Of Spiders and Starfish.

Posted by jlubans on January 09, 2013

The book, “The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”* offers up numerous examples of how “leaderless” organizations (starfish) are more able to introduce new ideas and to adapt to setbacks than is the hierarchy (the spider). Starfish have the power to regenerate lost limbs; cut off one and another grows in its place. Kill bin Laden, al-Qaeda continues to pop up, unwelcome and unexpected. The message is that stopping a starfish organization is more complicated than only sidelining the leader.
The authors point to the Internet and many of its Web 2.0 services, like Wikipedia, Craig’s List and Napster, as successful applications of the starfish concept. Historically, and perhaps more credibly, the authors spot starfish elements in Alcoholics Anonymous and in the social movements to abolish slavery and to get the vote for American women. And, the book shows that the post-Columbian Spanish invaders were able to conquer the Aztec and Inca empires but failed to dispossess the Apache Indians of their the lands. The former were “spider” organizations while the latter was a starfish, mobile and “leaderless”, i.e. with no one all-powerful leader to kill.

While stressing positive examples, the book includes the use of the starfish model for negative or unethical purposes. For example, the authors appear ambivalent about Napster, a vehicle that facilitated millions of digital files for sharing without regard for copyright or royalty payments. Brofman and Beckstrom, with a certain amount of glee, explain that the old centralized (and unfair) distribution control of the recording and movie industries is impotent to stop file sharing, P2P, groups like Napster.** You can crush one or more of Napster-like businesses but you cannot kill the concept: Information Is Free. Too many people believe their entertainment should be free – regardless of production and distribution costs - and enough have the knowledge to pirate media. (I have a semi-serious proposal to amend the inherent rights in the USA’s Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, entertainment, and the pursuit of happiness!”)

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Jaron Lanier is an outspoken apostate of the Information Is Free movement. In a recent interview he compares pirating media with other unethical aspects of the Internet like bullying and the anonymity that facilitate violent rhetoric against anyone different. Like the televised shouting-heads, the result is incoherent rage. Lanier worries the cyber-bullying can become “social lasers of cruelty” not only against an unpopular kid but also as a murderous weapon in global political movements – so much for the much-vaunted “wisdom of the crowd”.
Mr. Lanier sees a direct connection between stealing media and the resulting unemployment for media producers and workers. It is one of our society’s values that taking someone’s property and using it without recognition or payment is wrong. Yet the practice goes on with a wink and a sly nod; sort of like jeering at prohibition, but under the Volstead Act you had to pay your bootlegger or suffer the consequences. Or, more au courant, if you do drugs, you do not forget to pay your dealer.
Google suggests the mindset that Mr. Lanier rails against. Is there not a supreme arrogance in Google’s digitization of millions of books without permission from copyright owners like me? Or how about appropriating the words and phrases of thousands of translators – again without compensation - and shoving them into Google Translate? Voila, Google’s the go-to place for translation, further reducing revenue for translators.
My point is that spider or starfish, ethics matter. If we believe it is wrong to harm others economically then we cannot be supportive of organizations that violate that basic value. I will be discussing questions about wisdom in crowds and starfish and spider organizations in my class on the Democratic Workplace in February and March in Riga, Latvia. I look forward to the discussion!

*Ori Brafman; Rod A Beckstrom. “The starfish and the spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”
New York: Portfolio; London: Turnaround [distributor], 2007.

**The authors, after celebrating Napster’s unconventional ways, introduce an ironic touch in the warning on their copyright page:
“The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s (sic) rights is appreciated!” (Emphasis added.)

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