Castles in the Sand vs. Networks in the Sky

Image CC Copyright 2017 Tom Haymes

Image CC Copyright 2017 Tom Haymes


Castles in the Sand vs. Networks in the Sky

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the nature of human organization. Our FOEcast project has engendered some powerful discussions about how to structure a post-industrial professional innovation organization. This last week I attended an Unconference for Dreamers and Doers at Arizona State University, which was explicitly tasked with brainstorming a post-NMC future for our community. The FOEcast group was well-represented. In addition to myself, Bryan Alexander, Ruben Puentedura, Phil Long, Maya Georgieva, Paul Signorelli, and many others were in attendance and part of the discussion. Indeed, one of the tracks that Bryan led was explicitly tasked with thinking about how FOEcast fit into the larger, and still very unclear, post-NMC picture.

I can’t help but think of this in analog vs. digital terms. The traditional professional organization is an analog entity. It depends on analog realities such as print publications and in-person meetings. Not that these are bad things, it’s just that they limit the imagination in terms of what is possible and create an explicit power dynamic that many find frustrating. Analog organizations force us to choose between hierarchical versus distributed organizations of people and knowledge. This is because in the analog world communications implies a center and no matter the intent a center creates hierarchy. The alternative is often portrayed as anarchy. The reality is that another alternative is digital. 

Digital lessens the opportunity costs of communication to a point where you can easily transition, transform, and democratize modes of communication and thereby maintain structure while minimizing the dangers of hierarchy. The problem is that almost no one lives a digital existence but there are those who have started to imagine it. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of the NMC community was its ability to do just that. However, we still felt the need to justify and express what we were doing through analog means. Other groups and our very institutions do not understand the opportunities of a digital existence and so gravitate naturally toward hierarchical patterns. Early on in the gathering this week this course of thought led me to create this mindmap, which I subsequently tweeted:

A thought experiment on where two different approaches to technology lead us.

It was meant as a discussion starter but it didn’t really fit into the patterns of discussion at the event, so I offer it to the FOEcast group here for comment. The intent of the effort was to wrap my head around what the implications of thinking about the digital world through analog structures were and contrast those to the possibilities that breaking free of those bonds might offer us.

This dichotomy is not a new thing as we have struggled with the implications of thinking digitally versus thinking analog for many decades. Because it presupposes that the ideal is a straight path between problem and outcome, the analog lens holds that technology is a solution to whatever problem we are trying to solve. You need to communicate: here is an email system. You need to teach online: here is a Learning Management System. You need to secure student data: here is an enterprise customer management system. Solutions create hierarchical situations for no other reason than that they plant a flag in the sand. “This is the institution’s Learning Management System. Admire.” Solutions represent a fixed point in the universe; an end, rather than a means.

The problem with flags is that they tend to attract attention and must be defended as a consequence. If you look at the media narrative about technology, it’s almost always about solutions and the reactions that they cause. Robots are a solution. Automation is a solution. Facebook is a solution. On the flip side, solutions attract attacks, and this also attracts the media narrative. Hackers and cyber security breaches are the inevitable consequence. The modern media version of hacking (going back to the 80s) started because kids wanted to attract attention and they had managed to penetrate the Pentagon, a major corporation, or other “hard” targets. As the value of these solutions have become high-value targets money or power have taken over from the show-offs and are far more dangerous. Our fascination with solutions has led in part to the seriousness of the situations we are now confronting. It also leads to a lot of fear, which the media gladly take up because fear tends to get the attention of potential viewers.

Rock of Cashel - Image CC ©2007 Tom Haymes

Rock of Cashel - Image CC ©2007 Tom Haymes

Analog solutions therefore tend to produce castles. The castle was a natural technological solution to the necessities of the agricultural human. At its apex during the medieval period, the castle was also the ultimate expression of hierarchy for its age. There are three problems with castles (that are shared with all technological solutions). First, they fix you in place and provide a focal point for any attacks. Second, as a consequence they tend to lead to technological and social stasis. In TheRed and the BlackStendahl writes, “The prefect riding along on his horse thought to himself, ‘Why should I not be a minister, head of the Cabinet, a duke? . . . I would have innovators put in chains.’” This leads inevitably to the third consequence: eventually someone will make the technological leap to the canon and the whole edifice will become obsolete overnight. This same fate could easily befall any technological “solution.” It is only with true digital solutions that we may have finally found our way out of this endless arms race.

Digital technology has no fixed outcomes. As Claude Shannon theorized in 1948, anything can be digitized and become endlessly re-combinatorial. Digital thinking almost inevitably leads to a network of thought as ideas are combined and recombined into completely new structures and open-ended opportunities. Perhaps the most visible example of this today is the work of Elon Musk. Is Tesla about disrupting the car business or the energy business? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Is Space X about getting us to Mars or reinventing the internet? Again, perhaps both, perhaps neither. The point is that these two projects form a networked web of ideas that will lead to unexpected opportunities and, between them, are likely to create world-changing technological opportunities. They could also intersect in some not-yet-imaged way.

Digital thinking and its view of technology as opportunity harnesses the power of distributed communities. If you want to hide your treasure, you don’t put it into a castle, you put it in an empty grave in vast cemetery like in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly(or as in blockchain). The strength of your community lies in its diversity, not its homogeneity as it did under the lords of the castle (cuius regio, eius religio). 

Science has always been based on this model. The distributed “nation of letters” drove The Enlightenment and continues to drive our ideas today through blogs such as this and communications technologies ranging from Slack to Internet2. Science has built us castles unimaginable to a medieval lord but at the same time it has created the seeds for the ultimate destruction of those castles in the universal hive mind of distributed communication and imagination. The latter will be far more powerful than any castle in the end unless the forces of hierarchy can figure out how to strangle it (and I doubt that is possible). 

This thought experiment looks at how some of the concepts expressed during the Ideation Week could lead the group toward or away from hierarchical outcomes. Some of these assume analog outcomes. As a further assignment, how can we apply digital solutions in order to avoid analog/hierarchical outcomes to our efforts.

The exciting thing about this version of technology is that it is infinitely customizable according to the needs of the moment. If you need a campfire, you build a campfire. If you need a legislative body, you build a legislative body. Space and time do not matter in the same way. The origins of our FOEcast group represent a good example of how spontaneous communities can create spontaneous places of gathering unencumbered by geography. Distributed technology leads inevitably to New Media and that led to the formation of the original group in the 1990s (and many, many other things subsequent to that event).

This is the crossroads we in which we find ourselves at this point in our history. There is a need for a new form of organization or ideas will float around with little purchase and never become actionable. At the same time, we must be aware of the strong analog pulls in the direction of hierarchy (see the adjacent Ideation Week mind map). Existing hierarchies crave the creativity of the distributed network even if they don’t understand what underlies it. It’s hard for the established media and other narrative forms to wrap their heads around a distributed set of ideas and a key element to harnessing that creativity is to form standards of interaction that allow ideas to be exchanged in an efficient manner. Standards require legitimacy, which also implies hierarchical thinking. 

I tend to refer to myself as a naïve realist in that I understand the potential of the digital world and want to encourage and facilitate diversity. At the same time, we must understand that at a certain point those ideas have to confront the hierarchies of the world in order to flourish and move that world forward. Navigating this dichotomy is our most important task. I would love to hear your comments. Maybe we can get that conversation going that I have been seeking for the last week…




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