This piece hints at the politicization of the Internet and the complexity of its future. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the closest thing we have to “Internet governance.” It’s the organization that coordinates the standards and processes associated with Internet addresses – the assigned names and numbers referenced in the organization’s name. In “ICANN’s ‘Unelected’ Crisis” Michael Roberts write about the controversy over ICANN’s unelected leadership and multistakeholder model. “If ICANN is to maintain its quasi-independence, a hard boiled, Kissinger-like brand of pragmatic statesmanship will be necessary.” [Link]
Times are changing: foraging, simplicity, Shirky-smart, etc.
Two of the best ideas I heard this week were curated or catalyzed by Clay Shirky.
One is the mathematical concept of the Lévy flight, which I already wrote about in my last post.
The other is in a link e-Patient Dave sent me. I ran across it again in a discussion of models for connectivity (“freedom to connect”). In a post called “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” Clay discusses Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, applying Tainter’s thinking to the web and digital media. Tainter says that societies that become increasingly sophisticated will tend to collapse, not despite their sophistication, but because of it.
Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
He then goes on to explain the evolution of complex and entrenched procedures within sophisticated, high quality media production, and how these are now trumped by the popularity of (commitment of mindshare to) simple, “good enough” media. Clay’s closing paragraph:
When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.
Interesting to note that there are no comments on this post, only pingbacks (links to it by others). It’s an important, already influential piece.
The first point, about foraging, is that people don’t necessarily sustain adoption of something, even if they really really like it. In the early days of blogging, I made this point in talking about links and hits from blogrolls and RSS feeds. Someone finds your blog, they really like it, so they add the link to their news aggregator. Everytime the news aggregator updates, the link to your blog produces hits, but those hits are questionable, because a common behavior is to add an RSS feed, read it for a while if at all, then move on to something else. People don’t get the web delivered every morning as a newspaper, or monthly as a magazine. It’s not push, it’s pull, and they’re surfing based on criteria other than loyalty. We have to adjust our thinking accordingly.
The second point is that complexity reaches a point of diminishing return, costs escalate beyond what we’re willing to pay, and whole systems break as a result. With media, it’s not just that it’s simpler to make something that is compelling and gets mindshare. It’s that simpler access to “good enough” media (via the web) trumps more complex (or costly) access via movies or television. Consider the traffic in torrents of lower def but “good enough” copies of movies, television shows, record albums, etc. Or think of simpler paid access to slightly more lossy music/video via iTunes, or Hulu.
There’s more to talk about, like the social thing – we’re committing mindshare to online conversations that, before, we might have commmitted to passive consumption of television programming. But you get the drift – behaviors are changing online. And low-cost/free/good-enough is as entrenched in online culture as expensive/complex/high quality is entrenched in old media culture.
Times are changing. And I’m out of time, for the moment.
The New Yorker has a good article about John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. I worked for WFM around the turn of the century, hired as “Internet Guy” (one of my titles, along with Online Community Director and, at the end, Director of Technology for WholePeople.com). It was an important transition for me – I went from being a self-educated web maven to a manager of various web development projects and interactive elements, wearing many hats along the way. John was already in my network, but we became better acquainted in the three or so years I was working on WholeFoods.com and WholePeople.com. It was an intense late-dotcom-era experience, and I was devastated when all the work we’d done evaporated following the dotcom bust. Associates told me I should write a book about my experiences, but I wasn’t sure what part of the story I would tell. It was mostly hard work and inevitable internal politics; none of it seemed as interesting to me at the time as the vision that hadn’t quite succeeded.
Based on what I know of John through personal experience and shared acquaintances, the article in the New Yorker is about as accurate as an article can be. Obviously you can’t capture the full complexity of any human being in a few thousand words, and that’s especially true of someone as complex as John. One thing I’ve always admired most about John is his honesty, and I think that comes through in the article. As I’ve noted in a conversation with an author masquerading as “Kat Herding” on Facebook, a person can be both honest and deluded; I wouldn’t agree with John on a lot of points – like his recently, controversially articulated position against healthcare reform – but in any conversation I’ve ever had with him, he was completely straight, sometimes brutally honest. Whether he’s “right,” or deluded, or coming more from ego than from a position of true self-awareness is another question. But that question pertains to all of us, no?
John is at his best in this exchange, from the article:
…is he at heart an entrepreneur, who discovered, in natural foods, a worthy vehicle for self-actualization and self-enrichment, or a missionary, who discovered in the grocery business a worldly vehicle for change?
“So that’s a very interesting question,” he said, leaning forward. “How are they opposed to one another? People think that they are, but why do you think they’re opposed?”
I said that I didn’t think they had to be.
“I don’t, either. In fact, I think they’re very connected together. This is a paradigm that has polarized our country and led to bad thinking. It’s holding the nation’s progress back. It’s as if there were a wall. And on one side of the wall is this belief that not-for-profits and government exist for public service, and that they’re fundamentally altruistic, that they have a deeper purpose, and they’re doing good in the world, and they have pure motives. On the other side of the wall are corporations. And they’re just selfish and greedy. They have no purpose other than to make money. They’re a bunch of psychopaths. And I’d like to tear that wall down. Human beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but we’re capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don’t see that business is any different.”
Another case where size doesn’t matter
I’ve often wondered whether insects are more intelligent than we think. A Science Daily article suggests that “tiny insects could be as intelligent as much bigger animals, despite only having a brain the size of a pinhead.” The article goes on to say that brain size is not predictive of intelligent behavior, that “bigger animals may need bigger brains simply because there is more to control.” Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary’s Research Centre for Psychology, says “In bigger brains we often don’t find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity. To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors.”
After experiencing politics in action via the crowd at Lloyd Doggett’s town hall meeting on health reform yesterday, and considering the opposition to health care reform, I tweeted “It always surprises me that some sheep would rather be guarded by a wolf than a bureaucrat.” That tweet was ported to Facebook, where there were several responses, some critical of bureaucrats. I posted this comment in response:
Having been part of a bureaucracy in my first career, I know something about this. Bureaucracies exist to manage complex policies and civic processes. What we generally regard as “bureaucratic inefficiency” is a manifestation of legal and regulatory complexity, often more complex than the bureaucrats themselves can grasp, certainly difficult for most citizens to understand. The policies and systems are complex because they emerge from a political process that is responsive to many often conflicting interests. I’m not sure what an alternative to this complexity would be, but I don’t think it would be a Good Thing. What we might hope for is smarter bureaucrats, just as we hope for more and better engineers and scientists.
Here’s video I shot at the town hall meeting. Lloyd Doggett is talking. I just shot his talk. When he was done, he invited people to speak, alternating healthcare reform proponents and opponents.