Message: 52
Date: 10.1.97
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

On Digital Growth and Form

Being digital has three physiological effects on the shape of our world. It decentralizes, it flattens, and it makes things bigger and smaller at the same time. Because bits have no size, shape, or color, we tend not to consider them in any morphological sense. But just as elevators have changed the shape of buildings and cars have changed the shape of cities, bits will change the shape of organizations, be they companies, nations, or social structures.

We understand, for example, that doubling the length of a fish multiplies its weight no less than eight times. We know that suspension cables break after a certain length because they cannot support their own weight. We are almost clueless, however, about the fractal nature of the digital world and how it will change the shape of our environment. Yet the effect will be no less substantial than if we changed the force of gravity.

Cyberspace is not a tree
The most astonishing part of the Net is that nobody is in charge. Everybody knows this, but nobody really wants to believe it. The buck must stop somewhere. Surely somebody is in control. After all, football teams have captains, and orchestras have conductors. In fact, we take for granted some form of authority, some hierarchy, in almost everything. In childhood it comes from parents and teachers. In adult life it comes from bosses and government. While we may not always be pleased with where we stand in that hierarchy, at least we understand it.

But sometimes the mere presence of a police car can cause traffic jams. The Net - a reliable system composed of loosely connected and imperfect parts that work because nobody is in control - shakes up all our centralist notions, and hierarchy goes away by example.

Cyberspace is a lattice. If a part doesn't work, you go around it. The look and feel is suddenly much more biological, taking its character more from flora and fauna than from the unnaturally straight-line geometry in artifacts of human design. Picture the loose-V formation of ducks flying south.

But ducks don't run banks
Yes, many pieces of our world - work and play - do have a centralism to them. Hierarchy has its place. But even the most conservative centralist will agree that organizations have flattened, with considerably fewer levels between top and bottom. Mitsubishi Trading Company, for example, summarily removed an entire level of middle managers, and other firms are doing the same. In part this is due to a competitive market economy that demands streamlining. But in greater part it is because modern communications allow people to deal with more than seven others (plus or minus one).

Add current-day management doctrine and you get even thinner social forms. Leaders distinguish themselves by what they do, not by where they sit - something which many politicians and industrialists have yet to note. The computer industry learned this with open systems, where competing with imagination proves far more profitable than doing so with locks and keys.

A libertarian view of the world adds flatness to decentralism and concludes that large organizations, like the nation-state, are doomed. This is only half true. Instead I would liken the digital world to indigenous architecture, where local and global forces make for individualism and harmony at the same time. Each house on a Greek island is totally its own design, reflecting the ad hoc needs of various individuals over time. But common use of local materials - building in stone and applying whitewash to reflect the heat - results in a collective order. As soon as you use steel and air-conditioning, however, the only way to protect that harmony is to legislate it, relying on zoning laws to do what nature did before.

Bigger and smaller at the same time
My gripe with the nation-state is that it is just the wrong size - it does not mesh with the digital form of the future. Most nations are too big to be local, and all nations are too small to be global. What the Net is doing is forcing all of us into a body of law we do so badly - international law. Law of the sea, nonproliferation treaties, and trade agreements take forever to negotiate and are hard to maintain because nobody's primary self-interest is that of the world as a whole.

As soon as there is a means and mind-set to be global, governance should be pushed down into the village and up onto the planet. We see this happening to a limited extent if we look simultaneously at the business and political worlds. Economic forces are pushing toward a regionalization of commerce, and political forces are tending toward the breakup of nations. Bigger and smaller.

Businesses will do the same. Companies like Time Inc., News Corp., and Bertelsmann keep getting bigger and bigger. People worry about control of the world's media being concentrated in so few hands. But those who are concerned forget that, at the same time, there are more and more mom-and-pop information services doing just fine, thank you very much.

The value of being big is twofold: size affords organizations the ability to deal with worldwide physical space and the ability to lose lots of money in order to make a lot more. The value of being small needs no explanation.

At this point in history, it is hard to imagine that our highly structured and centralist world will morph into a planetful of loosely connected physical and digital communities. But it will. For this reason, more and more attention needs to be paid to just how and how well we can coordinate this new mass individualization. It is, for example, easy to see who will build the road in my village. It is considerably harder to see who will connect our villages, especially if some have less wealth or control than others. It is also hard to see how we will agree on various standards. Think of it - we live in a world where we cannot even agree on which side of the road to drive.

Next Issue: New Standards for Standards

[Back to the Index of WIRED Articles | Back to Nicholas Negroponte's Home Page | Back to Media Lab Home Page]
[Previous | Next]

[Copyright 1997, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 5.10, October 1997.]