Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why Hierarchy Might Be Doomed

When alone, you need to agree with no one else how you will occupy your time and resources.

Add one other to form a group, you need one agreement, reciprocated.

Add another, and the number of necessary agreements becomes three.

Add another, then six.

Another, ten.

Another, fourteen.

At this point, barring Star Wars premieres, it's becoming almost impossible to pick a movie as a group. Adding more members only increases the number of agreements needed to achieve unanimity.

In the past, this necessitated a hierarchy or authority to get anything done as a group, done.

First there were the tribal hunter/gatherers. We're wired as a species to form groups, the ones who were not, didn't pass on their genes very well. In these smaller groups amidst the grunts and scratching of nether regions, there is little known, and presumably little capacity to communicate with outside tribes.

Agriculture led to, or perhaps it was the other way around, written word. Lore could now be transmitted through generations, and given enough generations, across emergent city states.

And the hunter/gatherers became obsolete. The cause, the lettered word.

These city states made possible due to the transformation 'civilisation' underwent from the written word. Manuals for recipes, irrigation management, tax structures. The Sumerians knew these things. Improvements on technique passed through city state to city state, nations rose and fell under the weight of their growing infrastructure and complexity. Professions begat specialisation of skills, and made individuals of great importance. Remove that individual, and do great damage to the whole of the group.

The printing press became as momentous an achievement as the written word itself, it changed almost everything. Where before, scribes would copy text after text to preserve knowledge. This method virtually unchanged since clay tablets thousands of years prior. Now, many copies of a single text could be produced easily and cheaply. This was the beginning of broadcasting information to masses at once.

And the scribes became obsolete. The cause, mass produced lettered word.

Even though this printing device, then radio and television had the capacity to broadcast, the expense of such still made it so the few broadcast to the many. Specialists, professionals, editors, governments decided what would be broadcast and for what reason. The difference in this world is that literacy was the norm, not a profession in and of itself.

Enter the Web/camera phones/blogs/IM/virtual worlds. Now everyone can broadcast all around the world.

And the editors/publishers are becoming obsolete. The cause, ridiculously easily distribution of media by and collaboration of projects by anyone.

Take music labels. No longer necessary for a musician to distribute music. Are they dead yet? Not quite, but it took a century of disorder until civilisation settled into new routines after literacy became widespread.

Take newspapers. What's in the news today, I knew about yesterday from an RSS feed.

Take television. What's on the 6 o'clock news has been posted by someone on the scene with a hand held video camera for the last five hours. Wittier commentary too.

In the past, every civilisation has collapsed under their own growing internal weight, specialists, professionals, tasks so complex and the tools so difficult. In each case of major transformation of civilisation, it was the introduction of a new tool. A tool that made communication much, much easier.


  • A dictatorship/monarchy.

  • A corporation.

  • A church.

  • A democracy.

Since before mass broadcast or collaboration by just about any individual was impossible, a hierarchy was needed to keep things coordinated. A hierarchy is a method of communication as much as a distribution of authority. Mass broadcast/collaboration removes in many cases the need for a hierarchy to be the sole means of communication management.

This scares the hell out of governments. In China, I couldn't get BBC News.

This scares the hell out of music labels. In Canada, I can't buy downloads on

Specialists are good! Professionals are good! Governments are good... due to the sheer numbers of people involved. We'd get nothing done otherwise.

An able, informed, and educated layman is also good. Professions opened up with new tools for the masses are fantastic. Groups of laymen with collaborative tools available to one another to share knowledge and information may be the ones who stave off future collapses of nations.

Or perhaps make nations obsolete. We don't yet know.

Remember the century of change brought about by the printing press. The scribes railed against change, those made obsolete by a new tool always have.

Beware a segregated Web. This is the tool that is driving this transformation of society, and so it has enemies.

PS: Buy this book: Here Comes Everybody

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