Knowledge and Power in a Skeptical, Connected World

March 18, 2011

Who do we listen to, and why? In an age when we can find anything information quickly, what does it take to be a voice that rises above many others? What kind of power does this represent?

I read in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review that in 2011 companies are anticipating an increased focus not just on broadly saturating target markets with facebook ads and silly “viral” videos, but on targeting “influencers” as part of their “social media” strategies. These individuals are those who shape culture and get other people on board with new trends and ways of thinking. Oprah is an influencer. Radiohead are influencers. Steve Jobs is an influencer. And a lot of random bloggers, tweeters, and other social media characters whom you’ve never heard of are influencers, and they are going to be targets of corporations because they are both cheaper and perceived (perhaps) as more authentic shills than their more famous counterparts.

You can be sure that by the time something gets annotated up to the level of an HBR trend to watch, it has already set the Internet abuzz. Further research on “measuring influence” yielded far more twenty-first-century social media examples than any others. It seems that organizations have (finally!) learned that a “social media strategy” on its own is of little benefit without real, grassroots endorsement. However, I’m more interested in what “influence” looked like in the past, before it morphed into a social media concept to be made into the next corporate buzzword, and what characteristics have stayed with perceived “influencers” since.

It seems it is a tricky thing to quantify, or even define. An article I discovered about the role of influence in economic history discusses how it is closely related to communication, but can range from impression to force in the amount of strength it implies. The other critical factors in determining long-term influence were time and space. The example given was Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas were central to much medieval thought (throughout the Latin-speaking world, at least), but are relatively inconsequential today.

Influence and Power – and Money

Influence, as the article points out, is closely related to power. One of the concepts that has stayed with me since learning it in an Organizational Behaviour class years ago is that of differences in the kinds of power wielded by individuals. They can have positional power, power stemming from one’s role as, say, a manager or a parent or some other official and likely formalized figure of authority, or they can have personal power, that stemming from an individual’s character or beliefs, and likely more informal in nature. The difference between them parallels that of practical/mental authority vs. emotional authority, and the general consensus is that emotional authority goes much further in influencing others because it does not rely on a (potentially temporary) and wholly external power differential the way practical authority does.

When I consider what influence looked like in the past, it seems there was little distinction between the two types of power mentioned above. Perhaps the theory I just articulated is a fall-out from our comparatively recent fixation on merit over birth status as a rationale for power. Indeed, the ideas (and names associated with them) that have survived best throughout history to influence many others have always been backed by great financial power. Take religion, for example, which has been perpetuated by wealthy organizations that held positional power in their communities. The familiar expression about history having been written by the victors speaks to the tendency of dominant individuals, families or states to justify their authority with historical precedent. And most of the theories in every field that are still with us today were dreamed up by men with solid financial backing and the ability to spend large amounts of time reading and philosophizing. (Even Marx lived off the generosity of his bourgeois co-author, after all.)

But today that is changing — to an extent. YouTube, twitter and other media that celebrate memes and all things viral can make ordinary people famous astonishingly quickly. Such fame is often fleeting and of dubious value to society, but savvier types can sometimes parry their sudden name recognition into the more lasting sort or influence (Justin Bieber, anyone?). This can happen because influence is magnetic and self-perpetuating. Mommy bloggers who are already widely read and respected are natural candidates to push band-name diaper bags or whatever else new mothers supposedly need and want. That corporations want to latch onto such people is hardly surprising – they are merging their corporate power with bloggers’ influence in new markets, and the bloggers want to in turn increase their own profile through association (or maybe just get free products).

Self-perpetuating influence applies to companies as well. The new techie term for this concept is “network effects” – as the Economist defined it recently, “the more users [services like facebook, eBay, etc.] have, the more valuable they become, thus attracting even more users.” Whereas in the past money and power begat more of the same, today we can add hits and click-throughs to the mix.

Knowledge Brokering from Darwin to Wikipedia

The common link between these people and corporations is the way they treat knowledge. They are what the corporate world now refers to as “knowledge brokers,” a title that refers to the ability to clarify and share information with different audiences or spheres, and determine what the common elements are between, say, Paul Revere, corporate marketing, and the AIDS epidemic. Knowledge brokering (and a bit of luck) is what separates widely-read bloggers from those who write solely for themselves (whether they want to or not). It is the ability to write things that people find interesting and useful. The CIA is investing heavily in such people after a serious of incidents that demonstrated how segregated and impotent their different bodies of knowledge were.

Knowledge brokering is more than simply aggregating (though smart aggregators of information are helpful too). It is the ability to analyze and draw connections while becoming a trusted conduit of information. Knowledge brokers are perhaps an antidote to the pervasive and growing tendency to overspecialize, because they connect many specialists and their ideas with a broad audience. They are the reason we know about Darwin’s ideas. Or Jesus. Or celebrities’ latest faux-pas. Wikipedia is one giant knowledge broker that has an army of largely volunteer knowledge brokers in their own right mobilized on its behalf. That is power.

But what makes us listen to them? I suspect the key is authenticity. A lingering distaste and a keen sense for corporate marketing disguised as something else define our era. Perhaps the main difference between influencers from the past and those of today lies in the type of power they wield, as I outlined above. Personal power – like that wielded by bloggers and Oprah – is seen as more trustworthy because it lacks an agenda (whether or not this is true). Positional power is usually distrusted simply because of what it is. We only listen to Steve Jobs because we truly believe he has our best interests – in being cool and technologically savvy, regardless of the product – at heart. In contrast, many Americans discount everything Obama says because they believe he merely wants to increase his own power and unveil his secret socialist agenda on an unwilling populace.

Is this a reflection of our philosophical allegiance to free-market democracy? Is influence and power of all kinds just the ability to get people to like and trust you? If so, many corporations are going to need a lot more than “influencers” on their side.

Food for thought: How do those with positional power gain credibility? Is this knee-jerk anti-authoritarian mindset in society as prevalent as I say it is? Do people who seek to perpetuate their influence by getting behind corporations somehow weaken their own authority (i.e. do they lose their ‘cred’)? Hm.

MARGINALIA: Though I did not explicitly link to it in this post, the Economist’s Intelligent Life ran a fascinating piece recently on The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a group of four Victorian scientists who were definitely knowledge brokers (and nifty polymaths) and who were key influencers in their time. I’d recommend reading it.


It Takes a Village: Why Not Outsource Childcare?

March 14, 2011

The 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day last week got me thinking about how glad I am not to be Betty Draper. Yet despite our advances, the promise of happier people – which of course includes happier families – has not borne out. The feminist movement has made great strides toward equality, but often at the expense of children, many of whom now grow up in an environment with no parents at home. We could debate at length why so many families feel the need to have two working parents (is it that corporations no longer pay a “family wage”? or have standards changed and now families believe they need more things, bigger houses, etc.?), but it would not alter the fact that most families have not substituted a father working all the time – and a mother at home – with two parents alternating working half the time. Throw in a divorce rate hovering around 50% in the Western world, and single parents who have no choice but to work long hours, and the result is millions of children with almost no parental direction for much of the time, let alone quality time with two parents.

One of the enduring themes of this blog is the increasing over-specialization of work, study, and entertainment, but I have yet to touch on the arena of parenthood. So allow me to play Jonathan Swift for a moment with my own modest proposal: outsourcing childcare to those who can do it efficiently and – most important – effectively.

Why not outsource parenting? We seem to have made most of the rest of our lives as efficient as possible. Instead of each of us owning farms that grow all our own food, we have created supermarkets and other supercentres that not only sell food, but everything from pharmaceuticals to care tires. Millions of office drones sit in cubicles doing the white-collar equivalent of screwing a bolt into a chassis over and over for eight or more hours a day, the epitome of over-specialized corporate work.

And childcare itself has changed from the days of one parent teaching her young how to get on in life. Public schools were established 1 000 years ago to teach Latin to poor children who could not afford private tutors. Today it is a legal requirement in most countries that children spend their weekdays in classrooms full of other children. (And most do: the latest statistics for homeschooled children that I could find put the number at only about 3% in the United States.) We have already outsourced the majority of education to professional teachers, from the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy to advanced calculus and classic literature.

At an even more basic level, many working parents outsource childcare to day cares, nannies or relatives. Crèches, the forerunner of modern day care, were established in France in the 1840s near factories so working women could drop their children off there during the day. Today they are everywhere. As the percentage of working women (in Canada) aged 25-54 rose from around 50% in the 1970s to over 80% today, there was an accompanying rise in the number of children in non-parental care.  In 2002, 54% of Canadian parents had someone else look after their children during the day, up from 42% in the mid-nineties. In the U.S., almost two-thirds of pre-schoolers are in non-parental child care.

So outsourcing our parenting – if I can be forgiven for using such a cold, economic term – is certainly palatable to the majority of parents, at least some of the time. And there is most definitely a broader need for it, though less quantifiable. I needn’t go into the many social ills connected with a lack of influence, or parental influence, attention, or role-modelling during childhood, as these are well known.

There are many bad parents out there, but while we are quick to want to get rid of other minders who are ineffective, like teachers or nannies, social and biological conventions dictate that it is a lengthy and difficult process to “fire” parents. Leaving children exposed on mountaintops or in the care of a nunnery (in which something like 80% of the unfortunates dropped off died anyway) has gone out of fashion in developed countries, except in certain safe havens like Nebraska, so instead they remain with bad parents, or in foster care, which for most is not the optimal solution. Even parents who love their children can make bad child-rearing decisions with the best of intentions.

But what if the default option for raising children, like public schooling, was communal (or private) care by qualified parent-like figures? The right to “home parenting” (like home schooling) could be awarded only to those who are qualified to practice it, with regular supervision by a central body. Consider: specialist “parents” rearing children in groups is hardly a radical idea. The old African proverb about a child needing more than one knee, or the much more famous one that serves as the title of this post, indicates that our modern way of raising children is little more than a hiccough in the trajectory of human history.

Most parents raise only a few children, but almost all say that it gets easier the more they have, as they build experience and knowledge. Specialized parent substitutes would have the benefit of raising perhaps tens of children, and, what’s more, they would love it, because it would their career of choice. Children would also have the benefit of a diversity of tried-and-true, centrally vetted and approved child care methods, culled from what has been proven to work well internationally and throughout history — call it a “best practice” approach to parenting. Just think of what costs could be reduced or eliminated in  a society with a higher proportion of well-adjusted children – everything from healthcare (therapy and counselling) to policing and incarceration costs.

Clearly, this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and I no doubt open myself up to charges of everything from heartless communism to wanting to run state finances into the ground by proposing elaborate centralized childcare schemes such as these. But consider: we wouldn’t trust spinal surgery to someone who has never done it before and who would spend half the time we’re in the operating theatre off in corporate meetings somewhere else or on his Blackberry. We wouldn’t want an unqualified engineer building a bridge we have to drive over, especially on almost zero sleep while laying the foundations.  Yet we allow complete amateurs to raise their own children armed with little more than evolved instinct and maybe a copy of Dr. Spock. Does that really make more sense?


Some Loose Thoughts on Americans and Trains

March 9, 2011

Apparently there is a movie version of Atlas Shrugged coming out soon, and while I have neither seen it nor read the book (something I plan to remedy within the next month or so), I have read a few of the many criticisms and laments out there about the book and philosophies contained within it. These come from all sides of the political spectrum, but one of the more interesting ones to me concerns the role of infrastructure and the changing nature of support among conservatives and libertarians for large-scale rail projects on American soil. While Ayn Rand’s magnum opus features libertarian railroad moguls who plough vast sums into railroad development, railroads today are pariahs of American transportation infrastructure, and to none more so than the political right.

David Weigel on Slate summarizes the opposition to high-speed rail (and rail in general) from the American right mainly as opposition to state subsidies. There is a widespread belief that money pours from government coffers into railroads – at a cost to the taxpayer of between 13 and 30 cents per passenger, compared with between 1 and 4 cent subsidies for highways and other roads. Whether these numbers are accurate is not the point of this post; merely the perception of it being true is (as with most subjects in American politics these days) enough to colour the popular and official debate substantially. I’ve heard others comment that rail travel is seen as a form of communism.

The irony of that idea, of course, is that railroad owners were among the first übercapitalists of American business, sucking profits from their trade with an almost monopolistic hold on the industry. Names like Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan and known to us now because many of these obscenely wealthy railroad barons wanted their legacies to live on in the form of grand houses, universities, and other large-scale public charitable works.

I’ve written before about how cars in the early days of automobile travel were seen as a “less technological” option than railroads, more rugged and democratic and, well, American. Travelling by car in those days was both challenging (tires exploding or parts falling off every few miles) and exhilarating (unprecedented access to tourist sites that railroads just didn’t go to). The ideal of the open road, and by extension the “open West,” has echoed down through the annals of American history from beat poets to “Boys of Summer,” and was undergirded by the Eisenhower administration’s creation of the extensive Interstate Freeway System in the 1950s.

But I never picked up on the “communism” angle, in part because that wasn’t a concern or a term bandied about frequently in American political discourse until the second decade of the twentieth century at least. Today, of course, high-speed rail and trains in general aren’t seen as feats of American engineering and technical prowess, but symbols of European- and Chinese-style communism.

Attitudes have changed: both railroads and cars have largely lost their breathless romantic and innovative associations and have become part of the humdrum reality of everyday transportation. Many people view their cars more as prisons (especially when stuck in rush-hour traffic) than gateways to the wonders of nature. And while European-ness today still has some cachet if it involves sitting in a café in Paris on vacation, Americans are confident enough in their own government that they certainly don’t aspire to managing their infrastructure like the Europeans.

The last paragraph of Weigel’s article clearly illustrates the link between railroads, communism and other un-American ideas:

Before and after 9/11, George Will was talking up rail as a way to take more people off planes and make America less vulnerable to terrorists. That argument has more or less vanished. Why? “It helped that somebody bombed a train in Spain,” says O’Toole. “If you concentrate people in one vehicle, then the vehicle is vulnerable. You concentrate society, and it’s vulnerable. So maybe it’s not a good thing to concentrate people.

Makes sense. People concentrated together in one vehicle are vulnerable to attack without the ability to pick up and go whenever and wherever they want to, as in cars. Similarly, people who have a shared and singular collective mindset are vulnerable without the influence of democratic choices. Looks a lot like communism, right? So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the next time a state governor turns down a billion-dollar high-speed rail line subsidized by the federal government. He’s probably imagining that it’s the last stop on the Lenin line before Revolution Station…