Sharing Power (Global Edition)

My keynote for the Personal Democracy Forum, in New York.

Introduction: War is Over (if you want it)

Over the last year we have lived through a profound and perhaps epochal shift in the distribution of power. A year ago all the talk was about how to mobilize Facebook users to turn out on election day. Today we bear witness to a ‘green’ revolution, coordinated via Twitter, and participate as the Guardian UK crowdsources the engines of investigative journalism and democratic oversight to uncover the unpleasant little secrets buried in the MPs expenses scandal – secrets which the British government has done everything in its power to withhold.

We’ve turned a corner. We’re on the downward slope. It was a long, hard slog to the top – a point we obviously reached on 4 November 2008 – but now the journey is all about acceleration into a future that looks almost nothing like the past. The configuration of power has changed: its distribution, its creation, its application. The trouble with circumstances of acceleration is that they go hand-in-hand with a loss of control. At a certain point our entire global culture is liable to start hydroplaning, or worse, will go airborne. As the well-oiled wheels of culture leave the roadbed of civilization behind, we can spin the steering wheel all we want. Nothing will happen. Acceleration has its own rationale, and responds neither to reason nor desire. Force will meet force. Force is already meeting force.

What happens now, as things speed up, is a bit like what happens in the guts of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Different polities and institutions will smash and reveal their inner workings, like parts sprung from crashed cars. We can learn a lot – if we’re clever enough to watch these collisions as they happen. Some of these particles-in-collision will recognizably be governments or quasi-governmental organizations. Some will look nothing like them. But before we glory, Ballard-like, in the terrible beauty of the crash, we should remember that these institutions are, first and foremost, the domain of people, individuals ill-prepared for whiplash or a sudden impact with the windshield. No one is wearing a safety belt, even as things slip noticeably beyond control. Someone’s going to get hurt. That much is already clear.

What we urgently need, and do not yet have, is a political science for the 21st century. We need to understand the autopoietic formation of polities, which has been so accelerated and amplified in this era of hyperconnectivity. We need to understand the mechanisms of knowledge sharing among these polities, and how they lead to hyperintelligence. We need to understand how hyperintelligence transforms into action, and how this action spreads and replicates itself through hypermimesis. We have the words – or some of them – but we lack even an informal understanding of the ways and means. As long as this remains the case, we are subject to terrible accidents we can neither predict nor control. We can end the war between ourselves and our times. But first we must watch carefully. The collisions are mounting, and they have already revealed much. We have enough data to begin to draw a map of this wholly new territory.

I: The First Casualty of War

Last month saw an interesting and unexpected collision. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia created by and for the people, decreed that certain individuals and a certain range of IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology would hereafter be banned from the capability to edit Wikipedia. This directive came from the Arbitration Committee of Wikipedia, which sounds innocuous, but is in actuality the equivalent the Supreme Court in the Wikipediaverse.

It seems that for some period of time – probably stretching into years – there have been any number of ‘edit wars’ (where edits are made and reverted, then un-reverted and re-reverted, ad infinitum) around articles concerning about the Church of Scientology and certain of the personages in the Church. These pages have been subject to fierce edit wars between Church of Scientology members on one side, critics of the Church on the other, and, in the middle, Wikipedians, who attempted to referee the dispute, seeking, above all, to preserve the Neutral Point-of-View (NPOV) that the encyclopedia aspires to in every article. When this became impossible – when the Church of Scientology and its members refused to leave things alone – a consensus gradually formed within the tangled adhocracy of Wikipedia, finalized in last month’s ruling from the Arbitration Committee. For at least six months, several Church of Scientology members are banned by name, and all Church computers are banned from making edits to Wikipedia.

That would seem to be that. But it’s not. The Church of Scientology has been diligent in ensuring that the mainstream media (make no mistake, Wikipedia is now a mainstream medium) do not portray characterizations of Scientology which are unflattering to the Church. There’s no reason to believe that things will simply rest as they are now, that everyone will go off and skulk in their respective corners for six months, like children given a time-out. Indeed, the Chairman of Scientology, David Miscavidge, quickly issued a press release comparing the Wikipedians to Nazis, asking, “What’s next, will Scientologists have to wear yellow, six-pointed stars on our clothing?”

How this skirmish plays out in the months and years to come will be driven by the structure and nature of these two wildly different organizations. The Church of Scientology is the very model of a modern religious hierarchy; all power and control flows down from Chairman David Miscavidge through to the various levels of Scientology. With Wikipedia, no one can be said to be in charge. (Jimmy Wales is not in charge of Wikipedia.) The whole things chugs along as an agreement, a social contract between the parties participating in the creation and maintenance of Wikipedia. Power flows in Wikipedia are driven by participation: the more you participate, the more power you’ll have. Power is distributed laterally: every individual who edits Wikipedia has some ultimate authority.

What happens when these two organizations, so fundamentally mismatched in their structures and power flows, attempt to interact? The Church of Scientology uses lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as a coercive technique. But Wikipedia has thus far proven immune to lawsuits. Although there is a non-profit entity behind Wikipedia, running its servers and paying for its bandwidth, that is not Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the machines, it is not the bandwidth, it is not even the full database of articles. Wikipedia is a social agreement. It is an agreement to share what we know, for the greater good of all. How does the Church of Scientology control that? This is the question that confronts every hierarchical organization when it collides with an adhocracy. Adhocracies present no control surfaces; they are at once both entirely transparent and completely smooth.

This could all get much worse. The Church of Scientology could ‘declare war’ on Wikipedia. A general in such a conflict might work to poison the social contract which powers Wikipedia, sewing mistrust, discontent and the presumption of malice within a community that thrives on trust, consensus-building and adherence to a common vision. Striking at the root of the social contract which is the whole of Wikipedia could possibly disrupt its internal networks and dissipate the human energy which drives the project.

Were we on the other side of the conflict, running a defensive strategy, we would seek to reinforce Wikipedia’s natural strength – the social agreement. The stronger the social agreement, the less effective any organized attack will be. A strong social agreement implies a depth of social resources which can be deployed to prevent or rapidly ameliorate damage.

Although this conflict between the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia may never explode into a full-blown conflict, at some point in the future, some other organization or institution will collide with Wikipedia, and battle lines will be drawn. The whole of this quarter of the 21st century looks like an accelerating series of run-ins between hierarchical organizations and adhocracies. What happens when the hierarchies find that their usual tools of war are entirely mismatched to their opponent?

II: War is Hell

Even the collision between friendly parties, when thus mismatched, can be devastating. Rasmus Klies Nielsen, a PhD student in Columbia’s Communications program, wrote an interesting study a few months ago in which he looked at “communication overload”, which he identifies as a persistent feature of online activism. Nielsen specifically studied the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign in New York, and learned that some of the best-practices of the Obama campaign failed utterly when they encountered an energized and empowered public.

The Obama campaign encouraged voters to communicate through its website, both with one another and with the campaign’s New York staff. Although New York had been written off by the campaign (Hilary Clinton was sure to win her home state), the state still housed many very strong and vocal Obama supporters (apocryphally, all from Manhattan’s Upper West Side). These supporters flooded into the Obama campaign website for New York, drowning out the campaign itself. As election day loomed, campaign staffers retreated to “older” communication techniques – that is, mobile phones – while Obama’s supporters continued the conversation through the website. A complete disconnection between campaign and supporters occurred, even though the parties had the same goals.

Political campaigns may be chaotic, but they are also very hierarchically structured. There is an orderly flow of power from top (candidate) to bottom (voter). Each has an assigned role. When that structure is short-circuited and replaced by an adhocracy, the instrumentality of the hierarchy overloads. We haven’t yet seen the hybrid beast which can function hierarchically yet interaction with an adhocracy. At this point when the two touch, the hierarchy simply shorts out.

Another example from the Obama general election campaign illustrates this tendency for hierarchies to short out when interacting with friendly adhocracies. Project Houdini was touted as a vast, distributed GOTV program which would allow tens of thousands of field workers to keep track of who had voted and who hadn’t. Project Houdini was among the most ambitious of the online efforts of the Obama campaign, and was thoroughly tested in the days leading up to the general election. But, once election day came, Project Houdini went down almost immediately under the volley of information coming in from every quadrant of the nation, from fieldworkers thoroughly empowered to gather and report GOTV data to the campaign. A patchwork backup plan allowed the campaign to tame the torrent of data, channeling it through field offices. But the great vision of the Obama campaign, to empower the individuals with the capability to gather and report GOTV data, came crashing down, because the system simply couldn’t handle the crush of the empowered field workers.

Both of these collisions happened in ‘friendly fire’ situations, where everyone’s eyes were set on achieving the same goal. But these two systems of organization are so foreign to one another that we still haven’t seen any successful attempt to span the chasm that separates them. Instead, we see collisions and failures. The political campaigns of the future must learn how to cross that gulf. While some may wish to turn the clock back to an earlier time when campaigns respected carefully-wrought hierarchies, the electorates of the 21st century, empowered in their own right, have already come to expect that their candidate’s campaigns will meet them in that empowerment. The next decade is going to be completely hellish for politicians and campaign workers of every party as new rules and systems are worked out. There are no successful examples – yet. But circumstances are about to force a search for solutions.

III: War is Peace

As governments release the vast amounts of data held and generated by them, communities of interest are rising up to work with that data. As these communities become more knowledgeable, more intelligent – hyperintelligent – via this exposure, this hyperintelligence will translate into action: hyperempowerment. This is all well and good so long as the aims of the state are the same as the aims of the community. A community of hyperempowered citizens can achieve lofty goals in partnership with the state. But even here, the hyperempowered community faces a mismatch with the mechanisms of the state. The adhocracy by which the community thrives has no easy way to match its own mechanisms with those of the state. Even with the best intentions, every time the two touch there is the risk of catastrophic collapse. The failures of Project Houdini will be repeated, and this might lead some to argue that the opening up itself was a mistake. In fact, these catastrophes are the first sign of success. Connection is being made.

In order to avoid catastrophe, the state – and any institution which attempts to treat with a hyperintelligence – must radically reform its own mechanisms of communication. Top-down hierarchies which order power precisely can not share power with hyperintelligence. The hierarchy must open itself to a more chaotic and fundamentally less structured relationship with the hyperintelligence it has helped to foster. This is the crux of the problem, asking the leopard to change its spots. Only in transformation can hierarchy find its way into a successful relationship with hyperintelligence. But can any hierarchy change without losing its essence? Can the state – or any institution – become more flexible, fluid and dynamic while maintaining its essential qualities?

And this is the good case, the happy outcome, where everyone is pulling in the same direction. What happens when aims differ, when some hyperintelligence for some reason decides that it is antithetical to the interests of an institution or a state? We’ve seen the beginnings of this in the weird, slow war between the Church of Scientology and ANONYMOUS, a shadowy organization which coordinates its operations through a wiki. In recent weeks ANONYMOUS has also taken on the Basidj paramilitaries in Iran, and China’s internet censors. ANONYMOUS pools its information, builds hyperintelligence, and translates that hyperintelligence into hyperempowerment. Of course, they don’t use these words. ANONYMOUS is simply a creature of its times, born in an era of hyperconnectivity.

It might be more profitable to ask what happens when some group, working the data supplied at Recovery.gov or Data.gov or you-name-it.gov, learns of something that they’re opposed to, then goes to work blocking the government’s activities. In some sense, this is good old-fashioned activism, but it is amplified by the technologies now at hand. That amplification could be seen as a threat by the state; such activism could even be labeled terrorism. Even when this activism is well-intentioned, the mismatch and collision between the power of the state and any hyperempowered polities means that such mistakes will be very easy to make.

We will need to engage in a close examination of the intersection between the state and the various hyperempowered actors which rising up over next few years. Fortunately, the Obama administration, in its drive to make government data more transparent and more accessible (and thereby more likely to generate hyperintelligence around it) has provided the perfect laboratory to watch these hyperintelligences as they emerge and spread their wings. Although communication’s PhD candidates undoubtedly will be watching and taking notes, public policy-makers also should closely observe everything that happens. Since the rules of the game are changing, observation is the first most necessary step toward a rational future. Examining the pushback caused by these newly emerging communities will give us our first workable snapshot of a political science for the 21st century.

The 21st century will continue to see the emergence of powerful and hyperempowered communities. Sometimes these will challenge hierarchical organizations, such as with Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology; sometimes they will work with hierarchical organizations, as with Project Houdini; and sometimes it will be very hard to tell what the intended outcomes are. In each case the hierarchy – be it a state or an institution – will have to adapt itself into a new power role, a new sharing of power. In the past, like paired with like: states shared power with states, institutions with institutions, hierarchies with hierarchies. We are leaving this comfortable and familiar time behind, headed into a world where actors of every shape and description find themselves sufficiently hyperempowered to challenge any hierarchy. Even when they seek to work with a state or institution, they present challenges. Peace is war. In either direction, the same paradox confronts us: power must surrender power, or be overwhelmed by it. Sharing power is not an ideal of some utopian future; it’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.