Am I an Atom?

Science Museum

Nice quote from the introduction to journalist and academic Jeff Jarvis’s new book, Public Parts:

“Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.”

Great metaphor – except that it assumes the Individual [atom] is always and everywhere, deep down, the fundamental unit of society [molecule]. Some societies make this assumption. Others don’t. This isn’t to criticise – simply to note that every metaphor carries its own freight.

Found at

Public Parts: atomize & reform

Image Credit: Science Museum, London

The medium is the bias

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...
Image via Wikipedia

We don’t carry cultural biases around in our heads so much as encounter them in our environments. Humans require the flexibility to be able to engage with different cultural biases in different contexts. A person who is acculturated to be biased in one particular way will either gravitate towards that way of working or be somewhat handicapped in contexts outside of their cultural comfort zone. Imagine a right handed person working with their left hand: they can do it but it isn’t comfortable. Unfortunately we mostly aren’t even aware that we are operating in culturally biased environments and our flexibility is unconscious rather than reflective. Cultural theory offers a heuristic approach to recognising, naming and making sense of these cultural biases so that we can operate on a more ambidextrous manner.

A case in point: email. Here’s an excerpt from Johnny Ryan’s book on social networking:

“E-mail stripped away the accumulated layers of formality that had been observed in correspondence of the ink age:

‘One could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone.’

Strict hierarchies were flattened, and the barriers between individuals at different levels of an organization’s hierarchy were minimized. Staff at ARPA now found that they could easily contact the Director, Stephen Lukasik, by e-mail. Similarly, Lawrence Roberts used e-mail to bypass principal investigators and communicate directly with contractors below them.

As e-mail spread throughout facilities connected to ARPANET, the rapid-fire e-mail exchanges between people at different levels of the academic hierarchy established new conventions of expression.”

The point is that in the 1970s the new medium of email effectively forced an Egalitarian cultural bias to be adopted inside an otherwise strongly Hierarchical organization. In the terms of Cultural Theory, email is a Weak Grid medium.

The upshot of this is that if your organization relies heavily on one cultural bias or another (and nearly all do) it may be important to consider carefully the quality of match between the cultural bias of the medium and the cultural bias of the organization. For example it would probably be a bad idea for the monarch to use email, since the medium implicitly undermines the cultural power of the institution. It isn’t just that the medium risks trivialising the sender, The medium actually implies particular social relationships which may or may not be conducive to the sender’s institutional arrangements.

Note that the English monarchy has intuitively understood this. If you want to contact the Queen in 2011 you have to write a letter.

The official website says:

“If you wish to write a formal letter, you can open with ‘Madam’ and close the letter with the form ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. This traditional approach is by no means obligatory. You should feel free to write in whatever style you feel comfortable.”

…as long as it’s snail mail. This is just as well, since if you tried to tweet the Queen (which you can’t) the formal closing would take up over half of your 140 character allowance.

Conversely, those seeking to change cultural biases could do worse than to ‘bring the war to the enemy’ by seeking to force them to use culturally inappropriate media to convey their messages.

Unlike the Queen, Prince William has a Twitter account. When I looked it had 27,387 followers. This figure contrasts rather sharply with the number of followers the monarchy is supposed to have (many millions in several Commonwealth countries). In other words the very use of a Weak-Grid medium such as Twitter undermines the Strong-Grid hierarchical rationale of its user.

For those who do not operate in Hierarchical institutions these examples of blue-bloods using the Internets may serve to illustrate the horror with which many who defend a Hierarchical worldview look at contemporary social change. This horror can be hard to understand – isn’t it an over-reaction? Well, no. While most of us just see Twitter and Facebook. For the Hierarchical worldview these are further evidence of the end of civilization as we know it – and they are not wrong.


Johnny Ryan 2010 A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London: Reaktion and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.