Tuesday, November 01, 2011

An Artist’s Wisdom Could Save America

One of the most articulate voices about the global transformation of organizations, institutions and business models including today’s political gridlock just happens be, not a scientist or economist or political expert or business leader but one of the 2.1 million artists and arts workers in the United States, a number documented by a new study just released.

This artist is becoming known for something coined by Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor for Wired magazine as the Shirky Principle:

"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."


This principle explains why so many organizations (private, public and not-for-profit) prefer life-support and mission-creep to what Nancy Lublin calls “death by success” once they have become obsolete or completed their mission, ignoring “systematic abandonment,” one of guru Peter Drucker’s four responsibilities of management.

The far-too-infrequent essay-posts by art professor Clay Shirky on his blog found at this link are always a must read for me including one in 2009 that is still the most insightful explanation I’ve read yet about what’s happening to newspapers and now threatening television as we’ve known them.  Remember that pesky issue of “stranded costs” so prominent in the downfall of Enron?

Shirky’s incredible book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, published a year ago about the time this snippet was taped as a TED presentation on the topic is a must read for anyone seeking a glimpse into the future.

One of Shirky’s posts reminded me of a chilling book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies by anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, which was published and already going into reprint as I relocated to Durham a little more than two decades ago.

Unfortunately, until recently I had skipped over Tainter’s prescient-book because back then I had just finished a far longer book but more narrowly focused book called The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, published a year earlier by British historian Paul Kennedy and dealing predominantly with only economic and military factors.

I was reminded of the importance of an anthropological perspective while reading another blog-essay by Shirky posted last year entitled The Collapse Of Complex Business Models with an excellent introduction to Tainter’s analysis and applying it to issues and events in the news today.

In the post, Shirky summarizes Tainter’s conclusions which indicate that in the past complex societies such as ours today “hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it:”

“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.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake — ‘Under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response’, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.’

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”

Shirky summarizes Tainter in a way that helps explain the double-dog-dare-standoff over the debt ceiling last summer and among members of the Super Committee with one side beholden to one unelected individual with a self-defeating pledge of no new taxes even when it makes sense and helps explain the resonance of Occupy Wall Street movement when he writes:

“One of the interesting questions about Tainter’s thesis is whether markets and democracy, the core mechanisms of the modern world, will let us avoid complexity-driven collapse, by keeping any one group of elites from seizing unbroken control.

This is, as Tainter notes in his book, an open question.  There is, however, one element of a complex society into which neither markets nor democracy reach – bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies [and here I believe Shirky’s use of the term applies to corporations as well as government] temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than it is to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill off an old one.

it is 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.”

To me the great danger to our society comes from both the extremes of the right and the left, one, defending self-interest but excluding social responsibility while obsessed with personal responsibility and the other defending what hasn’t worked and bureaucratic complexity over common-sense and simplification.

Can the moderate center save America?  I hope so but remember another Shirky-ism, “A revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools.  It happens when society adopts new behaviors.”

I still believe that regardless of ideology we all have what Shirky names as one of the two elements helping fuel today’s “cognitive surplus” and that is “generosity of human spirit.

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