Commentary

The Mother of All Disruption

Once again fellow Online Spin writer Tom Goodwin has piqued my interest. He starts to unwrap a tremendously thorny problem in his column of last Thursday, “Time to Think about Regulation for Disruption.”Today, I’d like to take this question up one level: Do we have to rethink government entirely?

Government is almost entirely a reactionary business. Even far-sighted, historic documents such as the Constitution of the United States and the Magna Carta were reactions to the untenable circumstances that preceded them.  And these are the exceptions, since the vast majority of governing involves an excruciatingly slow process that attempts to respond to emerging breaches in the unspoken code of fairness that our society tries to live by.  Realistically, from the time the need for a new law is recognized to the time a bill is passed, months or even years can pass.

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Months or years were, practically speaking, adequate in the world we once knew. But today, that is no longer the case. In that time, complex ecosystems can establish around the breach in question — and, as Tom points out, entire industries may have been decimated in the process. This is the reality of disruption.

In a world that seeks order and governance, this is a bad thing. But, now that we have unleashed the technological Kraken, is this a world we can reasonably expect? Slowly but surely, we are dismantling every aspect of our hierarchal society and replacing it with a horizontal network. Hierarchies can’t work horizontally. Something has to give.

Disruptions are a characteristic of networked structures. In order for networks to work, each component of that network has to be given the freedom to act. If the action of an individual resonates with other parts of the network, the actions are picked up and amplified. Each individual act has the potential to become a disruption – with corresponding consequences.  Everything becomes accelerated in a network.

Government is built on the ideological foundation of a hierarchy. The word “government” means “to steer.” The assumption is that our society is capable of being steered. This, in turn, assumes that our society all wants to go in the same direction. But if we enforce these restrictions on a network, networks cease to work. Yes, we quell the negative disruptions, but we also eliminate the positive ones.

The United States of America is one of the least restrictive societies on the planet. The founding fathers drafted their articles to enshrine that freedom. You (as a Canadian, I have to say “you”) have managed to balance the practical necessities of government with the lack of restrictions typical of a market economy. Markets naturally emerge from networks. Because the U.S. treasures freedom and innovation, it was inevitable that it would emerge as the testing ground for the impacts of technological advances.  You are the canary in the coal mine of massive disruption.

Tom urges lawmakers to become more proactive. But historically speaking, that’s just not the way government works. It’s like riding a cow in the Kentucky Derby and wondering why you can’t keep up.  I just don’t think that our current hierarchal system of government is up to the job. It’s a great system, with a ton of democratic checks and balances, but it was developed for a different era – one built along vertical lines.

The final issue is one of enforcement. Even if laws are passed to deal with emerging disruptions, it’s becoming almost impossible to enforce them. If lawmakers are scrambling to keep up with society, law enforcers have capitulated entirely. We can’t even afford to enforce the laws we already have on the books.

So, if this is the problem, what is the answer?  I think, perhaps, it lies in the very same properties of networks. Government and laws became necessary to avoid abuses of power. Power comes from hierarchies. As societies level out the old dictates of fairness become increasingly relevant.  We all have universal concepts of fairness. Abuses of what we consider to be fair are generally dealt with quickly and effectively at the network level. Networks tend to police themselves, as long as there is a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. In short, we have to think of regulation in terms of market and network dynamics, not hierarchal governance.

I admit this is tough to wrap your head around. In a world of disruptions, this is the Mother of all Disruption. But symptomatically speaking, it appears that our historic notion of government is ailing. As frightening as it may be to contemplate, we should start thinking about what may replace it.

5 comments about "The Mother of All Disruption".
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  1. John Donohue` from White Tree Software, May 12, 2015 at 12:59 p.m.

    How about this as a solution:
    Make everything illegal.
    This puts government ahead of the curve, as it must approve any variance. This solves your issue of government reacting too slowly.

    In other words, switch from "a citizen can do anything it wishes to do, as long as he/she does not infringe on others" to "citizens are not permitted to do anything, unless properly cleared by government with a written variance to do it."

  2. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, May 12, 2015 at 1:10 p.m.

    Sure..that's one approach

  3. Michelle Cubas from Positive Potentials LLC, May 12, 2015 at 2:02 p.m.

    Gord, you must be channeling my thoughts. I often think about why government is compared to a business. Interestingly, business people are not elected as president. Wearing my business coaching "hat", here are some thoughts stirred by your article:


    • Why do people want to run government like a business. They are totally different.



    • There is no target market because of diversity, which we encourage as a culture.



    •  Let’s hope the Ship of State isn’t named Titanic! Too big to fail comes to mind. Hubris, terrible communications, and misperceptions based on atmospheric conditions and limited technology sank the Titanic. Sounds like many contemporary situations where mismanagement was rewarded with bail outs. Try doing that in court.



    •  “Rugged American individualism” is touted as a value. That concept doesn’t support teamwork if everyone is going in their own direction. Managing a committee can look like herding cats. Culturally, we must adjust this to live in a global economy and society. Remember when President Bush declined help from the Dutch during hurricane Katrina, although the Dutch had hundreds of years of experience dealing with flooding and dams. It’s not a weakness to ask for help!



    • My observation is that American culture encourages seat-of-the-pants solutions rather than planning—we’re impatient, happy in the short-term—Good if one is an entrepreneur, bad for mapping a direction or long-term solution.



    • Part of innovative thinking encourages chasing "bright shiny objects." Often, focusing would better serve a situation.



    • Being proactive requires a full understanding of a situation and taking action—people don’t buy prevention, they buy relief! (Excedrin headache #35 ;-)



    • Not long ago, (1990’s) command-and-control went out of management style. We have matrices now, so hierarchical thinking does not function well in a web-like format—In fact, the Internet changed everything! Secrets are harder to keep which gave the "rulers" power like North Korea. American old timers still want to follow a linear path, but the newcomers have a more open mind about issues. 



    • Bottom line is about power. Shared power is an ideal, not a reality. See how many companies serve up shared leadership! Change comes slowly, and, in a way, that’s a good thing to combat reactive repercussions; yet, ideas like equal pay for women is still in the hands of the power brokers. Why?


    Thanks for allowing me to vent my thoughts. MC

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, May 12, 2015 at 6:57 p.m.

    Michelle - Thoroughly agree with your comments on running government like business. Mostly, too, I find it's mis-direction used to really say "I have a lot of money and want you to do exactly what I say." I'm involved with education issues quite a bit. 
    Interestingly, the business driven reform movement makes huge business mistakes - like refusing to look at the cost of its recommendations (as if government had infinite funding). I want to tell THEM to start looking at things like a business. :-)
    But fundamenatlly:  You are thorougly right. Government is not a business and should not be run like a business. It should be run smartly and pragmatically. But many business thoughts just don't apply.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 12, 2015 at 7:03 p.m.

    Thank you, Michelle. We are on an oligarchic path as each of us are "begging to be controlled" by the most powerful and most owning our information, reading our faces, determining our emotions and then making the needle move they way they want it to. Whatever they haven't accomplished yet, it is only a matter of time, a short time. Security means ? We only think we have control by keeping the plebs busy.

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