Monday, April 18, 2011

Some thoughts on Hierarchy and Identity

Today I participated in an exciting and fun foresight exercise - a 'Deep Dive' focused on Social Media. We covered many topics all of which could and should be explored in greater depth.

But one that seems to be rattling around my mind relates to identity - not cyber identity as a secure authentication of one's person, rather it is the more psycho-cultural construction of our sense of 'who we are'. This is also related in my thinking to social organization.

Please bear with me - this is an exploration and so it will not be a polished, linear elaboration of a single ides. I am 'wayfinding' through conceptual landscapes.

The world has largely been hierarchically organized since we became agriculturalists and entered into the age of civilizations. Before agriculture we were proto-farmers and hunter gatherers living in relatively small groups - extended families, clans, tribes generally attached to particular geographies. Contrary to popular notions hunter gatherers (H/G) we more likely to be egalitarian.

For a great account of our more overwhelmingly egalitarian human experience read 'Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior" by Christopher Boehm (studied primate for 40 year with Jane Goodall and has read the majority of the anthropology of hunters & gatherers). He defines egalitarian-ism as the active reversal of hierarchy where the group actively keep that alpha's in check.

In this context we formed 'personal' identities based on a small set of close ties - H/G groups usually were never larger than the magic number of about 149 (Dunbar's Number), although I've heard that anthropological evidence suggests this was a max of 250. Thus for most of human history we formed personal identities based on a max network of less than 250 people, and further this was not a 'personal' identity as we know it. For example the typical identification of oneself to someone new would be I am John, son of xxx from xxx. There was no real 'subjective' person, as much as a collective person.

Recent evolutionary theory (see E.O. Wilson's recanting) argues that selection works on multiple levels, such that when competition is simply between individuals - then selfishness trumps, but if competition is between groups, then the altruistic group trumps the group composed of selfish individuals.

As we entered the neolithic (age of agriculture) we increased population density and size of our groups. This allowed for increasing divisions of labor which in turn became new domains of knowledge and new ways of living. With the bifurcations of increasing divisions of labor also came increasing need and opportunities to exchange. Each new division of labor/knowledge was also a new domain of 'identity' and the increasing matrix of exchange was an ever expanding contest of 'other' (also new identities). We began to create contexts of exchanging with much larger groups - the emergence of 'loose-ties'. The age of agriculture shifted social architecture from egalitarian types to hierarchies - a natural way to coordinate larger unities of people, 'kingdoms'.

It is a reasonable argument that the general experience of rural peoples had not changed much - most people until relatively recently (maybe the middle ages in Europe) never traveled more than 100 miles from where they lived. Things began to really change with the rise of more numerous and large urban centers.

What was revolutionary in 1776 (the Declaration of Independence & the publication of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations") was the power of responsible autonomy - the fundamental right of any individual to pursue their interests (not reducible to simple selfishness). The market system (which is also not reducible to simple capitalism) is fundamentally not hierarchically organized. In fact one could make an argument that both democracy and the market system are fundamentally powered by what Gladwell points out as 'loose ties'. Before the birth of the market system - trade and markets were basically composed of 'personalized networks' (close and associated ties). These markets needed some 'external' force to 'sponsor' the requisite standards/conditions of exchange, thus often a market was sponsored by local Nobility (personalized network/market type exchanges). These conditions, continue to provide the context of a construction of identity.

The radical revolution of the market system is the development of 'impartial' trade - which in turn sets the stage for institutions that deliver impartial justice, education, and governance.

Before the recent social uprising in Egypt Gladwell had cause a stir by claiming that hierarchy was the 'authentic' source and power of social organization. If this was truly the case then we would be led to as why did society move from pre-modern and medieval hierarchical structures to embrace democracy and liberal approaches to economic organization? A shift that also represents a context of identity formation that is a shift from local 'close ties' of trust and place/clan identity towards ever wider 'loose-tie' networks. From a possibility of an internal dialog that could include 150 people to an internal dialog that includes every one we've ever seen, heard, interacted with and imagined (via literature, movies/TV)

I think Gladwell rightly points out the necessary reality of hierarchy, but he misses the context of the decentralized nature and greater capacity of our economic system - essentially the power of self-organization. We have only just entered the world of digital infrastructure that enables the extension of self-organization power that we can see in a market system.

Before there was no technological capacity for non-hierarchical organization, the infrastructure of the market system was the arise of the state, literacy, standards (a pound had to be a pound and a dollar a dollar), and a transparent aggregation of situational information (e.g. the price mechanism in a market system - and the point/status mechanism in MMOGs).

What Gladwell misses is that the unleashing and understanding of 'the power of loose-ties' and the related 'impartiality' of exchange and the comfort with 'other' as anonymous, is still in its infancy. We are still struggling with being able to trust the narrative of responsible autonomy - which is essentially how to check the bullying that arises from alpha entities while harness their capacity to contribute.

This new narrative or meme of self-organizing, loose-ties, and new ways establishing our belonging in civil society. In fact one can make an argument that Ideas are the new geography of the emerging global digitally based civil societies. Where a meme would have persistence - that is people would flow into and out of the 'meme'. This explored the meme as a new narrative of self-organizing, loose-ties, and new ways establishing our belonging in civil society.

This is not to displace close-ties and hierarchy but to better contextualize just where they make the best contribution to a vital and evolvable civil society that is more open to diversity and less xenophobic of any type of 'other'. Where the 'other(s)' within ourselves mirror the social ecologies of the digital global village.