Sunday, November 30, 2003

Enough with the Revolution, already

Technology companies love to talk about how revolutionary their products are. They can't have given much thought to how bloody and horrible revolutions are: just think about the French and Russian revolutions.

Since so many IT companies are US-based, this usage is probably inspired by the "American Revolution", which is revered in US history. It was more of a war of independence than a revolution, however. The sustained social turmoil and inter-necine violence that characterized the French and Russian revolutions was absent.

As Encarta defines it, a revolution is a forcible, pervasive, and often violent change of a social or political order by a sizable segment of a country's population. The "revolutions" IT-company CEOs love to tout, on the other hand, are presented as significant improvements in technology products; much is made about the profound beneficial impact this will have on society, though little evidence is given. Nothing is said about profound changes in power structures, though one assumes that they worry that their company will be one to be overthrown.

The past "revolutionary" technology changes that are cited include the introduction of the mini-computer and the PC. Funnily, though, the company which arguably had the most lose in these revolutions is still very much with us: IBM. The companies who disappeared (Amdahl, ICL, DEC, etc.) must've experienced these changes as "forcible and pervasive", and their shareholders must've experienced a violent change to their portfolios.

However, it's misleading to tout Moore's Law are revolutionary. It's impact on productivity may be profound, but the change has been adiabatic. What would be wrenching is a sudden change in the 60% annual growth rate that Moore's Law represents.

Artists as Exemplary Plebs

Ordinary people don't really care about Art or Artists, but yet, art continues to have broad support in the culture. Perhaps art's appeal is that it's supremely individualistic - the Lone Artist, who is known by his or her name, not that that of their company or clan. Perhaps the majority of people, be necessity at the base of the pyramid, take inspiration from the sight of others succeeding as individuals, as much as they take inspiration from the art work itself.

A distinguishing aspect of our Power Lab session was the flowering of art in the community of "Immigrants", the people at the bottom of the society. It was a key reason why a revolution was averted. What was not unusual, though, was that the creativity came from the Immigrants. It's a recurring feature of Power Labs, and organizations in general, that it's the people at the bottom who are the most creative, and have the most fun.

The "Bottoms" are also the most vulnerable, and as a result typically band together in a WE versus THEY response to the power of the Middles and the Tops. The greatest threat to Bottoms is their susceptibility to group think.

Artists have status not only because give pleasure through the things they make, but also because they represent the potential every Bottom has to succeed on their own terms in a power structure. Artists are stereotypical Bottoms: they are vulnerable and impoverished, they don't own resources (like Tops), and they don't control the flow of resources (like Middles). They inspire other Bottoms by their example of succeeding on their own terms, as individuals.

Artists respond to their predecessors and create autonomous traditions outside the dominant power structures based on wealth and organization. They act on their own - they have the autonomy of Tops without the responsibility of owning a power system. They serve the Tops (the patrons) and inspire the Bottoms (the consumers of experiences), without owing allegiance to either.

Even the power structures in the art world bear this out: The Tops are the patrons and politicians who fund the work. The Middles are the "arts professionals" who are the arbiters of taste and conduits of resources: museum curators, critics, gallery owners. As is typical of the organizational dynamic described by Barry Oshry, inventor of the Power Lab, artists despise the Tops ("Epater les Bourgeois!") and feel exploited by the middles (ever heard artists whining about the percentage their gallery takes?).

All celebrity functions as inspiration and touch stone: it's an example to be emulated and dreamt about. However, the very poverty of artists (celebrities excepted) allows them to be closer model for the much-put-upon Bottom.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

I've just come back from a week in an immersion training course: the "Power Lab". It's a social simulation where participants live out the roles of being at the top, middle and bottom of a society. It was held up in the mountains - it was cold! Each society works out differently; ours managed to avoid a revolution through art. Some haiku came of it:

piebald mountain egg
feldspar and mica and quartz
a granite pebble

lime green lichen
tendrils of symbiosis
algae and fungus

food, bed, deception
something blossomed in the frost
no cowabunga