[Crossposted at SpreadingScience]
The mainstream media likes to suggest, with a nudge and a wink and abuse of the word “cyber,” that Wikileaks represents a radical ideological position. But if there’s a moral crusade to be found, maybe it’s rooted in a tradition closer to home: classical Western liberal-democratic principles.
In The New Republic, Noam Scheiber takes for granted that Wikileaks is here to stay, with relentless pressure on big business and big government that permanently hampers their ability to prevent leaks. This will result in smaller, more humane organizations.
I have no idea what size organization is optimal for preventing leaks, but, presumably, it should be small enough to avoid wide-scale alienation, which clearly excludes big bureaucracies. Ideally, you’d want to stay small enough to preserve a sense of community, so that people’s ties to one another and the leadership act as a powerful check against leaking.
To make this point, Scheiber reminds us that Wikileaks’ stated aim–making organizations operate more ethically–is a mainstream one: “It’s easier for honest CEOs to run an honest business, if the dishonest businesses are more affected negatively by leaks than honest businesses,” he quotes Julian Assange.
Scheiber’s argument seems to be that Wikileaks’ disclosures could have more subtle and far-reaching effects on organizations than it expects.
Apple demonstrates today the sort of company Scheiber discusses. Maybe it is because Jobs hates leaks.
Scheiber’s article is one that should be read by everyone. It is a very important one in its implications. Wikileaks, and the ideas behind it, may alter how businesses work and adapt. It touches on some of the ideas of David Brin in The Transparent Society – the same technologies that permit the powerful to spy on us can, and should, be used to spy on the powerful.
Scheiber postulates, and I agree, that the inability of large companies to stem leaks may result in the greater proliferation of corporate ‘cells – it is easier to control the flow in smaller groups without stemming the tide totally. Inefficiencies in small groups can be overcome when needed. In larger groups, it can be deadly.
Luckily, we also have the ability today for smaller organizations to leverage the abilities of others to succeed. The small biotech company I was VP, Research at had perhaps 3 of us who were working in the lab. But we did not need more because we could have other companies do the sequencing for us – no need for a core facility with tens of people. We could have other companies synthesize DNA for us – no need for a core facility with tens of people. We were able to accomplish great work with a company with 10-20 fold fewer people than it would have taken just 10 years earlier.
So, there will be business pressures to become smaller and more adaptive as well as information pressures.
That is why I think Apple is the first of its kind – a truly large company that has somehow maintained the abilty for small company adaptability. It acts small, has research abilities that are far beyond the modest number of people it has doing R&D. It is able to run rings consistently around other companies. It is one of the largest companies by capital value on the planet yet it acts like a startup.
I don’t know all the details of why but we all know that Jobs is the reason. But I think part of the way this new sort of company came about was because of Jobs’ reaction to leaks.
Apple used to leak like a sieve with whole websites devoted to writing about them. Jobs pretty much stopped that, so much so that a lost iPhone became a cause celebré.
One would have expected this sort of iron control on information leaks would have harmed Apple. Most organizations respond to by clamping down on information flow but, and this is especially true of large ones, this is like giving themselves a lobotomy. Information flow slows, making it very hard to make good decisions and adapt properly to changing conditions.
That is what Assange claims he wants to do with Wikileaks – cause the old dinosaurs to react in ways that result in their own downfall.
Well, Apple shut down leaks and actually became a better and stronger company. I’d love to know the details but I expect that Jobs actually implemented some of what Scheiber discusses. Break the groups down into more manageable units and use pressures to make leaking a violation of social mores.
Of course, this is a two way street and these same social mores can push back on the company to be more ethical, etc. Even the smallest group is open to leaks when some feel the company is acting unethically. It all becomes a system of controls and feedbacks that does not harm the information flow needed to adapt.
I believe that when it is all said and done, we will discover that the same things that ended most of Apple’s leaks also led to a large amount of their success. That somehow Jobs’ response actually did not stifle creativity but enhanced it.
If we can replicate this elsewhere, then things like Wikileaks would not need to be feared by most organizations. In fact, Wikileaks would become irrelevant for the vast majority of us.