Do We Have to Choose between Transparency and Real Authority?

A friend sent me this email in response to my last blog post. He has agreed to let me post his thoughtful reply on my blog:

I enjoyed your recent blog post “Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween“.

I wanted to push back on your first scary idea (actually listed as number five) about making your ideas public.   The story you used involved a man who doesn’t even own a computer and his inability to comprehend why someone would want to share their ideas.

My question to you is who is more out of touch?  Him or you? How powerful was this man?  How much authority does he wield?  If refusing to share broadly is such a disability in today’s networked world, why do so few people who have power and authority actively engage in the conversation?  Could it be because they have real power and authority?

I may be reading more into your scary idea than you intended as you only speak about the complexities of the challenges we face.  However, your statement exudes the air of someone who feels all but certain their view is right when all of the evidence around us suggests that traditional power comes through quiet networking amongst a select group of individuals of roughly equal stature.   Even powerhouses who participate broadly in today’s global conversation make their deals in private meetings, not in public.   The real decision over who will partner with whom to accomplish something remains opaque until well after the deal is sealed.

I do believe we are on the fault line of two tectonic plates colliding (opacity and transparency) and that, at least at the moment, transparency is putting up a good fight.   If history is any guide, the opacity plate has tremendous resistance to movement and often lurches back in earthquake-like convulsions.   I think the lack of trust of large organizations today is interlinked with this idea.  Large organizations are always complex jumbles of partially formed deals, challenges, and new ideas.  Organizations have to lie to anyone outside their walls to protect those ideas (intellectual property, legal issues, pre-decisional material, etc) as well as their very existence and thus there is real schizophrenia in their actions.  When confronted with one of these falsehoods they rationalize their actions by saying “we weren’t at liberty to divulge that information at the time” or “that was proprietary information” or “it would be improper to talk about the deal before it is finalized” or “it was classified”.  To those outside though each episode is another withdrawal from the trust bank account.   Yet, the folks in charge of these organizations wield tremendous power and can, for the most part, weather these storms because the entire apparatus around them is designed to protect them and keep itself going.   They have tremendous capital.  They have tremendous legal authority.  They have tremendous ability to legislate, investigate, shape, pressure, buyout, and influence.

In your recent speech you described two possible models for the “motor” that runs the world and then proceeded to categorize people by which motor they believe is the true driver of world events.  This duality, IMHO, misses nuance and complexity.  For instance, a third model, can be some weird hybrid in which the benefits of large high-mass organizations as described above sustain opacity and give those who run them very real advantages even if they aren’t consciously and intentionally undertaking “secret agreements and machinations” but rather just trying to advance and protect their organization. That same size and complexity creates vulnerabilities and blind spots to the organic and unpredictable nature of the world in which they reside.  Historically, the benefits of the large organization have outweighed the disadvantages.  The question in my mind is whether that equation is changing.

As a complex planet with complex problems will we always need these large complex organizations from Exxon to the USG to Salvation Army to manage the globe’s complexity?   If the answer is yes, then I believe it is likely the primary centers of power will almost certainly continue to reside with folks who do not broadly share their views and ideas  in a global conversation because the organizations around them will demand they remain silent for a whole host of reasons and because to succeed in those organizations requires cunning and bureaucratic savvy that is the antitheses of a dynamic dialog.   When transparency gets too close to unraveling these centers of power, they use their heft to put things back in the bottle.  As one example, a researcher used publicly available information to show all of the infrastructure that was below Manhattan only to have the “system” react by classifying the report and having it removed from the web. When RIM provides security that is too good, India demands a back door, as does the US, as does Saudi Arabia, and countless others.   Products quietly are discontinued.  Tools quietly disappear.  Information quietly disappears from Google.  Capabilities are hobbled.   The examples are too numerous to count.

If the answer is no, large organizations are not required (maybe not even healthy) for the planet to effectively deal with the complexity of the challenges we face as a global community and a global society, what does that transition look like?

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