Yesterday, I wrote this sincerely-felt hagiography of the Kindle where I suggested that it uses digital technologies to reverse - perhaps even defeat – the negative aspects of hypertext technologies. I also concluded that it did so in a productive and constructive way. I received quite a bit of feedback for this piece and around four hundred page impressions in a couple of hours.
Two pieces of feedback I received struck me in particular. One – offline – suggested, mischievously more than anything else, that author-led artistic endeavour was likely to be fascist in nature. The other – online – made what I imagine was a similar point, but in a much more frank and direct manner:
@eiohel re: http://bit.ly/kBztnO I read the phrase “benevolent hierarchy”, and I reach for my gun.
This got me thinking – because I don’t see myself as a fascist. I have to say, up until very recently, I considered myself a total fan of philosophies of flat hierarchies, non-pyramidal politics and self-organising teams. But several things which I’ve stumbled across in the past few weeks have begun to change my mind.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia and moved to America in 1928 and worked for Cecil B. DeMille, where she got some of the plot for what became The Fountainhead from this period. Later she moved to New York, and set up a reading group called The Collective where they considered her work. On advice from a friend, Greenspan (then a logical positivist) joined The Collective.
When published, although critically savaged, Rand’s Objectivist ideas were popular and came to heavily infiltrate California, particularly Silicon Valley. The computer utopian belief (Californian Ideology) that computer networks could measure, control and self-stabilise societies, without hierarchical political control, and that people could become ‘Randian heroes’, only working for their own happiness, became more widespread.
The episode goes on to explain that:
Greenspan entered government in the 70s, and became Chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1992 he visited the newly elected Bill Clinton. He persuaded him to let the markets grow, cut taxes, and to let the markets stabilise themselves with computer technology, to create the New Economy. This involved using computer models to predict risks and hedge against them, in accordance with the Californian Ideology. However, by 1996, the production figures had failed to increase, but profits were nevertheless increasing; and Greenspan suggested that it wasn’t working. After political attacks from all side, Greenspan changed his mind and decided that perhaps the New Economy was real, but that it couldn’t be measured using normal economic measures, and so the apparent boom continued.
Before finally concluding that:
Curtis ends the piece by pointing out that not only had the idea of market stability failed to be borne out in practice, but that the Californian Ideology had also been unable to stabilise it; indeed the ideology has not led to people being Randian heroes but in fact trapped them into a rigid system of control from which they are unable to escape.
The moral of the story runs as follows: just because something works with machines doesn’t mean it’ll also work in nature.
Secondly, I fairly devoured this e-book on my new Kindle, which seemed to describe a world pretty similar to the one I am on the point of leaving – in everything, that is, except its absence of dysfunctional behaviours. Those of you who are regular readers of these pages will appreciate how I generally feel about large corporations – essentially, I suppose, because my experience of them has been frustrating. I’m a creative kind of person – and the corporation I’ve worked for is anything but.
Or, at least, that bit I’ve worked for. I can’t speak for the rest.
Anyhow. The book I mention contains a number of pithy truths – and whilst I would still prefer to organise my workplace in a completely different way, I can see the virtues of what – yesterday – I blithely termed a “benevolent hierarchy”.
I do appreciate how some of you might feel this was an oxymoron we should not contemplate. But in the light of the recent economic crises and other circumstances which will surely be visited upon us all in the not-too-distant-future, a degree of structure is surely not a bad thing. Just because some abuse a system doesn’t mean we have to disregard its potential virtues altogether.
In any case, the hierarchy between narrator and reader/listener has never been absolutely solid. As I pointed out in one offline conversation this morning which touched on this very issue:
Author-led, not author-dictated. The process of narration involves readers/listeners who bring their own stuff to content. I won’t understand a novel in the same way you do. There has always been give and take in even the most author-led art. Authors provide the frame: readers/listeners then complete the job – but not in a predictable way.
All I hope I was trying to say is that hierarchy can be a useful tool – when we attempt and manage to resist the temptation to make it an all-consuming end. And as one of my favourite quotations goes:
Exactly as it should be.