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Four Pillars: For Want of a Nay, Kingdoms are Lost

Have you come across the works of a guy called Cass R. Sunstein? I first got into reading him when I discovered Free Markets and Open Justice maybe a decade ago; then, when I saw the ideas he exposed in Republic.com, I knew I had to track what he does, which led to my reading Why Societies Need Dissent.

[And now, wearing my Alternative Market Models hat, he continues to be very important to me, given his focus on prediction markets and wikis and blogs and opensource software. I’m looking forward to reading Infotopia as and when it comes out. Anyone out there connected enough to get me a preview? Overstock claims over a thousand reviews, Amazon over 200, so there are lots of copies out there somewhere. I am happy to pay, of course.]

What Republic.com helped me do is reinforce my thoughts about the dangers of mutual-admiration-societies and cliques in large organisations, and to adjust my behaviour accordingly. The learning was hard but worthwhile, at least partially driven by my exposure to concepts like cyberbalkanisation through Professor Sunstein’s works. Signals that I should ensure fresh thinking entered everything I did, at the very least to prevent fossilised behaviour… something large organisations are particularly good at fomenting rather than preventing. Usually by accident, not design.
And I guess that’s why I enjoy interacting with other bloggers where I work….like Sean at Park Paradigm and Malcolm at Accidental Light. We agree on a few fundamentals, a few important fundamentals; that helps build mutual respect. And against that foundation of respect, the relationship aspect of things, we disagree on enough to make the learning valuable. We differ on nationality and age and skin colour and even hair length and number of children. Great.

The payoff comes when we discuss things like alternative compensation models for artists or the future of the BBC, when our views diverge wildly and enrich conversation. The payoff comes when we discuss things like how organisations should work and what identity means, when our views converge wildly and enrich conversation.

Much of the risk in cyberbalkanisation comes from some sort of selection bias, some process whereby dissent is kept out of the melting pot of conversation. Ideas no longer have a natural selection process and atrophy is guaranteed over time. Na na na I’m not listening. Go read Republic.com; these posts touch on the issues as part of a different snowball, and should not be seen as attempts to summarise someone else’s hard work.


Why Societies Need Dissent focuses on a different evil, something analogous to instinctive-herd-meets-charismatic-leader. How normal people respond to confident collected people spouting confident collected crap. How often charismatic leaders start believing in their own propaganda.

This is something more insiduous. Cellular replication can be very healthy when looked at in the context of the body repairing itself or rejuvenating or even growing. But here we talk about cells that are intrinsically healthy in the first place, so that a fractal imitative power-law-obeying process is obtained. Evangelical churches and even terrorist organisations have gone for a cellular approach as a result, and it works.

It only works when the unit cell is healthy and kept healthy. At some level of abstraction, a cancer cell is no different from a heretical group is no different from a treasonous platoon is no different from a software virus.

Blogs can be anti-carcinogenic from an organisation viewpoint, preventing heresies and cliquism from building up by making the process of dissent more open, the option of dissent more exercisable, the outcome of dissent less blameseeking.

Blogs can prevent some of the known evils of organisations from taking any further root. How we can become grown-up equivalents of schoolyard bullies, ganging up on the weak rather than the wrong. There is an unusual behaviour that takes place in large organisations, where heads nod and tongues affirm what is being said, not because it is right, not because it is good, but because it is said confidently and firmly and fairly and stably by someone who has the ability to lead the herd.

We like conformity. Sadly, sometimes we confuse it with teamwork. Or much worse, we assume noncomformity to be anti-team and disloyal. The Road to Ruin. This, despite all superficial commitments to the valiant efforts of the Myerses and Briggses and Belbins of this world telling us that diverse balanced teams are good.

In something approaching real tragedy, many organisations go through a painful process of attracting and hiring people with a difference to make a difference; then spend forever driving the difference out of the person. Immensely frustrating for all concerned. Blogs can help prevent this.

I’ve spoken before about this, but it is worth repeating. The Lencioni Five Dysfunctions of a Team may be dismissed by many as pop psychology, but there’s some good stuff there. If you don’t trust then you can’t share concern, express dissent. So you don’t commit; execution is flawed. And the team fails.

And all for want of a Nay.

We should stop thinking of blogs as just individual soapboxes, it may be the way we learnt about them, but it’s not the way we’re going to learn from them.

They’re very powerful conversation enablers; they help people express care and concern and dissent in non-threatening ways; they help avoid mutual-admiration-society selection bias; they build trust amongst teams; they exposes heresies and cancers; they prevent me (and people like me) from believing in our own propaganda.

We have the choice of selecting from crowd wisdom or madness; we have the choice of having emperors clothed or naked; we have the choice of having rich and diverse teams or cloning cancer cells.

Blogs are but one tool in helping us with those selections.

One tool. An important tool. One we did not have before.

Posted in Four pillars .


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