In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell Explains the Inability of Disorganized Systems to Effect "Design"
An email correspondent brings to my attention a delightful article from The New Yorker that Malcolm Gladwell wrote a couple of years ago. Gladwell's subject is the way people have wildly overestimated the power of social media to bring about significant change. Remember all the hubbub, from journalists in the West like Andrew Sullivan, about how Twitter was responsible for fueling revolutionary fervor in Iran and Moldova? Gladwell delights me because he confirms my longstanding skepticism of such "outsized enthusiasm" for computer-related novelties.
A friend who was reading his first book on a Kindle was rhapsodizing to me the other day about how for sure this was going to be the end of books on paper. I told him, Don't hold your breath on that one.
Why do I bring this up here? Because Gladwell's fine reporting also tends to confirm a point that Darwin doubters will find familiar. He analyzes activism like that of the Civil Rights movement, that effects revolutionary change, and shows how it depends, among things, on a hierarchical organization, a top-down vision of the kind that social networks by definition lack:
Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. 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.Networks do some things well, other not so well.
There are many things...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?Emphasis added. Designing complex artifacts (e.g., a car) is a task for which leaderless networks are particularly poorly suited. "No one believes" otherwise, writes Gladwell. No one believes such a thing, I would add, other than advocates of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwinism is an idea predicated on the creative power of a process (evolution) entirely without "leadership" or "goals," without purpose or guidance, fueled precisely by "conflict and error."
If the network model is so bad at "design" in the human realm, why expect it to be any better in the realm of evolutionary history? Darwinism is a notion, like the current rhapsodic excitement for social networking, that is due in the end to be corrected and tempered by reality.