Our experience is one of two systems: ‘formal’ systems, of technology, visible organisation, and formal power, and ‘social’ systems, systems of reputation, relationships, and trust, the two systems superimposed, one upon the other. The formal system is the visible one, a system of contracts, technologies, communication media, formal rules, hierarchies of power, and formal sanction, whilst the social system is less visible, although somehow more ‘real’ in the immediacy of it’s impact upon us. We ‘feel’ the pressure of the social system implicitly, through the behaviours and responses of others, whilst the formal system tends to impinge upon us when we hit hard boundaries, when we break rules, or when new frameworks are imposed upon us.
The formal system is rules based, dominated by formal power structures, whilst the social system is moral and ethical, bonded by notions of ‘fairness’, ‘right’, ‘truth’, and ‘trust’, all subjective terms, and all subject to the clustering effects of tribal forces and confirmation bias.
I’m thinking about this in terms of how formal systems are able to adapt, to thrive, or simply to survive, in times of unprecedented change. As with any systemic approach, we move to complexity fast, but i think there are broad principles to consider: new technologies, new social movements, new politics, all these things impact on the formal system, and we can adapt that accordingly, but they also impact on social systems, and the ways that those systems adapt is less clear, and less controlled. Or, more specifically, less controlled by the existing formal power.
Take something like banking: historically, banks were mechanisms of formal power, their power held in physical infrastructure, literally in the strength of their vaults, and the bars on the tellers counter, you were physically separated from the money. We invested not just money, but trust, within the banking system. Compare that to today: today, i am interested in whether my pension fund invests in GM foods, or ethically dubious economies. I am interested not simply in the functional utility of security, but the moral aspect of it too. I want fair investments. Similarly, i want access: not between the hours of nine and five, but around the clock, and from my ipad.
We can read this shift in a number of ways: it’s the technology that has shifted me away from the old model, where i had to travel to the bank, and pay by paper cheques, through to the new model, where my money is held digitally, and i can carry the ‘bank’ on my phone, but with that shift, the walls have come tumbling down.
We see this as a ground level effect of the Social Age: old models of business, of structure, of control, are challenged, subverted, and eroded, by newer models, typically more distributed, democratised, adaptive, and fluid, and, crucially, indicative of new types of power and less direct control.
To me, these are systemic changes, change that will impact not simply banking, but the nature of nations themselves, notions of identity (national vs tribal, and all more fluid and contextual), notions of healthcare (away from a model of ‘emergency and exception’, to one of ‘constant companion’), even notions of ownership (shared services vs ownership), and certainly of privacy.
I’m interested in this, because both systems are in flux: the formal systems represents the codified power at play behind an outdated understanding of power and control: the ways we live, in cities and towns, is less relevant in a world of super fast internet connection and distributed online community, the ways we organise production, distribution, retail, consumption, all are in flux. Even the nature of conflict is changing: nations that maintain fleets of ships and armies of tanks find themselves confronted by cyber threats and insurgency that their physical might may hold small sway against.
The narrative is clear: formal systems emerge to organise and operate within known structures and spaces. They represent known power structures, and known ways of working.
Social systems evolve around these: both shaping and subverting them, but ultimately, finding ways to coexist.
But neither of these systems is fixed, and that’s the key point: the challenge we face is not the emergence of an empowered social system, in large part, the challenge we face is the increasing redundancy of our formal systems. The movement of the social system is simply a reaction to that.
Technology has enabled social change: social change has eroded the known, formal, structure (Amazon, eBay, AirBnB, drones, PayPal, Trump, and Brexit, AI, Robots, Blue Origin, Steve Jobs, and Pirate Bay, none of these are the problem or the solution: they are all signs of emergent spaces and new niches in a diversifying ecosystem).
We are not at a solution point: we are at a transition point. The walls come tumbling down, and existing social systems are shaken, formal systems eroded. The question is not ‘how do we stop it’, the question is ‘how do we learn to change’.
Our ethical stance, our notions of privacy, our understanding of ‘ownership’, our sense of nationhood, our view of religion, our understanding of trust, our belief in technological utopias or dystopias, all of this will evolve.
My contention is that we need a new breed of explorer, and a new type of organisation to exist within. We need Social Leaders, with a humility to learn, and reputation that allows them to lead, and we need organisations that are adapted, with a strength rooted in individual agency, not simply in physical infrastructure and formal control.
The Social Age is a time of transformation: the only question is whether we are ready to face that challenge, or if we will expend our efforts in denying it.