Jon Husband

On the change technology and decentralization bring to society and the way we think – the wirearchy principle.


Jason: I’m here with Jon Husband who has worked as a management consultant and is a sociologist and anthropologist, who has been observing and chronicling the individual and collective mutations of the emerging network world. He’s the author of Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work, and the co-author of The Emergent Society of the 21st Century and Making Knowledge Work – the arrival of Web 2.0. We’ve been talking about Jon’s concept of wirearchy, which is his analysis of how we’re changing as a network society, his thoughts on how blockchain plays into that, and we’re going to get into a great conversation about how blockchain is changing our world at the sociological level. Jon, thank you very much for doing this interview with me!

Jon: Thanks very much for the opportunity! It’s good to be at one of the many, I think these kinds of things happen around the world monthly in different cities, one of the many hackathons, gatherings, conversations, happenings, where people are getting together not only with respect to the blockchain but with respect to maker fairs, fab labs, living labs, fail camps, all of the kinds of activities that have been spawned and accompanied our planet’s ongoing march through the emergence of a networked, hyperlinked world that is made visible to us on screens.

The collective capabilities and dynamics that have developed over the last 20 years, since the graphical user interface developed and started to make browsing the Web and using the Web easier for people, has gathered in speed, force of impact, breadth of impact, depth of impact, and I’m often, when I’m doing presentations or workshops, saying, only half glibly, that we’re going to see a lot more change over the next 10 years than we have seen in the last 10 years, and most people today are beginning to reel and become anxious differently than they used to encounter anxiety because of some of the really significant changes that even the last 10 years have brought.

We’ve moved very, very quickly from reading to much shorter attention spans, taking information in on images and screens, which goes much more quickly to the processing by our amygdala, the limbic brain, and so we find ourselves reacting to and with emotions and making decisions differently than we used to. Some of the kinds of things that are happening represent very, very drastic changes to what we understand as human social, cultural and economic activity, and I start a number of my presentations these days with, “Well, you may have been hoping that these conditions are going to go away or smoothen out, but they’re not going to go away and it’s going to get bumpier.”

Jason: Wow. When you say there’s going to be more change in the next 10 years than the last 10 years, and you’re looking at this not just from the perspective of technology… Obviously at these kind of hackathons and maker spaces people are promoting their next big thing, their ICO or their startup or whatever great technological solution they’re going to bring. But very few people take a step back and say, “What is this going to do to us as a society?” and as you’ve touched on, the last 10 years have prompted drastic changes, as you mentioned, not just in how we organise sociologically but in our brains, how our brains process information, how we interface with the world. Maybe you can touch on some of the changes that you see coming sociologically over the next 10 years, maybe particularly with blockchain.

Jon: Yeah, I’d like to do that, and it’s something that I’m passionate about of course, because I originated the term “wirearchy”, and I also feel as if I’m cursed by having originated that term. The term came about about 18 years ago, one day in the shower it just popped into my head, because we had started reading and hearing about living in a wired world. I had come from 15-20 years of helping large organisations design, build and implement their hierarchies – the org charts, the salary scales, all of the different protocols for managing organised human activities – and the things that informed what I was doing back then were all of the things that we lumped together in the classic term “management science”: division of labour, specialisation, efficiency seeking, avoiding redundancies and so on. Everything that was built to be in, in the terms of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, complicated situations, whereas the hyperlinked, networked flows of information that are now part of our daily life are taking many businesses, many organisations, many government services, many groups of people, and many individuals into confrontations with what are called complex conditions, complexity as opposed to complicatedness.

I want to come back to the term “wirearchy, because when I started talking and writing about it, with the fairly deep knowledge as a practitioner, of what are the rules and protocols for traditional hierarchies, I met with a lot of ridicule, of puzzled question marks, “What exactly are you talking about? It sounds kind of futuristic and pretty abstract.” Also then, over the last 18 years and with gathering speed, it has become a term that’s relatively widely used and many people have heard of it, I’ve got some very interesting stories about absolutely random meetings of people on different parts of the planet who have heard of the concept. But let me be a bit more specific: at the apogee of the world driven by management science, where most organisations are informed on their strategy and structure with the help of classical management consultancy firms, it was built on assessment, evaluation, analysis and evolution of thinking during the last chapters of the industrial hero. These ideas generally did not foresee hyperlinks, networks, connected flows of information.

We’re now 15-20 years into that, let’s say 15 years because Web 2.0 if you will, the interactive Web was born around 2000-2001, and this new form of activity that spread around the planet and that most people are using all day long on their smartphones and at work behind their screens and so on is eroding bit by bit, pun intended, the traditional pillars, the solid pillars of traditional, classic hierarchy. We’ve heard a lot about people working together in collaboration, most organisations have spent the last five years installing, implementing and trying to get people to use collaborative platforms. What tends to get in the way of easy adoption, notwithstanding 30-40 years of people saying the value and the ideas and the effective responses are in your workers’ minds and hearts, that we have an awful lot of people I think in many organisations that are working away under an umbrella of learned helplessness. Because we’ve become accustomed by an industrial era school system, education system, credentialing system, job seeking, job design, organisational design paradigm that relies on or had relied on workers following instructions and the instructions came from on high.

Wirearchy is an evolution I would say of hierarchy in a networked world, in the sense that humans – many humans, most humans, myself included – need some forms of hierarchy and some types of activities, whether they’re a hierarchy of needs for your individual self or a hierarchy of decision making for a given kind of group. At the same time, there’s an awful lot of historical principle and exploration of self-directed groups, self-managed tasks, taking of responsibility, acting and so on. To wirearchy, the working definition that was created about 18 years ago is a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

Now, many, many people, because it’s kind of a catchy word, have asked me, “How do you do it? What’s the approach?” and I consistently refused really to answer that question, other than by saying it’s a principle, not a method. Every different context, different organisation, different set of challenges that you meet will have its own way of configuring activities. It could be different based on the industry, the nature of work and so on, but there are various patterns that have been emerging and that have been pretty well explored in the areas of social and organisational network analysis for example. Certainly in the peer-to-peer ecosystems, the commoning movements around the world, the open source movement, and the various citizen participation movements and initiatives that are happening all around the world, we are seeing a gradual raising of awareness of the lessened legitimacy of traditional hierarchical power structures and decision making. Many of the Western world’s governments are losing legitimacy, and people are facing a set of complex conditions that is coming at the faster than they know how to adapt.

This is why I say that the next 10 years are going to be more changeful and more interesting, because we have coming at us still artificial intelligence, algorithms, predictive analytics, Internet of Things, blockchain and so on. These things are not going to go away; they’re going to tried to be managed, corralled and controlled probably by governments, and various governments with varying degrees of democracy will do different things. For example, China rules what happens on the Internet in its borders much differently than is the case in Western Europe and North America. However, long term we’re now at a stage where children that have been born since 10 years ago will never know a world without computers, without screens, without touchscreens, without clicking and so on. In understanding that, I’m starting to pay attention to some of the extremely important human concepts, beliefs and activities that we are losing touch with, that are fading in the rear view mirror of history very quickly.

Jason: Fascinating. So the future is rushing to meet us faster than anyone perhaps can catch up with. When you’re talking about wirearchy and these changing hierarchies, obviously the big key with blockchain is decentralisation and the potential to decentralise power for various things around the planet. How do you see blockchain itself working into what we’re facing?

Jon: Well, one of the things that I think is important to understand – and I don’t know if I’m right or not, most of what I talk about I’m not really sure I’m right, I think I have an informed opinion – is that decentralisation of activities to focus on a particular service or to serve a particular ecosystem of stakeholders or some such pretty much always demands the taking of more responsibility to engage individually, somehow. The reason I say that is I mentioned it that in traditional hierarchy – and I’m thinking of a movie that’s about 10-15 years old now called Pleasantville, where the world goes from black and white to colour as people find their voice, speak out and express who they are, become expressions of their own names if you will – is that an enormous number of people, given our socioeconomic setup, go to school so that they can get a job; better school, better job; better job, better pay. But then as you move in through your 20s into your 30s, many people, much differently today than even 20-30 years ago, begin families, acquire a house, acquire a mortgage, get a car, get a job and work away at it… Which is okay usually in the late-20s and early-30s: we’re eager, we’re bright, we want to create a good life and so on.

I’m now thinking of a master’s degree in coaching I took about 20 years ago, where it’s about mid-30s, 40, 45 that you start understanding that life presents you with really messy, wicked challenges. At the same time, you’ve got all of these obligations – you’re tied by your mortgage, your kids’ school fees, your car lease fees and so on – and that there’s an epidemic of people wanting to break free but having to continue… A lot of people are wondering about, “How do I live differently, how do I work differently?” and so on. I’m a bit unusual I suppose in that I went through that kind of thinking in my 40s and I very abruptly quit a very senior position in management consulting and transitioned to nothing. I didn’t know who I was or what I was going to do for a few years; I just knew that I did not want to, for the next 20 years, help keep reinforcing and installing traditional hierarchies, because I was reading a lot about the Information Age and what was coming at us.

So, because I didn’t have another job, because I didn’t identified something to do, what I decided to do was start relatively radically simplifying my life so that I wouldn’t have to depend on continued employment, so that I wouldn’t have to kowtow to or accept to work on things I didn’t believe in, didn’t want to and so on. But I’m now about 15 years into that – and have also been living through the advent of wikis, blogs, connectedness, conversations, Twitter, Facebook and on and on – and what I believe I’m seeing now, and I’m pretty sure, is that life is becoming more fluid for everyone and for everything. That will become one of the key, interesting points of the application of blockchain architecture and capacities to different kinds of human activities. Because the decentralisation will demand the engagement, the understanding and the critical thinking of people who are deciding to use these services, a lot of it will depend on UX design and so on, and the centralisation aspects of it will demand that, and this is getting into the governments parts, that the centralisation is legitimate, is perceived to be legitimate by people who are using blockchain services, and that it provides some value by that centralisation, whether it’s governance value, whether it’s some kind of control marker or gate that people can use to reflect, to see, “Is this addressing what this particular architecture and capacity was intended to address, how is it evolving? Do we need to fork it one way or another?” and so on.

But all of this demands a better, deeper, broader understanding of what is digital, what are hyperlinks, what is a platform, why blockchain architecture and the way blockchain functions provides that trust and credibility that are the middle parts of the definition of wirearchy. What infuses the trust and credibility are well-designed smart contracts that can contain the framework for addressing a certain kind of knowledge, let’s say the knowledge of who is the owner of a house and transferring title and so on, and the security and encrypted aspects address the trust and credibility. The last part of the definition of wirearchy is the focus on results, which means when you carry this out it’s a done deal, it’s a transaction that’s been carried out between two parties peer-to-peer, based on trust, credibility with the pertinent knowledge. So for me, what I presume will be the architecture and the capabilities and the dynamics of blockchain platforms and services fits quite closely with the working definition of wirearchy, and I’ve positioned wirearchy as an organising principle for this networked era.

Jason: Interesting. It often occurs to me that technologies are kind of concretised metaphors of how we view life, and that as we create those they then reflect back on us and change our worldview. Essentially, you’re putting out a call for a new social organising principle as blockchain begins to roll out. It’s interesting that you had this crisis period in your life, where maybe you looked at these traditional models that you were building and, and correct me if I’m wrong, saw that they were not going to be perhaps workable as we went forward, and you started to think about maybe what a new model would be, is that correct?

Jon: Yeah. There’s couple of things contained in your statement and question, and the first would be that not only did I think I saw that the models that we were operating under, and still are, we’re going to become less and less effective if not obsolete over time, I also started thinking that the way the world was structured. This was the real, if you will, identity or existential crisis I had when I quit the management consulting just after I turned 40, is that, and I think this is a perspective that’s much more widely shared today: the corporate, capitalistic world and the structures of our institutions and our economy are effectively anti-human. What’s been happening in the last 25 years is the ongoing increase in disparities of wages, income inequality.

The kind of consulting I did also involved what’s called compensation consulting, where you set different salary levels throughout an organisation, but I was also around at the birth of what is called variable compensation or pay for performance. That has been a really troublesome aspect, particularly of executive pay, which has grown monstrously compared to relatively stagnant… And I just could not bring myself to believe in that, to be part of it, and because it’s a demanding job that I was working 10-12 hours a day, I just said, “I’m giving my life energy to something that I don’t believe in and that I think is becoming less and less effective and is anti-human. I can’t do this anymore.” So it was a pretty significant crisis for sure, I don’t really mind saying that I had a pretty intense depression for about three years. There were bits of me deep inside that said, “Keep going…” I would be a lot richer had I stayed employed, but anyway – I’m a lot happier today.

Jason: You used the phrase “anti-human” which is obviously very, very resonant and intense, and I think that a lot of people are looking at some of these things coming towards us, particularly artificial intelligence and automation, as anti-human technologies potentially. I’m wondering if you’re looking at some of them however as having a great liberatory potential, particularly blockchain with decentralisation, if we’re able to couple things like blockchain with new social models like the ones that you’re working on.

Jon: It’s a very good question and it’s why I’m concerned about and here, hopefully writing a white paper or a position statement with Vinay on governance and the blockchain. Because with all of these things… I’m mistrustful these days of technology, but not because of the technology; I’m mistrustful because of the values that are driving most of the evolution of technology. Over the last few years we’ve heard the term “platform capitalism”, Facebook being a good example, Uber being another good example, where first-movers that get a lot of adopters then start locking people in and revenue streams become annuities and so on and so forth, and this too is anti-human.

However, there is an antidotal response that’s sizable and growing, and it consists of open source, peer-to-peer, blockchain, there are various initiatives with blockchain architecture – such as Ethereum, such as Holochain, such as Mattereum and a range of others, Blockstream I think in Montreal with Austin Hill – that are considering more and more deeply the sociological effects and impacts, and all of these are driven somewhere I think by a general adherence to probably what birthed the open source movement, so I tend to see these conceptually as derivatives of the original open source movement. But the ongoing development of both technology and the ways humans use it and what for for the growth of what we call I believe civil society today, as opposed to a consumer-driven, money-oriented, relatively meaning-empty world that’s causing a lot of people various forms of angst.

Jason: What would you say are the big questions we should be asking ourselves as we build these technologies, as we implement these technologies, as a society we begin to adopt these technologies and fold them into our lives, and also as companies and businesses? What are the big questions we should be asking ourselves to ensure that we have a human and not an anti-human future?

Jon: Again, I’ll come back to the governance issues. A couple of my chapter headings are things like establishing legitimacy. There’s an interesting case that I don’t know enough about these days, which is the banking industry was one of the first to kind of say, “Oh, this probably has some very, very large implications and impacts for us, and if we’re not clever, intelligent and resourceful, we may be displaced as the intermediaries or the trusted mediators and brokers of financial transactions.” My understanding is that the large global banks are starting to try to think of reconceive, recreate their role as platforms onto which and into which various forms of blockchain fintech services can operate, so that the banks become, or maybe even a consortium of banks becomes the financial platform for a country, and blockchains then spin out depending upon regional interests, cultural interests, different economic strengths in different regions… I don’t know.

So these kinds of issues are when and how will the appearance and the embeddedness of blockchain architecture and services become legitimate in the sense of a critical mass of people accept its presence and its use. Then we also have how does what happens on the blockchain connect to, operate with and help evolve our legal infrastructure and dispute resolution and so on? Because these are fundamentally human activities that cannot be dehumanised in some sense; if a transaction is completely clear and acceptable, it’s two humans agreeing on the exchange of something and the blockchain is just the enabler and the shell in which that happens. However, if two humans or two groups or whatever are trying to carry out something, but they have let’s different intentions, different agendas, haven’t been completely transparent and so on, and the smart contract hasn’t considered some kind of possibility that comes in from this activity, then how do you resolve the disputes?

Today we know that if you have a dispute with someone, you take them to court: you sue them or you create some kind of civil action or so on. I don’t think we know yet whether that can be ported to the use of a blockchain architecture in capacities for some service; perhaps, perhaps not, and I think we’re going to find out a lot about that, and I think we need to explore with various departments of justice in some of the key, leading-edge countries. For example, about two or three years ago I did a short project called a Delphic exercise, which is three rounds, one month apart, of looking forward 15 years – I did this with a few other people, all of us were anonymous to each other, for the Department of Justice in Canada’s government – which was what kind of issues and what kind of things should we be paying attention to as the future unfolds for a Canada of 2030. My response as a techno-anthropologist was just to say, “There’s a pretty significant problem here, because with the growing impact and use of networks and exchanges of information things are happening and appearing and emerging much more quickly. In particular with respect to the legal framework, virtually everything is based on past precedent as opposed to what’s coming.” So somehow the legal framework is going to have to get a lot closer to or anticipate some of these emerging issues, so that when new laws are written they are applicable to the world that’s coming, not the world that was.

Jason: Okay, so you identify banking, law, governments. Let’s talk about banks. Banking for me is the most clearly the key to how blockchain is going to be adopted, how it’s actually going to roll out to the public. Because right now they’re to some extent threatened by blockchain and they’re clearly scrambling to see how they can either incorporate or co-opt the technology, we’ve seen things like Ripple and the use of Ethereum. Also, we’ve seen the idea of banks building private blockchains, proprietary blockchains. What the banks choose to do, it seems pretty clear to me, is really going to be the determining factor in what happens with blockchain, and then of course law and government equally as potent, but I think the banking question is the one that is going to hit first. I’m curious, what do you think the banks are going to do? Are they going to, like you said, redefine their role? Are they going to just continue doing what they’re doing now with some blockchain services folded in?

Jon: I of course don’t have any idea what’s going to happen, but I have some thoughts and some opinions. One of the things I want to make clear is when we’re talking about banking, perhaps most people that will listen to this will think of banking in terms of how you and I use a bank, but there’s a lot more to a bank than that, in terms of the established network of clearing services and all of the regulations related to clearing, reporting, financial reporting, the operation of banks under any given country’s respective financial services act, the respect of international laws and protocols… This is perhaps I think where the blockchain may become even more threatening, is that I think there’s a decent chance that it could upend or disrupt existing things like clearing services, authentications, money transfers and so on, so it is very threatening to the banks.

There’s also the question of then coupled with financial services but also cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum which have received a lot of press, Bitcoin just recently broke the $5,000 level and there’s a lot of interesting activity upcoming, there’s supposed to be some kind of a hard fork in early November and so on. But, the combination of cryptocurrencies that are starting to look as if they’re somewhat sustainable, and a proliferation of what are called ICOs, initial coin offerings, as opposed to initial public offerings, IPOs, offers the implication that maybe a country’s central banks will be placed in the position of having to reconceive, redesign, redefine roles in the economy, because there’s some possibility that the combination blockchain services and alternative currencies could become a major part of an economy over the next 20-30 years let’s say.

Jason: Then with law, obviously law is the focus of the conference we’re at right now, law seems to be one of the professions that’s going to be most radically changed in the next few years, not just with smart contracts but also with essentially the potential of AI and automation to replace many of the function of the lawyer.

Jon: Yeah. I’ve been surprised about that one, because the legal profession… With the advent of wikis and blogs and much more capable natural language search engines and so on, you would have thought that a progressive law firm would say, “Hey, this is really a way to improve our effectiveness and efficiency and change our structure.” But law firms are also, as a generality, both very hierarchical and patriarchal, and at the same time in a sense collegial. It’s a culture that is very, very deeply embedded and protected, and I suspect that it’s the cultural issues that are going to prevent relatively smooth transitions to capabilities that could improve the services and I guess then the profitability of law firms.

Jason: But then of course that opens the door to somebody becoming the Uber of law and just adapting much more quickly and essentially putting everyone else out of business.

Jon: In most Western countries we do have I think antitrust legislation. Interestingly enough, I think it’s been in the European countries that have done more in terms of signalling at times through some fines – to Google, to Facebook, to other large platform capitalist firms – that at some point in time we’re going to have to look at antitrust legislation and whether or not there are unfair barriers to entry and monopolistic practices, Amazon being a good example. Potentially Google or Amazon can open its own insurance company, its own bank and its own… Amazon is doing food now, all sorts of stuff… It started out as a bookseller because that was one of the easy things to put up on a webpage and create a value chain through to ordering the book, but Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post now.

So at one point in time, is it acceptable for an Amazon or a Facebook to own and effectively through its decisions, its capabilities and its architecture dictate to people how they’re going to live in society? I think it’s as serious as that. It’s coupled with both Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, most of the platforms we know operate with algorithms. There have been many people saying that algorithms help efficiency, better service and so on. Frankly, algorithms scare me a lot more than they inspire me, because I’m very, very concerned that a lot of people, with the algorithms operating in their daily lives relatively invisibly, that human activity in a given region, society, country starts to become more and more and more homogenised, and this is very much Aldous Huxley Brave New World territory. I’ve written about it before, I remain fascinated by watching it, and I’m getting more and more scared all the time.

Jason: That perfectly segues into government and governance, which is one of the biggest potential ramifications of the blockchain, and also, at least from my perspective, one of the ones that people have been talking about the least in the conversation about blockchain, possibly because it’s the scariest. There’s a couple of different futures there, one is a decentralised governance and the truly utopian promise of decentralisation that blockchain brings. Then there’s the other one which is what you’ve just touched upon, which is a few companies – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and so on – becoming so far removed from everyone else, almost like the Medici city states of the world, in a way that they are so far beyond and are so advanced and in control so much… Potentially maybe blockchain is the solution to that, or maybe blockchain will play into that. Maybe if you can speak a little bit about the governance issues that blockchain raises and what we’re looking at.

Jon: In a positive sense, you can argue that the possibilities with blockchain are antidotal to that centralisation of control and power. What I wonder about, and we’ve probably seen early inklings of it, is that the people who are installed in the position of power in governments – the Donald Trumps of this world, the Theresa Mays of this world, the Justin Trudeaus of this world, the Vladimir Putins of this world – and their inner cohorts, the party that keeps them in power, etc., have an enormous amount of power to change the way things are done, we’re seeing that in the United States at the moment.

So in response to your question, things like some version of participatory, non-violent action, like the movie V for Vendetta let’s say, but with passive, peaceful resistance capabilities would be the way to push back. Because I think that established governments will try to ban things, control things. The notions of I think net neutrality in the United States is more threatened today than it was 5-10 years ago, and net neutrality, the impacts of non-neutral net access over a span of time will lead to other societal and organisational dysfunctions I believe. Personally, I believe that the Internet and high-speed broadband access should be for each country like having what we used to think of 20 years ago as free public libraries, it should just be the free public library of the 21st century. Now, there are huge demands placed on the individual in the group if those kinds of things come to pass, which is critical thinking about using it.

There’s a flood of articles these days about the rapidly-growing anxiety of people, because they’re always information flows and they’re texting each other, there’s a lot of nuance, misinterpretation created by texts or by texting to each other and on and on and on, lack of attention to things, and the development of cognitive addiction, movies like Ex Machina and Her, with Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his smartphone or something… I think there’s lots of that already going on, to tell you the truth. I’ve read an article last night before going to bed, but I wasn’t in my bed, saying that something 70-80% of people sleep with their smartphone next to them or something like that. And of course, if you have any young children, they figure out touchscreens and how to manoeuvre around mom’s iPad pretty darn fast by the time they’re three and a half.

So, all of these changes are accumulating. We don’t know a lot about them, they’re moving faster than we are. We do need to practice and learn them. I think many people are starting to push back or withdraw, and I don’t think that’s the rightest response either. I think it’s to control your own use, access, and to know the reasons why you’re doing it, and also to know that there are some fundamentally critical parts of human life that do not belong online, that are flesh and bone, that are eye to eye, and we need to be careful that we don’t willy-nilly pave everything over, even if it’s wonderful like the blockchain.

Jason: Yes – okay. Let’s wrap up with this: if you could offer people one fundamental guiding principle to focus on as they enter this new world, as they enter the next 10 years, that would help them steer in this rapidly-changing and evolving world, what would that be?

Jon: Pay attention, pay attention to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and to the extent possible… I know this is advice that’s been given forever, but understand your core values. Understand what you believe in, why you believe in them and why you want to do whatever it is that you’re doing, and recognise that you’re only one of 7.5 billion people and you’ll only be here for a short while.

Jason: Jon Husband, thank you so much for talking to me!

Jon: You’re welcome – thank you!