IV Congreso de la CiberSociedad 2009. Crisis analógica, futuro digital

The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life


Los organizadores del Congreso de la CiberSociedad 2009 me pidieron que enviara la comunicación "Permanently Beta" (en coautoría con Gina Neff), y que hiciera algunos comentarios adicionales. Ese documento fue escrito hace algunos años, pero las ideas siguen siendo convincentes para mí - tanto que eran el punto de lanzamiento para el capítulo final ( "Reprise") de mi reciente libro, The Sense of Dissonance. Los temas del libro se preocupan por la innovación, la cual considero como una forma peculiar de búsqueda - un proceso abierto, cuando no sabemos lo que estamos buscando, pero es fácil de reconocer cuando la encontramos. Esta sección para concluir sale de mis estudios etnográficos de las configuraciones específicas de organización para reflexionar sobre los grandes temas que surgen cuando las funciones permanentemente beta se generalizan en una sociedad permanentemente beta.


(Spanish PDF Version)


[...]  Hyper-entrepreneurial capitalism is a relentless search not only for new domains of activity but also for new sources of creativity.1 It finds a new source in the employees of heterarchical organizations, where it learns that creativity knows fewer bounds when it can be unbound from hierarchical control. In this, it continues developments anticipated by the movement of Communities of Practice, through which organizations came to recognize that activities that were not formally organized, and which were frequently crosscutting of formal organizational boundaries, could be richly generative of creative performance.2 But it also finds creativity  in energies that exist far outside the boundaries of any kind of professional communities, as when consumers are brought into the production process. Like the notion of “self-management,” with its positive connotations combined with Foucaultian management of the self, the notion of the consumer as producer has a doubled valence.

Start with very elementary processes. When I walk through a supermarket, take items off the shelf, and place them in my shopping cart, I perform a productive, yet unpaid, “labor.” That is perhaps obvious to me only because I can still remember my grandfather telling me about a previous time when you went to the general store, asked for a couple of pounds of flour, and the shopkeeper’s assistant would measure it out behind the counter for the customer. If I now scan the products with the store’s self-scanning device at the checkout counter, it is obvious to more readers that I am doing a task that the supermarket would otherwise need to pay an employee to perform. When you buy a book at Amazon.com and with the keystrokes enter your address, credit card number, and billing information, you perform a task for which the retailer would need to hire an employee if you had placed the order by telephone.

My point is not to denounce my supermarket for not paying me when I walk its aisles nor to encourage you to send a bill for your unpaid keystroke time to your favorite online retailer or frequent-flier airline. It is simply to call to mind how organizations have recognized that their productive resources can be expanded if they reach beyond the formal boundaries of the organization.3 In fact, frequently in such cases, the organizations themselves extend a subtle acknowledgment of your unpaid voluntary labor: they invite you to become a “member.” Whereas one was formerly a member of a church, a synagogue, a civic association, or some other voluntary organization, now one’s wallet is packed with “membership” cards of this or that frequent shopper program.

Beta testing takes this process to the next level by involving the end user as an active participant in product design. In beta testing in fields like software and website development, companies release admittedly defective products and invite the user to assist them in identifying “bugs” or glitches in the program. When the user downloads the beta release, she typically receives a message welcoming her to the testing community: “Congratulations! You’ve downloaded an XYZ (company name) build. This means that you’ve volunteered to become part of the XYZ testing community. Great! Welcome aboard. Helping out won’t take much of your time, doesn’t require special skills and will help improve our new product.”4 The user gets early access to new features; the company gets millions of “eyeballs” to detect flaws in the new product.

Researchers in science and technology studies have long recognized that the design process is not completed when manufacturers ship out a new product. Instead, users complete the “design process” when they resist some uses inscribed in the product, identify other potential uses,  and modify the product. The telephone, the bicycle, and the tractor are famous examples.5 All products, and especially new and unfamiliar ones, entail considerable “interpretive flexibility.”6 The new “user innovation communities” make this insight a part of corporate strategy. Instead of a hit-or-miss approach, they actively foster communities of users and involve their participation at ever-earlier stages of the design process.7 This is search when you do not know what you are looking for, relying on the users to recognize it when they find it.

Gina Neff and I used the term permanently beta to refer to the organizations that emerge when the institutional barriers to user involvement in the design process are overcome. Writing in a very different context, Charles Sabel proposed the term “Moebius strip organizations”8 – referring to the topology of the Möbius strip, which has neither an insider or an outside. These are organizations with such fluid boundaries that it is difficult to say what is inside and what is outside.

The new social networking websites ratchet up this process to unprecedented scale and scope when they move from working with and responding to the user to building sites at which all the content is user produced. While we were doing ethnographic work at the new-media firm NetKnowHow, Monique Girard and I also did some research in one of the pioneers in the development of such sites, Bolt.com, a venture launched by Silicon Alley company Concrete Media. Bolt began as an Internet community and e-commerce site, trying to become “America’s online high school newspaper.” At the outset, Bolt hired a team of writers from various magazines that produced content for teens. And it paid top dollar for this talent. As an afterthought, Bolt also created a space where teens could post their own content. Because they could track the use patterns of the teenagers online, the editors were able to discover that teens were much more likely to read essays by their peers – even when they were tucked away, so to speak, on a part of the site to which it was not easy to navigate. After Bolt fired the pricey writers and adopted a user-as-producer model, traffic increased and the venture flourished. At the height of its success in 2000, Bolt’s executive vice president explained, “We don’t have people sitting around thinking, ‘What do teens want?’ It doesn’t work, even if you could figure it out, it wouldn’t last. You can try to write for them, but it doesn’t work. Now 95 percent of our content is written by teens themselves.”

Long-lived in Internet time, Bolt survived in various versions from 1996 to 2007.9 During its tumultuous years, Bolt faced repeated organized revolts by its teen constituents, who resented the surreptitious placing of sponsors’ ads into the users’ activities and resisted the growing commercialization of the site. These revolts anticipated ongoing struggles at Facebook.com, which, with more powerful software, captured a huge share of first the college and then the high school social networking market. Recently, Facebook was forced to draw back from an advertising platform that tracked Facebook’s member transactions on third-party partner sites and transformed them into endorsements that were then inserted to their friends’ “news feeds.” The company reversed its policy following a petition signed by more than fifty thousand Facebook users organized by MoveOn.org.

As hyperentrepreneurial capitalism looks for new spaces to mobilize the creative energies of “members,” social networking represents an effort to capitalize not only user content but the users’ personal contacts as well. Commercial social networking is an expression of the centuries-long dynamic of capitalism: the ever-greater socialization of production combined with the privatization of the profits. Social networking sites then become sites of contention over this latest effort at commodification and the intensification of the search for value.

In the context of war, poverty, and environmental catastrophe, battles such as those over Facebook doubtless seem trivial. But they are an indication, in small, of the larger social dilemmas set in motion as organizations extend their heterarchical scope beyond the formal boundaries of the firm. Of course, we prefer organizations that are responsive, and what better way to be responsive than to incorporate our participation in building the organizations themselves. Of course, we prefer organizations with at least a semblance of face-to-face community. But then should we not have a voice in the means and goals of organizations that prosper from our participation and from the structure of our communities?

I am not arguing here for a kind of denunciation in which we point our finger and say, “There, you see, at the top are the people who really do control these organizations. That’s the problem.” In fact, I believe that the problem is more challenging. The more interesting dilemma would be that the new organizational forms of hyperentrepreneurial capitalism are complex systems in which the core problems can no longer be expressed in the straightforward language of control. Polemically, for purposes of emphasis, perhaps it would be more accurate to think about them as systems that are out of control. Less polemically, think about them as systems in which the beneficiaries have recognized that they can increase their profits when they relinquish direct control.10

Old metaphors like “the reins of power” are misleading. So, too, is the notion that power is “exercised” – as if it were some kind of  organizational calisthenics. These metaphors of power as something that can be held or grasped are comforting, for they suggest that if power could be seized by others who do not currently hold it, then things could be righted and brought back under control. But such notions are falsely comforting, for power in its heterarchical forms is suffused throughout the organization, distributed rather than concentrated. Moreover, even if we could locate power “at the top” and then seize it, what would we do with it? If we held on to it but kept it there, we would be re-creating a hierarchy, surely not desirable for those “at the bottom” who had sought to overturn the system. If we dispersed it, we would be creating a heterarchy, and we would then find ourselves confronting the problems of distributed authority, lateral accountability, rivalry of evaluative principles, competition of performance criteria, self-management as the management of self, and questions about who should have a voice in Möbius-strip identities when there is good cause for ambiguity about just who is and who is not a member of the organization. In other words, we would be facing exactly the processes that I have been pointing to as so difficult to bring “under control.” Heterarchy thus poses problems, many of which cannot be solved at the level of the heterarchical organizations themselves.

There are ready answers to these questions: Quiet the clash of competing evaluative principles. Let there be a single metric of economic value – market value. And let there be a single metric of social values – “family values.”

But there is another answer as well. Just as I have argued that the most effective} response to the problems in newly emerging democracies is not less democracy but more democracy,11 the response to the problems of heterarchy is not less heterarchy but more – a rivalry of evaluative principles not only within organizations but more broadly in the society. As such, the answer lies not in control but in politics, a heterarchical politics12 that openly challenges the market metric of value by articulating alternative principles of the valuable.

To permit one example: In addressing the question “What is the biosphere worth?” Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson discusses efforts to place a market value on its “productivity” but concludes that other metrics are more valuable, precisely because uncertainty about the future makes such pricing futile: “No one can guess the full future value of any kind of animal, plant, or microorganism. Its potential is spread across a spectrum of known and as yet unimagined human needs.”13

Challenging market dominance of the search for the valuable cannot be a smooth process. But, precisely because that dissonance can be a productive dissonance, we can be confident in rebuking any charge that it would curtail entrepreneurial activity. Such entrepreneurship would be innovative and recombinant, but it would not be directed toward market gain.14 The friction of a truly heterarchical rivalry of evaluative principles would generate new forms of entrepreneurship when the search for the valuable was unleashed from the search for profits.

The problem of our unruly search is not that it has to be tamed but that it has not been exploratory enough. We face crises not because our economic system is too diverse in its criteria of performance but because it is not diverse enough. In our era, the socialist societies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union failed not simply because they did not use market selection mechanisms but because their social system lacked the requisite variety for adaptability in response to changes in its environment. Communism was defeated by liberal values. But there are two very different ways to interpret this statement, entailing divergent lessons. In the first, communism was defeated by “the market,” and the lesson is to extend the dominance of the market logic into other domains. In the second, a system of low diversity failed in its competition with a system of higher diversity in which the political field, education, religion, and the arts were organized along principles that were not subordinated to the market. In this view, the lesson is to articulate more forcefully dissonant conceptions of worth.

To face the current crises of adaptability of our own society, literally of the destruction of our natural and social environment, we need new forms of entrepreneurship, emphatically not limited to the market variant, combining new ends and means, to build policies and practices that create wealth in forms that sustain our communities and our environment. We need societal friction that generates a reflective cognition capable of recognizing innovative solutions.

Complexity, in the field of organizations, is the interweaving of diverse evaluative principles. The assets of the firm are adaptively increased when there are multiple measures of what constitutes an asset. The same is true at the societal level. Value is amplified when there is organized dissonance about what constitutes the valuable. Times of uncertainty raise the stakes in our societal, and now global, search. To meet that challenge we must look beyond the search space of the already known. To guide that search by the quest for wealth, defined in market terms, will leave us impoverished and our planet depleted. What does it profit us to gain more wealth but lose our world?

Is it worth it? We do better when more of us with varied voices ask this question from different standpoints of what is worthy. Heterarchical search will be dissonant, but it is dissonance that leads to discovery.


1 Nigel Thrift, “Re-inventing Invention: New Tendencies in Capitalist Commodification,” 2006.

2 Ash Amin and Joanne Roberts, “The Resurgence of Community in Economic Thought and Practice,” 2008.

3 The history of firms benefiting from unpaid labor is as old as capitalism itself. But whereas in earlier times this practice was based on ascriptive status (for example, relying heavily on unpaid female labor in households) contributing to reproduction, today it is based on market participation by the customers themselves, contributing to distribution, marketing, and design.

4 See Gina Neff and David Stark, “Permanently Beta: Responsive Organization in the Internet Era,” 2003.

5 Claude S. Fischer, America Calling: The Social History of the Telephone until 1940, 1992; Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other,” 1987; and Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch, “Users as Agents of Technological Change: The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States,” 1996.

6 Pinch and Bijker, “Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts.”

7 Eric von Hippel, “Innovation by User Communities: Learning from Open Source Software,” 2001; and Raghu Garud, Sanjay Jain, and Philipp Tuertscher, “Incomplete by Design and Designing for Incompleteness,” 2008. Users “consume, modify, domesticate, design, reconfigure and resist technologies,” and through this process shape and are shaped by those technologies. See Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, “Introduction: How Users and Non-users Matter,” 2003.

8 Neff and Stark, “Permanently Beta”; and Charles F. Sabel, “Moebius-Strip Organizations and Open Labor Markets: Some Consequences of the Reintegration of Conception and Execution in a Volatile Economy,” 1990.

9 Ironically, given its early recognition of the value of content produced by the teenagers themselves, Bolt was forced into bankruptcy by a multimillion-dollar out-of-court settlement to a lawsuit brought by Universal Media Group (UMG). UMG had sued Bolt for copyright infringement in connection with the unauthorized use of UMG’s video and music content posted by users on the Bolt website. See Saul Hansell, “Universal Near Deal with Video Site on Royalties,” New York Times, February 12, 2007.

10 John Seely Brown, “Introduction: Rethinking Innovation in a Changing World,” 1997.

11 David Stark and László Bruszt, “One Way or Multiple Paths? For a Comparative Sociology of East European Capitalism,” 2001.

12 For discussions of a new politics, see J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics, 2006; and Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Reinventing Politics, forthcoming.

13 Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, 2003, p. 113.

14 Current notions of “social entrepreneurship,” which call for bringing the tools of the venture capitalist to the nonprofit sector, are quite far from the more conflictual process I have in mind.