Our Global Village

Tribes + Institutions + Markets + Networks

Once again, we are changing the way we organize as a society. This has happened twice before: when we shifted from a predominantly oral and tribal society to a written and institutional one, and when Gutenberg’s press changed us to a print and market society. Electric media are shifting us to a digital and networked society. This emerging network form is not a mere modifier of previous forms of Tribes, Institutions, and Markets, but a form in itself that may be able to address complex societal issues that the previous forms cannot (see more from David Ronfeldt). We have evolved as a civilization not through clean progressions from one organizing mode to the next but rather each new form has built upon and changed the previous mode, from tribes to institutions to markets and now to networks.

Markets may currently dominate, but institutions and tribes co-exist with them, in modified forms from when institutions (e.g. the church) or tribes (pre-writing) dominated. While many people never lose their affinity for community groups or family (tribes), each mode brings new factors that influence previous ones. For example, tribalism is alive and well in online social networks. It is just not the same tribalism of several hundred years ago. Each transition also has its hazards. For instance, while tribal societies may result in nepotism, networked societies can lead to deception.

Cooperation versus Collaboration

Following tribal societies, institutions enabled small-scale collaborative behaviours. Collaboration is working together for a common objective. Collaboration is usually hierarchical, requiring someone to ensure that people stay on course. Later, markets enabled large-scale collaboration. In institutions and markets the rules are clear and we know who we are working with (employees, members, suppliers, partners, customers, etc.). Collaboration is the optimal behaviour in institutions and markets.

In networks, relationships can quickly change. Someone may be our supplier or even our boss one day and our customer the next. In networks, cooperative behaviours are best. Cooperation is where people freely share without any requirement for direct reciprocity. Network societies and tribes have similar requirements for cooperation. What was kinship in tribes is seen as connections or affinities in networks. Tribes revolved around small-scale cooperative behaviours. Networks enable large-scale cooperation.

Successful individuals in a network society understand that their connections change over time and that openly sharing makes them more valued nodes in the long-run. In networks, cooperation is simultaneously altruistic and selfish. Cooperation helps the whole network and indirectly returns value to its members. Cooperation takes the long view, not the short-term profit-seeking view of markets, or the selfish view of institutions.

Extend, Obsolesce, Retrieve, Reverse

According to Marshall McLuhan’s laws of media, every medium 1) extends a human property; 2) obsolesces the previous medium; 3) retrieves a much older medium that was obsolesced before; and 4) flips or reverses its properties into the opposite effect when pushed to its limits.

The medium of a network society could then be seen to 1) extend civil society; 2) obsolesce hierarchies; 3) retrieve the cooperation of kinship; and 4) when pushed to its limits, reverse into deception.

New Structures are Needed

We are becoming the global village that McLuhan wrote about in 1962. Like a tribal village, certain aspects of human behaviours that we have ignored for centuries are becoming important as we move into a network society. There was little privacy in the village, as there seems to be no more privacy today. While we will not repeat the past, there is much we can learn from it. Our new business models should not just celebrate what we have made obsolete, but we should also look back to see what we can retrieve and most importantly, what reversals we can avoid.

Avoiding societal deception in the network era requires an aggressively intelligent citizenry and workers actively engaged in all aspects of democratic enterprises. Continuing to collaborate in hierarchies, with gatekeepers and other control mechanisms, will not transform us into a well-functioning networked society. In the network era, collaboration is outdated. We need to learn how to work cooperatively to deal with the complex problems facing us that cannot be addressed through our existing tribal, institutional, and market structures.

Source: seeking perpetual beta