Does it Scale?

When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I had two conflicting reactions: I was happy that the incredible rise in inequality and the pernicious influence of corporations and vested interests on democracy was finally getting the attention it deserved – but I found the sheer lack of organisation painful to see. In particular, the ‘total consensus’ decision-making process in some areas seemed like it was a definite roadblock to scaling things up. Only with scale, I thought, could the Occupy movement make a real impact.

We’ve treated ‘scale’ like an unalloyed good for so long that it seems peculiar to question it. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to scale businesses and services up to make more things for more people in more areas; perhaps the strongest is that things usually get cheaper and quicker to provide.

The problem is that scale has a cost, and that’s being unable to respond to the wants and needs of unique individuals. Theoretically, that’s not a problem in a free market, but of course, we don’t have a free market, and we certainly don’t have a free market when it comes to politics and media.

Just look at how the Occupy movement have been covered – or not, as the case may be. National news organisations naturally want to cover the biggest movements that they think will be of the most interest to the most people, and crucially, can be explained in the least time possible; no wonder they were so adamant on getting a single demand or list of issues from Occupy Wall Street and the rest of the movement – it’d make their lives easier.

And that process of simplification has a feedback effect on politics, focusing attention on just a small number of actors who appear to have ‘scale’ and an interesting story. Who cares about some little protest in some town when you can profile Michelle Bachmann, potential Republican presidential nominee (or indeed, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, etc.)? But there is one good reason behind focusing on them – it’s the ultimate instance of scale, one person representing over 300 million people.

I find that disturbing. I’ve made no secret of my belief that bad gatekeepers (like commissioners and editors) can waste money, favour their friends, and harm creativity. Some think that the solution to this is to have better gatekeepers. I think the solution is to have fewer gatekeepers – as few as we can manage with.

The system of politics in the US and UK has a similar problem, where you have a single person wielding a massive amount of power. When we see a bad leader in power, we think the solution is to elect a better leader. For some reason, we don’t think of having fewer leaders.

So, on second thoughts, I can see understand the strengths of the Occupy movement. By being a leaderless organisation, small groups that are loosely connected, it neatly eliminates the problem of abusive or ineffective leaders and devolves power to a much more local level – a level that can be more reflective and responsive to the people directly involved.

OccupyX is not perfect by any means but it demonstrates an alternative to the lure of scale. Just by itself, that’s a remarkable achievement.

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