#OWS and the Paradox of Empowered Networks

by JenniferCobb on 11/10/2011

The leaderless, amorphous Occupy movement is the latest embodiment of the bottom-up, decentralized ideals of open source.   Any yet the path from open source to #OWS is a little more circuitous than it might appear.  Tracing the story offers some interesting insights on the way forward.

Open source, also called commons-based peer production (CMPP) is a leaderless, socio-economic system that emerges bottom up from a large group of individuals, each of whom contributes a little bit to the whole.  The original open source movement is indigenous to digital, networked environments and takes advantage of the fact that it is cheap and easy to create and collaborate in cyberspace.  Open source is voluntary and has no managerial hierarchies or cost to the producers or consumers.   The motivations for participation vary widely, but in the absence of any economic benefit, the primary incentives are social.  Key examples of open source are Wikipedia and the Linux operating system.

While Wikipedia and Linux continue to thrive, the model of open source did not emerge, as many had predicted, as the business model of the future for the digital economy.  One of the main reasons is that a small group of smart people decided that there was money to be made from the fact that many of us were happy to create content for free.   What was called commons-based peer production got renamed “user-generated content” and it became the hot new idea for a raft of business models that succeeded in merging the power of bottom up production with some very sharp, top-down management and engineering skills.

When bottom up and top down meet, potent things happen.  In this case, Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube grew at rates unseen in human history.  But these bottom up/top down services also represent the great bait and switch of open source.   When we use these services, we feel that we are living the open source dream — voluntarily contributing content based on our unique skills and needs.  But in fact these companies are harnessing the voluntary creativity of the group to create vast wealth for a very few – a reality that gives fresh meaning to the slogan “we are the 99%.”  In fact, most of us are not content creators on-line.  Most of us, even on active social networks like Facebook, post content only rarely.  But we are all data creators.  And it is in the data we generate as creators, searches, purchasers and lurkers that the real wealth lies.

At a recent conference on Silicon Valley and Human Rights, Mitchell Barker, the CEO of the nonprofit Mozilla, made a very useful observation.  She noted that in today’s digital environment, we have a lot of people creating content, and a lot more people who want access to that content.  But instead of all people exchanging information in a truly open framework,  which is the basis for the open source vision, we have what she called the “small waist problem.”  Sitting between us is a very small group of powerful companies, namely Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.  These companies control what services we have at our disposal and how we use them.  They are the small waist.  Imagine that someone took a really big rubber band and put it right around the middle of that big, bottom-up, open source net.

But even though we have a small waist, the amount of information that can flow through that waist is really big.  The issue of the waist isn’t about throttling speed; it is about the distribution of power.  It is the top down element constricting the bottom up experience.   In fact, one of the real benefits of the introduction of top down profit making into the bottom up world of open space is that the big companies have shouldered the burden of building out vast infrastructures and server farms that enable us to communicate in much richer and more nuanced ways online.  For free.  And that is what we do.

A couple of years ago, populist political movements all over the world started to use these services to organize and communicate.  The Arab Spring, the Tea Party and now Occupy are all movements that leverage digital technology to help them reach their goals.  It is ironic that many of these populist movements were making political protests against governments using tools that funnel their information through highly controlled corporate power structures resistant to democratic input.  But the fact remains.  Companies that married bottom-up and top-down dynamics into powerful and profitable services enabled a new wave of bottom-up social movements bent on rejecting top down power structures.

The challenge for those movements is clear.  Many bottom-up things don’t stay that way for long.  And there is good reason for that.  Many purely bottom-up systems cannot support the institutions that their on-going success requires.  Let’s take one small, but potent, example.  Many bottom-up systems rely on social capital to motivate action.  Trust and reputation are the glue that holds the systems together.    And yet we have to ask ourselves, is a system build wholly on social capital really more fair or robust than one built on bureaucracy and specialization?  Hierarchical bureaucracies based on specialization contribute some important things, such as explicit responsibilities based on clear credentials and accountability.

It is really best when systems have some of each.  When the power of top down and bottom up work together, very stable and creative systems emerge.  But when the top down part starts getting more rewards than the bottom up group, systems need to be adjusted.  When the data produced by the 99% goes to benefit the 1%, and when the money generated by the 99% goes into the pockets of the 1%, the system is broken.  And a broken system is not a stable system.

It will be fascinating to watch what happens as OWS begins down the path of adding some top down elements.  As Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker about #OWS, “Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics – the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two party electoral system, the only one we have.  The Tea Partiers know that.  Do the Occupiers?”

An equally interesting question is, do the technology giants, the new sovereign nations of the global economy, understand the need to balance top-down and bottom-up in their vast networks?    In a networked setting, the more those at the top let go, the stronger the system becomes.  The bottom up forces must be allowed to thrive equally with the top down forces.  We might call this the paradox of empowered networks.   Do they understand that allowing control to flow away from the top is the best strategy for staying in driver’s seat?


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