The most powerful force in the world isn’t a person; it’s a place.
Welcome to the land of networks.
I know you know that digital networks are one of the foundational disruptive technologies of the late 20th century. You live with the effects every day. The personal computer appeared in 1975, followed by commercial modems in 1981. Microsoft launched Windows in 1983, and Apple famously introduced the Macintosh in 1984. We got AOL in 1985, and Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web in 1991.
New technologies are old news.
However, network technology has changed more than how we work; it changed what we value – and that’s changed everything.
As we face another year of widespread anger and disagreement, we feel caught in the undertow of larger external forces.
We are, but it’s not clashing technologies that have upended our world; it’s clashing values.
Values that are embedded in the research, development and operating principles that put network technology to work.
Values that brought the digital world to life.
Massive political, social and economic change wasn’t likely U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s intent when he and the country’s military leaders were trying to figure out how to contain the growing Soviet threat in the late 1950s. Instead, the Americans wanted an early warning system that could transmit large amounts of information quickly between NORAD’s 23 missile tracking centres and display it in a way that was easy to understand.
Two possible designs were considered. The first was based on the hub and spoke model, with one central computer that could route information to the computers in each of the spokes. It valued control and authority via stable and defined routes.
The other looked more like a web, or net, with lines crisscrossing and intersecting at different points, called nodes. The most revolutionary thing about the network was how the information would travel: in pieces. This created options. Now multiple packets of information could travel in multiple directions, on multiple routes, and be reassembled at the destination. Known as packet switching, it reduced the amount of time information spent travelling, which meant it cost less to transmit. That’s the power of a decentralized information system: it’s faster, cheaper and, in those early days, safer from external threats. The network model valued speed and mobility, which increased access and exchange.
On the one hand, this should feel very familiar because networks function a lot like we do: that back-and-forth nature of all our relationships, only on a massive, global scale.
A network derives its power from its ability to move resources quickly through infinite connection points. It values exchange, access, speed, and mobility.
However, that’s not how the world works.
Through the 20th century, our economic and political systems organized around an increasingly centralized model of power to increase the efficient use of resources. As the industrialized economy grew, there was a need to centralize to reduce production and distribution costs.
As the business world got bigger and more complicated, governments mirrored the centralizing trend—spokes feeding the hub.
Organizations that practise centralized power value control, authority, stability and defined roles.
We now live and work in a world where both models operate. We can consult Dr. Google for medical information but still have to call our doctor’s office on the phone to make an appointment. We can work from home – unless the boss wants you to clock in at the office. We can read Supreme Court rulings online and then wait six months for our day in court.
This is what creates tension: the collision of two competing value propositions.
Shall it be command and control or exchange and access? Order with defined roles or speed and mobility? Centralized or decentralized power?
Yes, and yes.
Solving this wicked power shift isn’t an either/or proposition; it’s and/and.
The upending of traditional organizational structures means it is no longer enough for private citizens, public figures or institutional representatives to say they will do good; we must illustrate it in tangible ways.
In a network, no one and no organization stands alone. We are our networks, which means we all judge and are being judged by our perceived values based on others’ interpretations of our present and past actions and the behaviour of other corporate, political and community players in our space.
That means we must move from passive observers to active participants on issues that matter to us personally and which matter to our staff, customers, clients, stakeholders and the communities we serve.
It’s not enough to be a good public servant, politician, corporate or private citizen; we must be role models too.
We must put our values to work.