someone is going to get hurt.”

One of the first battles in this digital dust-up, says Pesce, pits the Church of Scientology against Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia recently banned the Church from editing its own Wikipedia entry in an attempt to burnish its image. “Wikipedia is a social agreement,” Pesce says, and was able to resist those efforts because it is not a traditional hierarchy that exists in a top-down management structure. It has so far been immune to lawsuits by the church; there is no one to sue. Church efforts to “break” Wikipedia, Pesce says, would need to destroy the social contract that defines the Web-based encyclopedia's collaborative structure. “How this skirmish plays out in the months and years to come will be driven by these two wildly different organizations,” Pesce says. “The church is a modern religious hierarchy: all power and control comes from the top down. With Wikipedia, nobody can be said to be in charge.”

Another instructive show-down: Project Houdini, the Obama campaign’s 2008 citizen mobilization campaign. As election day approached last fall, Pesce says, "the strict hierarchy of the main campaign headquarters couldn’t handle the barrage of information coming in from the public, and the project died a quick death." Future political campaigns, he says, must learn how to better accommodate the input of the crowds.

Pesce says top-down hierarchies cannot share power with these new Web-powered groups. “Only in transformation can a hierarchy find its way to a successful relationship with these hyper-intelligent adhocracies." he says. "Change or be changed."

"We are leaving this comfortable and familiar time behind. We are headed into a world where actors of every shape and description are finding themselves challenged by adhocracies. The truth is this: those now in power must surrender some power or be overwhelmed by it. Sharing power is not the idea of some Utopian future. It’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.”

For more on Pesce, see the video, below—his speech to conferees at this year's Personal Democracy Forum gathering in Manhattan:

(This post written by Marcia Stepanek)

(Illustration, top, by Magdalena Tworkowska for

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger Portfolio.Spiers said...

Since the revelations of the future of top-down organizations in The Cluetrain Manifesto (2000), I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. With the advent of adhocracies, I can hear it falling.

Big corporations have managed fat and happy for too long. As an escapee of this culture, I've always wondered how long it could take before thy would be called to account for the incredible waste and counter-productive nature of (most of) their bureaucracies. The Great Recession has knocked down the first of the domino chain that will lead to a corporate upbraiding and reconfiguring of what we now know as business.

I only hope I live to see it.

July 28, 2009 at 8:04 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home