[permaculture] hierarchies and networks

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Sun Oct 31 17:54:09 EDT 2010

One subject we touched on in the recent certification thread was new and old tools for change, and the difference between hierarchical and decentralized organizations and tools. I'd said that I once had high hopes for decentralized leadership tools, like consensus, but was disappointed by how rarely they live up to their promise. I've been skeptical of the value of these and similar methods to actually produce change, and have found the older tools--strong leadership, old-style voting--at least as effective (though I still prefer inclusive versions of these tools to exclusive).

I was catching up on a stack of New Yorker magazines this morning, and in the Oct 4 issue there's an article that fits right in to this conversation, "Small Change" by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is known for his book "The Tipping Point" and in general being a whole systems thinker. He's made the points I would have liked to have made. I was intrigued that he feels network tools aren't good for doing design, and that they are better at preserving the status quo than changing it. So here's a quote from the article. 

"Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. . . .

"There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

"The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a network, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms—made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.”

"In Germany in the nineteen-seventies, they go on, “the far more unified and successful left-wing terrorists tended to organize hierarchically, with professional management and clear divisions of labor."  . . . They seldom betrayed their comrades in arms during police interrogations. Their counterparts on the right were organized as decentralized networks, and had no such discipline. These groups were regularly infiltrated, and members, once arrested, easily gave up their comrades. Similarly, Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective.

"The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy . . . .

"But [network-based activism] is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating [Gladwell mentioned civil rights activists] it ought to give you pause."

The full article is at 


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