The only thing that seems to be predictable, is unpredictability itself. Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States, a fact that will please some and displease others. Whatever our view of the results of the election, there are some fascinating underlying dynamics at play, dynamics which were first visible when Obama became president, and which have now clearly reached a tipping point. It’s not the social dissatisfaction which is changed: it’s the ways that we are connected and are able to tap into that energy which is different.
In the old world communication technology was slow, it took weeks for photographs or reels of film to work their way around the world. The earliest digital communication technology took us from the speed of horse to the speed of copper, but even that was limited, tied to physical infrastructure. As we move from the digital age into the Social Age we have seen a more fundamental transformation: we are awash with communication technology, we are connected in many spaces, and with this connection have come other changes.
Social collaborative technologies are inherently aggregating and amplifying: people can connect around ideas, they can shape and share those ideas, and in the amplification, and through the social filtering, a new space emerges. It’s largely in this virtual battleground that ideas have fought for supremacy: in the last round of elections we saw the formal system able to utilise social media to connect with the younger and disenfranchised community, at considerable scale. And now, with this election, the community has risen up and consumed its master.
Clinton derived her power from the formal system, whilst Trump derived his power in opposition to the system. In the old world formal systems controlled the communication technology and could amplify through volume alone, whilst in the Social Age, as is now abundantly clear, communities gain their amplification to the spread of individual stories and the unifying potential of social media. They do so outside any formal control, and the formal system can do little to prevent it: indeed, the rebellion is against the formal system itself.
There is an interesting dynamic tension at play: old models of power vying for supremacy with newer, emergent, unrestricted, dynamic, and highly adaptive forms of power. We have not even begun to feel the true effects of this yet. Currently, we are feeling the most obvious effects: highly synchronous amplification of messaging, the emergence of what may be a post fact economy, but what is, in all likelihood, simply a quest to discover new types of knowledge, leaving us in a middle space where validity has been abandoned, but so have facts. I suspect this space is transitory: whilst currently we rely on fact checking websites to try to impose some post event validity, in short order we will see the AI’s takeover in this space. Real-time, highly synchronous fact checking, and of course the provision of additional layers of context, which will revolutionise once more both the political and every other space.
Most likely we will also see the transformation of how democracies operate: if an organisation is able to poll its employees to see how happy they feel on Tuesday afternoon, and if Starbucks is able to award me points for buying a gingerbread latte, it’s only a matter of time before government connects in new and innovative ways with its population, and who knows, maybe it will seek to gamify the experience. Heaven help us all.
It is, incidentally, not a question of whether the system changes, but rather when. It is less a question of whether the system wants to change, but rather whether it will change before change is imposed upon it.
I suspect that both Clinton and Trump played aspects of this game well, but I doubt whether either fully conceives of where this change will take us. Trump will not have an easy ride: on the one hand the existing formal mechanisms of power will seek to control him, whilst on the other, the socially moderated forms of power will be emboldened and reject any notion of control. Too easily the saint will become the martyr, and I suspect it is days, not weeks, before he starts to feel this. As we collapse the waveform of potential down to the reality of action, we most likely progressively disenfranchise the outliers of our community, and the forces that swept Trump into power are the same forces that will ultimately sweep him out.
For me, the most interesting dynamic is not whether Trump or Clinton won this race, not simply which of them understood this game well, but rather to see what comes next in the evolution of the system itself. In the UK, Brexit demonstrated the same dynamics: a formal and established hierarchy of power upset by a crowd sourced form of power. Whether you agree with it or not, the point is that this is a new type of battle fought in a new type of space, by new rules.
We used to systems where those with money and power accumulate more money and power, and those with neither had limited options to claim them. In the Social Age, that situation is reversed. Anyone can claim a space, and anyone can build a form of reputational based authority, whether we personally agree with their reputation or not. The formal system cannot prevent or control this, and indeed, they may be perceived as the very problem.
It’s a brave new world for those who know how to play the game, but the real potential lies for those who understand that the rules of this game are ever-changing. If we want to start looking somewhere to understand the new rules, we could do worse than looking at the new types of power and understanding how they are changing everything.