System Transition

By Greg Fisher

So Wikipedia is down today, voluntarily, joining other sites in a protest against anti-piracy legislation being considered by Washington.  This reflects the pain of societies transitioning from one broad “system” to something very different and it is largely due to networked computers.

The point I want to stress in this blog is that our governments need to understand much better the nature of the transition we are undergoing, and to be midwives to something new.  At the moment governments seem to be trying to maintain elements of the old system, rather than enabling a new system.

There are positive and negative aspects to the transition underway, which relate to Schumpeter’s emphasis on creative destruction.  On the one hand we can communicate much more effectively with people that were previously inaccessible – a number of my Chinese and Iranian friends are on Facebook as is my grandmother!  But, on the other hand, there are moral and incentive issues to consider.  Some people (*coughs*) download movies and TV series free of charge, which have cost other people to produce (isn’t that wrong?).  And piracy might discourage the creation of new stuff, which would be detrimental to all of us.  Now, clearly, there are counter-arguments (e.g. “Hollywood’s profits are excessive”) and further counter-counter-arguments but we should be clear that the old system has been very successful in many ways and we should not rip it apart without due consideration.

But if governments are to enable a new system emerging, there is one key problem: we do not know precisely what the future holds.  This is one of the remarkable and important lessons of complex systems: the future is inherently unknowable.  However, we have had enough experience of computers that we can see some broad patterns, notably about control, power, transparency, and communication.  So, while we cannot predict the future with absolute certainty, these patterns should help us have some sense – even if only very vague – of what’s in store.

Image © jorgeandresem@flickr

Networked computers have facilitated a shift in society in which “power” is now much more dispersed.  This means that control by people in the system is much more problematic, including by governments.  We are transitioning to something that is much more “peer-to-peer” and away from a system that involves hierarchical structures and concentrated power.  We can see this not only in the context of governments but also in the private sector.

Equivalently, this new technology is making our societies much more transparent (consider, for example, that the UK’s “expenses scandal” followed the handing over of a single DVD to the Telegraph newspaper).  And, importantly, while transparency is an important issue in and of itself, networked computers enable groups of people to communicate more effectively, which facilitates self-organisation.  This is a potent combination.

Indeed the transition we are undergoing is so deep that I would link the “Arab Spring” uprising with today’s “protest” by Wikipedia et al.  The Arab Spring has been catalysed (note: not caused) by new technology in the form of mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter.  A number of autocratic governments have had insufficient power against such self-organisation which is much more difficult to bring about without disruptive new technology.  In a very different way, we can look at the US government’s draft legislation as an attempt to maintain old-system control over a new system that is emerging.  I want to state very clearly that I am not making any value statement here: there are arguments on both sides for maintaining copyright protection.  But it does look more like the protection of an old system than a thorough consideration of existing institutions in light of new technology.

I strongly suspect that Washington’s attempt at maintaining control will prove to be largely ineffective in the face of this new technology.  I am not technologically savvy and it took me five minutes to access Facebook from a country I visited recently in which Facebook was banned.  Legislators in the US are, I strongly suspect, underestimating the power of this new technology in the hands of a large number of people seeking to enable it.

What governments should be doing is to recognise the nature of the technological disruption we are undergoing and to re-consider – rather than necessarily protecting – particular institutional frameworks.

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One Response to “System Transition”

  1. Chris Davies says:

    Greg – interesting post and one I agree with. I think governments around the world struggle to understand that institutions (in the sense that Douglass North uses the word) are emergent. While governments play an important role in shaping them, most of their legitimacy and effectiveness comes from the involvement of the majority in their design and development.

    Trying to retain an institutional framework becomes increasingly untenable as the pace of emergence steps up (which is what is happening with technology), and the more you try to hang onto, the greater the risk of a major blow-out. The worst thing about this is that the nature of that blow-out is likely to be thoroughly unpredictable. Kodak’s filing for bankruptcy today is exemplary of that tendency, I think.

    Of course, a number of the current UK government’s woes come from their failure to understand the flip side of this process: systemic change through emergence can come very slowly if the transactional density and speed within that system is itself slow. Basing policies on a system’s tendency to self organise in response to a new set of systemic rules may be intellectually coherent, but is unlikely to yield fruit quickly in something as large and lumbering as the existing education or health systems. The exception to this is if a disruptive elements appears, which may be technological (in education, it could be something like the development of the Khan Academy or iTunes U), the whole process becomes redundant. I do wonder whether in ten years the debates about the legal forms of schools or primary healthcare will have proven to be a total irrelevance when the way in which we access those services has been transformed by the emergence of new models outside the systems that politicians control.

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