Confab in Silicon Valley: How to move from 'dumb mob' to 'smart mob'
In early March, leading thinkers in the private and public sectors gathered in the epicenter of California's Silicon Valley – Palo Alto – to take in a bird's eye view of how social media is affecting governance. Social media can empower people, but turning a 'dumb mob' into a 'smart mob' is another matter.
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In this sense, China is a “gigantic petri dish” of what comes next. The balance could go either way. To some, the monitory webocracy of microblogs helps solve the age-old problem of “insufficient feedback to the emperor,” which has led to the fall of many an out-of-touch dynasty.Skip to next paragraph
The hierarchical meritocracy of China is an efficient system, but fails ultimately without feedback loops that provide reliable information, clogging the meridians of the body politic. Social media can become an organic part of the Chinese body politic and thus improve good governance.
Some, like the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, see a state that always wants to know where you are, what you do, and who you talk to in order to be able to “crush” you at will.
2. The creative phase: building new institutions
a. If social networks can erode trust with tweets, undermine authority, and tear down institutions, what might be their role in reconstruction?
After the centrifugal phase of pulling down and pulling apart, the next turn is a centripetal phase which pulls together and builds up new institutions based either on new authorities or conceptions of authority.
Historically, either new elites are installed and hierarchical institutions re-established with a different set of strong rulers and experts (the pyramid), or, in modern (post-Enlightenment) times a diamond-shaped structure can form where most people are neither rich nor poor, and conflict and competition, ritualized by rules, take place in “arenas” such as courts, markets, science, and democracy.
Unlike the top-to-bottom power structure of the hierarchical pyramid, where legitimacy is invested in the rule of the worthy and the expert, the diamond model’s legitimacy arises from a “reciprocal accountability” of its participants.
Today’s social network upheaval puts pressure on both models to accommodate more participants who all share the same information.
The pyramid and the diamond are not so much alternatives as symbiotically linked like yin and yang, especially given the participatory power of social media.
Humans respond to challenge in two ways: ontogenetically and phylogenetically. Ontogenetic activities are organized and carried out through centrally designed institutions to shape the development of society. The phylogenetic response is evolutionary, like self-organizing bacteria lacking foresight but responding to the environment.
This relationship is both adversarial and symbiotic. Political authority today is ontogenetic, and cyberspace is phylogenetic. The health of human society depends on the balance.
Might this lead to a new “hybrid” model of governance because more players and thus more complexity requires both more hierarchy to manage and, at the same time, more feedback loops of reciprocal accountability?
There is not one answer. A given balance within the operating system of governance will work or not work depending on the conditions. Success will only result from the “field effect” of bringing all the right elements to bear as the circumstances on the ground demand. One-person-one-vote, just like meritocratic rule, must be scaled to the circumstances.
The same happens within companies as well. Google required one kind of governance, more reciprocal and collegial, when it was only 500 innovating employees. With 50,000 employees and globe-spanning markets, complexity requires more hierarchy for efficiency’s sake. Yet innovation must retain its own space or efficiency will kill it off.
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