Hyperlinked Organization Title



The Web and the Return of Voice


David Weinberger
[email protected]



Short Attention Span Summary

The Web has engendered an unexpected lust, a longing for something. We don't even know what the Web is for but we know we must have it.

The longing is to escape the framework of management that promises to protect us from the wild forces around us, but requires us to deny our individual voices.

The Web promises this by providing an unmanaged environment that subverts the org chart, enabling people to hyperlink themselves together.

Hyperlinked organizations lose the illusion that business is manageable. In hyperlinked organizations, individuals regain the voices they bargained away.



Chunks of this essay spun out from a series of conversations with EGR editor Chris Locke
from which we both learned a lot.
Thanks Chris.




We, as a culture, feel something for the Web that we have no right to feel. We don't know what the Web is for. But we sense that it's important. We want it to be important, so important that it shocks the foundations of every institution that makes us behave nicely. We long for it with a desperation that can frighten us when we look at it coldly.

Who is this we? It's not just the webheads and full-time aficionados. It is the journalists who don't understand it but smell a story. It's the uncles and aunts who pepper you with questions about all this Web stuff. It's the seven-year-old who takes it for granted that when she speaks the entire world can choose to hear her. Our culture's pulse is pounding with the Web.

This fervid desire for the Web bespeaks a longing just as intense. Something is missing that the Web promises to provide.

What is missing is the sound of the human voice.

We have silenced our voices voluntarily. It is the price we pay for agreeing to live in a well-managed world where no challenge of biology cannot be met, where advances in Soil Mechanics will always outpace the geometry of population growth, where all asteroids can be diverted by international teams of good-looking scientists.

We yearn for the Web because we see a way to renegotiate the contract according to which we swapped our voice for the security of living in the Well-Managed World.

The longing the Web expresses is, ultimately, spiritual.


Being Managed

In the business world, the deep belief that we can box out risk and control our environment shows up as a belief in managing.

Managing requires establishing a framework by which things can be organized and according to which actions can be directed. A business manages finances, human resources and office supplies according to the same scheme: establish categories and needs, and then build processes and facilities that reflect the categories. Reflecting the commitment to command and control, the framework is innately hierarchical as every org chart shows.

Within that framework, the parts know their roles, limits and reward schedules. At its best, roles match talents and desires, and the organization succeeds at both the corporate and individual levels. At its worst, the human parts become interchangeable because they've been reduced to properties of time and motion.

In a managed environment, individual voices are at best noise. In fact, people will willingly strive to suppress their voice. Jean-Paul Sartre used to watch waiters priding themselves on how well they could play the waiter role. Most of us willingly play the role of the business professional.

There are tremendous advantages to living in a managed environment.

Risk avoidance. The unexpected does not dare break through the managed framework. If somehow it does, we will urgently figure out a way to eliminate it.

Smoothness. Everything works in a managed environment simply because managed environments cannot abide brokenness. Broken things embarrass managed systems. If our North American phone system worked as poorly as in some "third world" country (still subject to unexpected events like famines, plagues and wars), we would be mortified. And then we would fix it.

Fairness. You do your work and you will get what's due you. It's that simple. In earlier times when your life could end at any age, you had to accept it. Life was unfair. Now that you are guaranteed your three-score and ten, if something "goes wrong," the managed system will compensate you, even if you have to sue the bastards.

Discretionary Attention . If you were out in the wild, your attention would be drawn to every creaking twig and night howl. Your attention would never be your own. But now that the risks have been mitigated, things work right, and you can manage your time so you have not just leisure time but discretionary attention: you can decide what interests you. Why, you can even have hobbies.

Of course, none of these benefits are delivered perfectly. There are still risks, there are still injustices, there are still "outtages." But these are exceptions. And when they occur, we feel cheated, for our contract has been violated.

It wasn't always thus. For millennia, we assumed that being in control was the exception and living in a wildly risk-filled world was the norm:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
King Lear

Now these awful words sounds like one of those quaint primitive ideas we've outgrown.

The belief in the managed environment is a denial of the brute "facticity" of our lives. The truth is that businesses cannot be managed. They can be run, but they exist in a world that is so far beyond the control of the executives and the shareholders, that "managing" a business is a form of magical belief that gets punctured the first time a competitor drastically lowers prices, a large trading partner's economy falters, a key supplier's factory burns down, your lead developer gets a better offer, an angry consumer wins an unfair lawsuit.

As flies to wanton boys are companies to its markets. They pull off a company's wings for sport.

"Managing a business." Yeah, right.



The Web As Unmanaged

One of the remarkable things about the Web is that the culture it's building directly mirrors its own technical architecture. The medium truly is the message.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of HTML, made lots of right decisions (starting with using SGML as the language for writing his new document format), but his genius consisted in understanding that HTML would create a World Wide Web and not, for example, a World Wide Reference System or Global Footnote System. Call it marketing, call it a paradigm shift, but in either case it was the insight that moved the WWW off of his desktop in Switzerland and into the center of business and culture.

No one ordered the Web built. No one owns it. No one is responsible for fixing it. There's no one to call when something goes wrong. There's no automated phone support for the Web. No one gives you permission to get onto the Web or to post materials onto the Web. If you don't like what you see, there's no one to complain to. No one's page carries more inherent weight than anyone else's. No one can certify that what you've said is right. No one protects you from being an asshole in public.

Architecturally, the Web is decentralized. Politically, the Web is profoundly unmanaged.



Many Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Because the Web lets individual pieces "hook in" on their own, it has the general effect of subverting systems held together via central control. And because the relationships among the pieces are declared by the pieces themselves, the system has great difficulty creating over-arching hierarchies.

The result is that the Web busts up hierarchical organizations. The Web itself consists of many small pieces loosely joined.

You can see this easily in the first phenomenon the Web touched: documents. The Web rips the covers off of books, scatters the pages and lets them be loosely rejoined via hyperlinks. Documents unbound.

This, of course, brings many changes in its wake in the way we write, the way we read, the relation of authors and readers,and so forth.

The Web has precisely the same effect on corporate organizations. Intranets start to arise as the technical staff want to share information. Soon, the workers discover that they can use the intranet to initiate and collaborate on projects across geographic and org chart boundaries. Rather than consulting management and getting committee approval, individuals band together to solve a customer problem or exploit a market opportunity. They only invite onboard people whom they value. These virtual teams work close to the customer and close to the market with enormous zeal and creativity. Management looks like nothing but red tape.

Of course, management now no longer knows what is happening in its own organization. The fact that 10 virtual teams have been formed to solve the same problem masks the fact that there is a product deficiency that should be addressed at its source. It turns out that three different skunk works projects have addressed the same perceived opportunity, resulting in either redundancy or inconsistency.

The organization's response is to try to reinstitute centralized management. The contradiction grows and eventually Hegel is proved right, yet again, as a new form of working together emerges. Is emerging.

An organization that has been broken into many small pieces loosely joined is essentially unmanageable:

- The hierarchical framework is dissolved.

- The center does not hold. People believe — rightly or wrongly — they can be more effective without management; they serve the higher good of moving the company forward by flouting the company guidelines. Management announces that the corporate citizenship award will not be given this year.

- The contract is dissolved. The workers want to be rewarded not for working according to rules and expectations but for taking responsibility and taking risks.

- Risk avoidance becomes a sign of cowardice and lack of imagination. Never having failed is a sign of failure.

- The pieces each develop their own voice. They thus are not interchangeable and are not manageable.

- Roles are seen as straitjackets. Originality and inventiveness are cherished, in part because in an economy of many small pieces loosely joined, the noise level is tremendous and being outrageous is the only way to be heard. The person replaces the org chart box as the fundamental unit of business. Collaborative projects replace departments as the organizing principle.

We are at the stage where the dissolution is happening. We clearly need a new solution to avoid the pitfalls of self-organized, fragmented structures, namely, redundancy of effort, lack of overview, and a hypertrophism of male, adolescent, attention-grabbing behavior. It isn't yet clear what that new solution will be.



How to Hate Your Job

A managed environment requires behavior from us that we accept as inevitable although, of course, it is really mandatory only because it is mandated.

It requires this by stressing the virtue of "professionalism." To a large degree, that translates as being voiceless. Professionals not only act according to a canon of ethics but also dress like other professionals (one eccentricity per person is permitted — a garish tie, perhaps, or a funky necklace), decorate their cubicles with nothing more disturbing than a Dilbert (formerly Far Side) cartoon, sit up straight at committee meetings, don't "undermine the authority" (i.e., be smarter than) their superiors, make idle chatter only about a narrow range of "safe" topics, don't curse, don't mention God, never let on whether they're going to shit or pee, make absolutely no reference to being sexual (exceptions made for male executives after the new secretary has left the room) and successfully "manage" their home life so that it never intrudes unexpectedly into their business life.

Most of us don't mind doing this. Like Sartre's waiter, we actually sort of enjoy it. It's like playing grownup. Having extremist political banners hung in cubicles or having to listen to someone talk about his spiritual commitments or sex life would simply be distracting. Disturbing, actually.

And yet ... we feel resentment.

Our longing for the Web is rooted in the deep resentment we feel towards being managed.

However much we long for the Web is how much we hate our job.



Our Voice

Just about all the concessions we make to work in a well-run, non-disturbing, secure, predictably successful, managed environment have to do with giving up our voice.

Nothing is more intimately a part of who we are than our voice. It expresses what we think and feel. It is an amalgam of the voluntary and involuntary. It gives style and shape to content. It subtends the most public and the most private. It is what we withhold at the moments of greatest significance.

Our voice is our strongest, most direct expression of who we are. Our voice is expressed in our words, our tone, our body language, our visible enthusiasms.

Our business voice — in a managed environment — is the same as everyone else's. For example, we learn to write memos in The Standard Style and to participate in committee meetings in The Appropriate Fashion. (Of course, we are also finely attuned to minute differences in expression and can often tell memos apart the way birdwatchers spot the difference between a house sparrow and a barn sparrow.)

Sure, gray flannel has been replaced by earth tones and wingtips by Rockports, but to an outside observer, managed businesses are all the same and we're all the same within them.

In a sense, this is old news. Who needs to read yet another screed denouncing corporate conformism?

I contend that most of us do. The silencing of our voices happens silently. We are willing participants (although the environment frequently is coercive). It all makes sense to us.

But in fifty years, our current corporate times will seem no different than the 50s. Whether we are Ward Cleavers or Dilberts, we all reported to work in look-alike rooms, wearing uniforms, speaking civilly, playing our parts at committee meetings. The fact that we are now allowed to wear bad taste ties isn't going to separate us from our crew cut fathers.

Managed businesses have taken our voices. We want to struggle against this. We wear a snarky expression behind our boss's back, place ironic distance between our company and ourselves, and we want to think we haven't become our parents. But we have.

Management is a powerful force, part of a larger life-scheme that promises us health, peace, prosperity, calm and no surprises in every aspect of our lives, from health to wealth to good weather and moderately heated coffee from McDonalds. We are all victims of this assault on voice, the attempt to get us to shut up and listen to the narrowest range of ideas imaginable. This assault is literal as well as metaphoric. It shows itself in the embarrassment over having an accent, in the reduction of political thought to two identical parties, in the lust for buzzwords and catchphrases, yadda yadda yadda (and, of course, in the use of the phrase "yadda yadda yadda").

It is only the force of our regret at having lived in this bargain that explains the power of our longing for the Web.


 The Longing

We know what telephones are for: to call people. We know what television is for: to watch programs. We know what highways are for: to drive places. But we don't know what the Web is for.

So why has the Web been adopted faster than any technology since fire?

There are many ways to look at what's drawing us to the Web. Access to information. Connection to other people. Entrance into communities. The ability to broadcast ideas. None of these are wrong perspectives. But they all come back to the promise of voice.

At the first InternetWorld, the vendors were falling over one another offering software and services that would let you "create your own home page in five minutes." Microsoft, IBM, and a hundred smaller shops were all hawking the same goods. You could sit in a booth and create your own home page faster than you can get your portrait sketched on a San Francisco sidewalk.

While the create-a-home-page problem proved too easy to solve to support a software industry, there was something canny about the commercial focus on the creation of home pages. Since you could just as adequately view the Web as a huge reference library, why did home pages seize our imaginations? Because a home page is a place in which we can express who we are and let the world in. Meager though it may be, a home page is a way of having a voice.

The Web's promise of a voice has now gone far beyond that of home pages. The Web is viral. It infects everything it touches — and, because it is an airborne virus, it infects some things it doesn't touch. (This is another manifestation of the great longing we have for the Web.) And the Web has become the new corporate infrastructure, in the form of intranets, turning massive corporate hierarchical systems into collections of many small pieces loosely joined.

To understand how the Web gives voice, we have to be clear that the Web is not primarily a communications medium or information resource. It is, above all else, a place.

All of our language and our experience bear this out. We visit sites, we browse, we go to a page, we build home pages. Even as we're cursing the slowness of the connection, we feel like we're being delayed in going to some site far removed from us.

So the voice that the Web gives us is not the ability to post pictures of our cat and our guesses at how the next episode of The X Files will end. It is the granting of a place in which we can be who we are (and even who we aren't if that's the voice we've chosen).

And it is a public place. That is crucial. Having a voice doesn't mean being able to sing in the shower. It means presenting oneself to others. The Web provides a place like we've never seen before.

The Web and everything the Web infects favor voices. In an economy of attention, what's different wins. When you have 100 emails to read every day, the ones you turn to first are and the ones you remember are the ones that have a distinctive point of view and a distinctive manner of expression.

We may still have to behave properly in committee meetings, but increasingly the real work of the corporation is getting done by quirky individuals who meet on the Web, net the two-hour committee meeting down to two lines (one of which is obscene and the other of which is wickedly funny), and then — in a language and rhythm unique to them — move ahead faster than the speed of management.

The memo is dead. Long live email. The corporate newsletter is dead. Long live racks of 'zines from individuals who do not speak for the corporation. Bland, safe relationships with customers are dead. Long live customer support reps who are willing to get as pissed off at their own company as the angry customer is.

We are so desperate to have our voices back that we are willing to leap into the void. We embrace the Web not knowing what it is, but hoping that it will burn the org chart — if not the organization — down to the ground. Released from the gray flannel handcuffs, we say anything, curse like sailors, rhyme like bad poets, flame against our own values, just for the pure delight of having a voice.

And when the thrill of hearing ourselves speak again wears off, we will begin to build a new world.

That is what the Web is for.

March 24, 1999
Permission is granted to reproduce/repost but not for commercial purposes.
The author's name and a link to http://www.hyperorg.com must be included.


If you're interested in these ideas, you might want to visit http://www.cluetrain.com or http://www.hyperorg.com