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Age of Information
David Weinberger Ph.D.
Harvard Berkman Center
Self @ evident . com
The information age has been formative of our basic idea of who we are as individuals and
together. Now that it!s drawing to a close, it!s a good time to look at what leadership has meant
and is coming to mean,
The End of Information?
Not the end of information
After the stone age, stones didn!t go away, and neither will information. But the way info has
affected our view of the world will change.
But for years, we!ve been going down the stack of signiﬁcance, getting really good at
managing information and bits.
Info reduces what we know so it!s manageable. And it standardizes it so it can be machine
Bicyclist Last name
Loves ID number
Teaches Start date
We!ve all known this. The person in the next cubicle is unique. But In the informational view of
the world, what we know about someone we work with is pared down to what the database is
prepared to accept. There!s great utility in this, of course, but the Info Age has required us to
throw out most info.
In the age of the Web, this person looks like this. At her page at her social networking site
there!s not only more information about her, but, more important, it!s all linked. Without plan or
coordination. And each link adds to what we know. This is a much richer view than we got
during the age of information.
Hyperlinks are the opposite of information. Increasing, contextualizing, uncontrolled.
We had been going down the stack. Now we!re going up.
The result of this architecture of links is abundance. Abundance of good and of crap. If an
abundance of crap is worrying, the abundance of good is terrifying. The abundance of the
good -- good ideas, good info, good people willing to pitch in -- challenges our traditional ideas
In part this is because leadership has been all about scarcity.
Leaders are themselves scarce -- Jack Welch (ex CEO of GE) is one in a million, or so. Most
people are followers, by deﬁnition.
Although leaders are at the top of the informational pyramid, with access to every
scrap of intelligence in the organization...
They!re overwhelmed with information, of course. They think they process information the way
computers do and come to decisions the way computers do. But they -- and we -- give too
much credit to the role information plays in decisions. We give too much credit to information.
We!ve come to accept the computer model of making decisions, which says GIGO, garbage
in, garbage out. Good information leads to good decisions. That!s true enough for computers,
but leads to a sense that good information causes good decisions. In fact...
...making a decision means deciding which inputs to accept. In making the decision, you
decide to accept this report as valid, but not that, this piece of legal advice as worthwhile and
not that. Good info doesn!t cause good decisions. Making a good decision is the process of
deciding which info is good, so good information cannot cause good decisions. The causality
of information-based systems, that is, of computers gets it backwards when it comes to how
humans make decisions.
The ﬁnal scarcity of leadership is the scarcity of other people. In English, the cliche is that it!s
lonely at the top. And that!s true because of the way we!ve structured leadership. We try to
make this into an heroic thing, but it!s really just a structural ﬂaw.
The real question is why we drop leaders down the long dark tunnel of isolation, by
themselves: One person to master the complexity of the world. How lonely!
Leadership in the
Age of Abundance
What happens to leadership when we embrace the abundance we!ve created for ourselves?
Decides Has Vision &
Here are some of the characteristics of a traditional leader. A single person is supposed to do
all this. I!m often amazed when I meet CEOs at the range of stuff they!re expected to do, from
product visionary to ﬁnancial wizard, and many of them do it amazingly well. But it!s a lot to
It!s different when you don!t start with a leadership structure based on scarcity. For example,
the Open Source movement disaggregates the skills of the traditional leader and spreads
them across the network -- one person is the coordinator, a bunch may be visionaries, another
may be the communicator. It would be insane to think that one person could do all of that, now
that a crowd can do it.
Decision-making is a
failure of leadership
In such an environment, decisions only reach the top when the community can!t resolve an
issue. So, Jack Welch prides himself on being The Decider. He makes a decision and it rolls
down through the pyramid. But, if a decision reaches Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, it probably
means the process has failed. The community is too evenly divided. And that means that The
Decider is really more like the coin tosser.
Strategies impose scarcity
on the future
Strategy -- another traditional role of the leader -- actually imposes scarcity on the future. Our
futures are abundant. That!s the difference between the future and the past. We only have one
past (This email is the extent of Linus Torvald!s “strategy” when he started Linux
development.) As we!ve learned, on the Internet, ﬂexibility and responsiveness is often a far
better strategy than having a strategy.
Traditional leaders pride themselves on being realistic. But how far would realism have gotten
us with wikipedia, linux, or the Web itself. Realism is over-rated.
Leadership is a
property of the
When it comes to decision making, disaggregation of roles, and emergent strategy, it!s no
surprise that leadership in a networked world is itself a property of the network.
Let!s look at the effect of this on governance
The irony is, of course, that now we in the US have a strong, decisive leader of the traditional
sort. But one of his strengths is his reliance on the network.
You can see this at the campaign site, my.barackobama.com, which used social network tools
to let supporters connect with one another and with the campaign.
The day after the election, the Obama team had already created a public site for the transition.
It!s not a great site, but it!s getting better...which is already a sign of the Obama team!s comfort
with how the Web works: Put it up and then make it better. It encourages us from the
beginning to connect.
So let!s say Obama wants to set up a social network. (Let me stress that I am totally making
this up. I have no insight into what the Obama admin will do.) The issue is scaling
conversation. There are lots of ways of doing this. It!s an issue faced by every large site. But
because this is a social networking site for citizens, we want people not just to talk, but to
enable those conversations to move up toward our governmental leaders. So, since I!m just
making this up, let!s say they use a model that combines Facebook with DailyKos, which have
mechanisms for surfacing interesting conversations.
So, you have millions of small conversations and some mechanisms for making the more
interesting ones more public. And you hope that the appropriate government ofﬁcials will
notice and engage.
As a conversation becomes more public and noticed, it might be that spokespeople emerge.
Let!s say PolarSky253 emerges as the spokesperson for a discussion of global warming.
PolarSky has therefore become quite important, because she!s representing the conversation
to the person from the administration who is listening in. What we have here is new layer of
democracy. She hasn!t been elected. It!s Reputational Democracy, as Simon Willis has called
it. (Of course it will turn out that PolarSky is a 15 year old girl somewhere.) Also notice how
sensitive this is to small changes in the software. A switch from a star rating system to a
thumbs up system could change who becomes the spokesperson and the qualities of those
people. This puts democracy in the hands of software engineers … but if done correctly, it will
be sensitive to our needs. That!s what it means to say that leadership is a property of the
What will leadership be?
We!re still going to have leaders...
Money generational change
What will leadership be? There’s no way to tell. Many forces are at play. It’s not simply
a matter of inventing something new because this is occurring in a real world with
lots of interests, some of them deeply entrenched. Ultimately, it is a political question
-- the political question -- that can only be resolved by living through and
struggling. But ultimately,...
The old style of leadership needs to be toppled from its mythic position. There are
great leaders. But they are no longer the only leaders we need. We need leadership to
take on the best properties of the network, becoming more about connection, more
human and more comfortable with our inevitable human limitations.
Because, ultimately, the light at the end of the tunnel is us. Or, as Obama says, we are the
ones we!ve been waiting for. Us, putting ourselves together. Overﬂowing every obstacle to
connection. Alilve in abundance without end, the abundance that is each of us. In other words,
we now need fewer old leaders, and more love.
Blog: www . JohoTheBlog . Com
Email: self@evident . com