Food for Thought By Dr.David Weinberger. I feel he raises a number of fundamental
issues, not yret discussed on this forum.
as a culture, feel something for the Web that we have no right to feel. We don't
know what the Web is for. But we sense that it's important. We want it to be important,
so important that it shocks the foundations of every institution that makes us behave
nicely. We long for it with a desperation that can frighten us when we look at it
Who is this we? It's not just the webheads and full-time aficionados. It
is the journalists who don't understand it but smell a story. It's the uncles and
aunts who pepper you with questions about all this Web stuff. It's the seven-year-old
who takes it for granted that when she speaks the entire world can choose to hear
her. Our culture's pulse is pounding with the Web.
This fervid desire for the Web
bespeaks a longing just as intense. Something is missing that the Web promises to
What is missing is the sound of the human voice.
We have silenced our
voices voluntarily. It is the price we pay for agreeing to live in a well-managed
world where no challenge of biology cannot be met, where advances in Soil Mechanics
will always outpace the geometry of population growth, where all asteroids can be
diverted by international teams of good-looking scientists.
We yearn for the Web
because we see a way to renegotiate the contract according to which we swapped our
voice for the security of living in the Well-Managed World.
The longing the Web
expresses is, ultimately, spiritual.
In the business world,
the deep belief that we can box out risk and control our environment shows up as
a belief in managing.
Managing requires establishing a framework by which things
can be organized and according to which actions can be directed. A business manages
finances, human resources and office supplies according to the same scheme: establish
categories and needs, and then build processes and facilities that reflect the categories.
Reflecting the commitment to command and control, the framework is innately hierarchical
as every org chart shows.
Within that framework, the parts know their roles, limits
and reward schedules. At its best, roles match talents and desires, and the organization
succeeds at both the corporate and individual levels. At its worst, the human parts
become interchangeable because they've been reduced to properties of time and motion.
a managed environment, individual voices are at best noise. In fact, people will
willingly strive to suppress their voice. Jean-Paul Sartre used to watch waiters
priding themselves on how well they could play the waiter role. Most of us willingly
play the role of the business professional.
There are tremendous advantages to
living in a managed environment.
Risk avoidance. The unexpected does not dare break
through the managed framework. If somehow it does, we will urgently figure out a
way to eliminate it.
Smoothness. Everything works in a managed environment simply
because managed environments cannot abide brokenness. Broken things embarrass managed
systems. If our North American phone system worked as poorly as in some "third world"
country (still subject to unexpected events like famines, plagues and wars), we would
be mortified. And then we would fix it.
Fairness. You do your work and you will
get what's due you. It's that simple. In earlier times when your life could end at
any age, you had to accept it. Life was unfair. Now that you are guaranteed your
three-score and ten, if something "goes wrong," the managed system will compensate
you, even if you have to sue the bastards.
Discretionary Attention . If you were
out in the wild, your attention would be drawn to every creaking twig and night howl.
Your attention would never be your own. But now that the risks have been mitigated,
things work right, and you can manage your time so you have not just leisure time
but discretionary attention: you can decide what interests you. Why, you can even
Of course, none of these benefits are delivered perfectly. There
are still risks, there are still injustices, there are still "outtages." But these
are exceptions. And when they occur, we feel cheated, for our contract has been violated.
wasn't always thus. For millennia, we assumed that being in control was the exception
and living in a wildly risk-filled world was the norm:
As flies to wanton boys,
are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
Now these awful
words sounds like one of those quaint primitive ideas we've outgrown.
in the managed environment is a denial of the brute "facticity" of our lives. The
truth is that businesses cannot be managed. They can be run, but they exist in a
world that is so far beyond the control of the executives and the shareholders, that
"managing" a business is a form of magical belief that gets punctured the first time
a competitor drastically lowers prices, a large trading partner's economy falters,
a key supplier's factory burns down, your lead developer gets a better offer, an
angry consumer wins an unfair lawsuit.
As flies to wanton boys are companies to
its markets. They pull off a company's wings for sport.
"Managing a business."
The Web As Unmanaged
One of the remarkable
things about the Web is that the culture it's building directly mirrors its own technical
architecture. The medium truly is the message.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of
HTML, made lots of right decisions (starting with using SGML as the language for
writing his new document format), but his genius consisted in understanding that
HTML would create a World Wide Web and not, for example, a World Wide Reference System
or Global Footnote System. Call it marketing, call it a paradigm shift, but in either
case it was the insight that moved the WWW off of his desktop in Switzerland and
into the center of business and culture.
No one ordered the Web built. No one owns
it. No one is responsible for fixing it. There's no one to call when something goes
wrong. There's no automated phone support for the Web. No one gives you permission
to get onto the Web or to post materials onto the Web. If you don't like what you
see, there's no one to complain to. No one's page carries more inherent weight than
anyone else's. No one can certify that what you've said is right. No one protects
you from being an asshole in public.
Architecturally, the Web is decentralized.
Politically, the Web is profoundly unmanaged.
Many Small Pieces
Because the Web lets individual pieces "hook in" on their own, it
has the general effect of subverting systems held together via central control. And
because the relationships among the pieces are declared by the pieces themselves,
the system has great difficulty creating over-arching hierarchies.
The result is
that the Web busts up hierarchical organizations. The Web itself consists of many
small pieces loosely joined.
You can see this easily in the first phenomenon the
Web touched: documents. The Web rips the covers off of books, scatters the pages
and lets them be loosely rejoined via hyperlinks. Documents unbound.
This, of course,
brings many changes in its wake in the way we write, the way we read, the relation
of authors and readers,and so forth.
The Web has precisely the same effect on corporate
organizations. Intranets start to arise as the technical staff want to share information.
Soon, the workers discover that they can use the intranet to initiate and collaborate
on projects across geographic and org chart boundaries. Rather than consulting management
and getting committee approval, individuals band together to solve a customer problem
or exploit a market opportunity. They only invite onboard people whom they value.
These virtual teams work close to the customer and close to the market with enormous
zeal and creativity. Management looks like nothing but red tape.
Of course, management
now no longer knows what is happening in its own organization. The fact that 10 virtual
teams have been formed to solve the same problem masks the fact that there is a product
deficiency that should be addressed at its source. It turns out that three different
skunk works projects have addressed the same perceived opportunity, resulting in
either redundancy or inconsistency.
The organization's response is to try to reinstitute
centralized management. The contradiction grows and eventually Hegel is proved right,
yet again, as a new form of working together emerges. Is emerging.
that has been broken into many small pieces loosely joined is essentially unmanageable:
The hierarchical framework is dissolved.
- The center does not hold. People believe
— rightly or wrongly — they can be more effective without management; they serve
the higher good of moving the company forward by flouting the company guidelines.
Management announces that the corporate citizenship award will not be given this
- The contract is dissolved. The workers want to be rewarded not for working
according to rules and expectations but for taking responsibility and taking risks.
Risk avoidance becomes a sign of cowardice and lack of imagination. Never having
failed is a sign of failure.
- The pieces each develop their own voice. They thus
are not interchangeable and are not manageable.
- Roles are seen as straitjackets.
Originality and inventiveness are cherished, in part because in an economy of many
small pieces loosely joined, the noise level is tremendous and being outrageous is
the only way to be heard. The person replaces the org chart box as the fundamental
unit of business. Collaborative projects replace departments as the organizing principle.
are at the stage where the dissolution is happening. We clearly need a new solution
to avoid the pitfalls of self-organized, fragmented structures, namely, redundancy
of effort, lack of overview, and a hypertrophism of male, adolescent, attention-grabbing
behavior. It isn't yet clear what that new solution will be.
to Hate Your Job
A managed environment requires behavior from us that we accept
as inevitable although, of course, it is really mandatory only because it is mandated.
requires this by stressing the virtue of "professionalism." To a large degree, that
translates as being voiceless. Professionals not only act according to a canon of
ethics but also dress like other professionals (one eccentricity per person is permitted
— a garish tie, perhaps, or a funky necklace), decorate their cubicles with nothing
more disturbing than a Dilbert (formerly Far Side) cartoon, sit up straight at committee
meetings, don't "undermine the authority" (i.e., be smarter than) their superiors,
make idle chatter only about a narrow range of "safe" topics, don't curse, don't
mention God, never let on whether they're going to shit or pee, make absolutely no
reference to being sexual (exceptions made for male executives after the new secretary
has left the room) and successfully "manage" their home life so that it never intrudes
unexpectedly into their business life.
Most of us don't mind doing this. Like Sartre's
waiter, we actually sort of enjoy it. It's like playing grownup. Having extremist
political banners hung in cubicles or having to listen to someone talk about his
spiritual commitments or sex life would simply be distracting. Disturbing, actually.
yet ... we feel resentment.
Our longing for the Web is rooted in the deep resentment
we feel towards being managed.
However much we long for the Web is how much we
hate our job.
Just about all the concessions we
make to work in a well-run, non-disturbing, secure, predictably successful, managed
environment have to do with giving up our voice.
Nothing is more intimately a
part of who we are than our voice. It expresses what we think and feel. It is an
amalgam of the voluntary and involuntary. It gives style and shape to content. It
subtends the most public and the most private. It is what we withhold at the moments
of greatest significance.
Our voice is our strongest, most direct expression of
who we are. Our voice is expressed in our words, our tone, our body language, our
Our business voice — in a managed environment — is the same
as everyone else's. For example, we learn to write memos in The Standard Style and
to participate in committee meetings in The Appropriate Fashion. (Of course, we are
also finely attuned to minute differences in expression and can often tell memos
apart the way birdwatchers spot the difference between a house sparrow and a barn
Sure, gray flannel has been replaced by earth tones and wingtips by Rockports,
but to an outside observer, managed businesses are all the same and we're all the
same within them.
In a sense, this is old news. Who needs to read yet another screed
denouncing corporate conformism?
I contend that most of us do. The silencing of
our voices happens silently. We are willing participants (although the environment
frequently is coercive). It all makes sense to us.
But in fifty years, our current
corporate times will seem no different than the 50s. Whether we are Ward Cleavers
or Dilberts, we all reported to work in look-alike rooms, wearing uniforms, speaking
civilly, playing our parts at committee meetings. The fact that we are now allowed
to wear bad taste ties isn't going to separate us from our crew cut fathers.
businesses have taken our voices. We want to struggle against this. We wear a snarky
expression behind our boss's back, place ironic distance between our company and
ourselves, and we want to think we haven't become our parents. But we have.
is a powerful force, part of a larger life-scheme that promises us health, peace,
prosperity, calm and no surprises in every aspect of our lives, from health to wealth
to good weather and moderately heated coffee from McDonalds. We are all victims of
this assault on voice, the attempt to get us to shut up and listen to the narrowest
range of ideas imaginable. This assault is literal as well as metaphoric. It shows
itself in the embarrassment over having an accent, in the reduction of political
thought to two identical parties, in the lust for buzzwords and catchphrases, yadda
yadda yadda (and, of course, in the use of the phrase "yadda yadda yadda").
is only the force of our regret at having lived in this bargain that explains the
power of our longing for the Web.
We know what telephones
are for: to call people. We know what television is for: to watch programs. We know
what highways are for: to drive places. But we don't know what the Web is for.
why has the Web been adopted faster than any technology since fire?
There are many
ways to look at what's drawing us to the Web. Access to information. Connection to
other people. Entrance into communities. The ability to broadcast ideas. None of
these are wrong perspectives. But they all come back to the promise of voice.
the first InternetWorld, the vendors were falling over one another offering software
and services that would let you "create your own home page in five minutes." Microsoft,
IBM, and a hundred smaller shops were all hawking the same goods. You could sit in
a booth and create your own home page faster than you can get your portrait sketched
on a San Francisco sidewalk.
While the create-a-home-page problem proved too easy
to solve to support a software industry, there was something canny about the commercial
focus on the creation of home pages. Since you could just as adequately view the
Web as a huge reference library, why did home pages seize our imaginations? Because
a home page is a place in which we can express who we are and let the world in. Meager
though it may be, a home page is a way of having a voice.
The Web's promise of
a voice has now gone far beyond that of home pages. The Web is viral. It infects
everything it touches — and, because it is an airborne virus, it infects some things
it doesn't touch. (This is another manifestation of the great longing we have for
the Web.) And the Web has become the new corporate infrastructure, in the form of
intranets, turning massive corporate hierarchical systems into collections of many
small pieces loosely joined.
To understand how the Web gives voice, we have to
be clear that the Web is not primarily a communications medium or information resource.
It is, above all else, a place.
All of our language and our experience bear this
out. We visit sites, we browse, we go to a page, we build home pages. Even as we're
cursing the slowness of the connection, we feel like we're being delayed in going
to some site far removed from us.
So the voice that the Web gives us is not the
ability to post pictures of our cat and our guesses at how the next episode of The
X Files will end. It is the granting of a place in which we can be who we are (and
even who we aren't if that's the voice we've chosen).
And it is a public place.
That is crucial. Having a voice doesn't mean being able to sing in the shower. It
means presenting oneself to others. The Web provides a place like we've never seen
The Web and everything the Web infects favor voices. In an economy of
attention, what's different wins. When you have 100 emails to read every day, the
ones you turn to first are and the ones you remember are the ones that have a distinctive
point of view and a distinctive manner of expression.
We may still have to behave
properly in committee meetings, but increasingly the real work of the corporation
is getting done by quirky individuals who meet on the Web, net the two-hour committee
meeting down to two lines (one of which is obscene and the other of which is wickedly
funny), and then — in a language and rhythm unique to them — move ahead faster than
the speed of management.
The memo is dead. Long live email. The corporate newsletter
is dead. Long live racks of 'zines from individuals who do not speak for the corporation.
Bland, safe relationships with customers are dead. Long live customer support reps
who are willing to get as pissed off at their own company as the angry customer is.
are so desperate to have our voices back that we are willing to leap into the void.
We embrace the Web not knowing what it is, but hoping that it will burn the org chart
— if not the organization — down to the ground. Released from the gray flannel handcuffs,
we say anything, curse like sailors, rhyme like bad poets, flame against our own
values, just for the pure delight of having a voice.
And when the thrill of hearing
ourselves speak again wears off, we will begin to build a new world.
That is what
the Web is for.
March 24, 1999
Permission is granted to reproduce/repost but
not for commercial purposes.
The author's name and a link to http://www.hyperorg.com
must be included.
If you're interested in these ideas, you might want to visit or http://www.hyperorg.com