In his landmark 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, NYU new media guru Clay Shirkey writes about how the thousands of new, self-organized groups are cropping up on the Web—and how some are taking on the Establishment:
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, in speeches to a variety of forums this summer, is saying that this trend toward self-organized groups is not only accelerating, it’s lurching us all into a future that will look “almost nothing like the past.” In the years ahead, he says, there will be growing conflicts for power between these thousands of new, Web-based “adhocracies” and the old 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, people can’t control this transformation, “nor who gets hurt” during its evolution:
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 casualties of this new friction, says Pesce, is the Church of Scientology. It was recently banned from editing content on Wikipedia in an attempt to burnish its image, but “Wikipedia is a social agreement” and was able to resist those efforts, Pesce says, because it is not an old-style hierarchy that exists in a top-down management structure. It has so far been immune to lawsuits by the church; church efforts to “break” Wikipedia, Pesce says, would need to break the social contract that defines the Web-based, collaborative encyclopedia. “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 collision: 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 manage 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:
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.