New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You
April 20, 2018
Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms detail how technology-enabled collaboration and mass participation are enabling a new power that is changing the world before our very eyes.
New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms, Doubleday, 336 pages, Hardcover, April 2018, ISBN 9780385541114
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So said Lord Acton. But the existence of power, and the ability to exercise it, is also necessary for organizing human affairs. At a deeper level, it is crucial to life on Earth, which is why I found Kate Raworth’s proclamation in her book, Doughnut Economics, that “It’s time to draw the economy anew, embedding it within society and within nature, and powered by the sun,” so undeniably realistic, and potentially transformative.
There is another transformation occurring in the world today, the result of technology-enabled collaboration and mass participation, that is affecting the social, political, and economic realities of each of our lives—and of human life collectively on Earth. It is a shift in the way power is created and exercised, and it is the topic of Jeremy Heimans’ and Henry Timms’ new book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You.
Henry Timms, the president and CEO of the 92nd Street Y, was behind the launch of Giving Tuesday (or #GivingTuesday), a philanthropic-minded response to the commercialism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Jeremy Heimans is a cofounder of GetUp!, an Australian political organization launched in 2005 to hold the government accountable through the simple act of getting people to email the politicians who represented them. Today, it has become “the largest political organization in Australia, with more members than all of the country’s political parties put together.” He is also the co-founder and CEO of Purpose, an organization that uses public mobilization and storytelling to build and support movements.
To consider the nature of new power versus old, consider one of the tools incubated at Purpose: Panela de Pressão (Pressure Cooker). It is an online platform that allows citizens of Rio to start campaigns on their phones. Beatriz Ehlers, a student whose top-rated school, The Friedenreich, serves disadvantaged students, and was slated to be demolished to make way for a parking lot as part of the plan for hosting the Rio Olympics, used the tool to start a campaign that eventually turned into a twenty-four-hour livestream of the school monitoring for signs of bulldozers moving in. The anti-corruption and civic participation group that built the tool, Meu Rio, then asked “Citizen Guardians” to keep watch and form a human barrier around the school should bulldozers arrive. Within 72 hours of the stream going live, and the media coverage that followed, the governor of Rio began to change plans, and the Friedenreich was eventually saved.
Heimans and Timms explain the difference between the two types of power:
Old power works like a currency. It is held by a few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.
New power operated differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal of new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.
Consider the case of Harvey Weinstein. His power in Hollywood was such that, “between 1966 and 2016, he was tied with God for the total number of times each was thanked in acceptance speeches on Oscar night—thirty four.” He was awarded the Los Angeles Press Club’s “Truth Teller” award in June of 2017. It would be rescinded amidst the rise of the #MeToo movement that same year, and his name has been mentioned only in disgust and derision during awards ceremonies since.
Generally speaking, the new power model “encourages mass participation and peer coordination” while old power “asks us to do little more than comply or consume.” But this transition from old power to new is not a matter of morality, or one being inherently superior. New power isn’t necessarily good, or old power bad. ISIS recruiters, for example, also operate on a new power model:
Islamic State, white supremacists, and other digitally savvy hate groups deftly combine decentralized social media armies with values that are profoundly authoritarian.
New power and old exist not as polar opposites, but on a compass. The compass they describe has four quadrants:
New Power Model + New Power Values = Crowds
New Power Model + Old Power Values = Co-opters
Old Power Model + New Power Values = Cheerleaders
Old Power Model + Old Power Values = Castles
Facebook, for example, is a Co-opter operating on a new power model (“sharing,” “open,” “connected”) but with old power values: secretive, manipulative, and hoarding vast amounts of data and value, while sharing none of either with the users that create it. It is what the authors refer to as a “participation farm.” Similarly, Donald Trump mobilized his supporters, in part, on a new power platform, while espousing old power values, making him what they call a “platform strongmen.” (The chapter on Leadership, contrasting the styles of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Pope Francis is fascinating and could be a book all its own.)
We may think of Apple as a thoroughly modern company that designs some of the most popular consumer products ever produced. But it is a Castle, because it does so as a thoroughly traditional, old power corporation, “with a ‘we know best’ ethos” that defines its values:
Culturally, Apple is known as secretive and an uneasy collaborator. Its continued ascendance is an important reminder of how successful old power models can still be.
It is possible, if you’re looking for a bright side other than Apple's continued success, that those values also help protect the privacy of those that use its devices. But compare that to Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi, which sells direct to market rather than distributors, and whose users are active participants in the development of its products, voting on features, and even “encouraged to create their own designs for the phone’s user interface.” They are also enlisted to test the interface for bugs and moderate the company’s user forums, which had more than 40 million members by 2015. The company released its first smartphone just four years earlier, in 2011. (For more on the rise of Xiaomi, read Clay Shirky’s 2015 book, Little Rice.)
Speaking of how to best spread ideas in this new power paradigm, Timms and Heimans discuss the move from sound bite to “meme drops,” that are “designed to spread ‘sideways,’ coming most alive when remixed, shared, and customized.” They suggest that, while the Heath brothers' formula for making ideas sticky, laid out in their book Made to Stick, are “evergreen principles,” we need to add “three new design principles”—making ideas Actionable, Connected, and Extensible—that are “key to making an idea spread in a new power world.”
They also detail the “Five steps to building a new power crowd,” to “starting and growing a flourishing movement today.”
Step 1: Find your connected connectors
Step 2: Build a new power brand
Step 3: Lower the barrier, flatten the path
Step 4: Move people up the participation scale
Step 5: Harness the three storms
They are also keenly aware of how each element of new power has a potentially problematic dark side. For example, attempts at building a crowd can turn into a contest that induces people to be more provocative, desperate, and dangerous than they’d otherwise be, and crowdfunding may reinforce the privilege of those with easy access and ability to take advantage of those platforms, while also potentially offloading the responsibility for providing funding for what used to be public responsibilities like education and health care. Here, the authors describe a installation at the the World Economic Forum that asked “What if public infrastructure was funded by the crowd?”
Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain took a photo of the installation and added the caption, “Or as some would call it, ‘taxes.’”
Of course, taxes are emblematic of the old “comply and consume” model of power. But they also make sure funds are more evenly distributed and efficiently allocated. Who, after all, would be excited to join the GoFundMe campaign for sewage treatment or “the vital but deeply unsexy project to smooth out gravel on the local highway.”
For all the often frivolous and whimsical ways in which we see elements of new power show up in the world, it is a very serious and powerful topic to explore, and the authors—proven practitioners of employing it to empower others and to open up a broader dialogue—are serious in their exploration of it. The compass, and steps, and different descriptions detailed above are just the beginning. They also provide a decision tree for when to turn to new power, providing examples from business, philanthropy, government agencies, the media (old and new and in-between). Their chapter on leadership identifies the abilities (to signal, structure, and shape) you need to master to move from old to new models of leadership.
They discuss what Buurtzorg, an organization that empowered “a decentralized network of nurses” in the Netherlands engaged in community healthcare has gotten right, contrasting it with what the devotees of Holacracy in Silicon Valley have gotten mostly wrong. In one particularly timely example, the authors explain why Howard Schultz’s well-meaning, but top-down devised, and ultimately disastrous #RaceTogether Starbucks campaign failed so quickly and spectacularly, and was mocked so widely—and why #BlackLivesMatter, on the other hand, began with a single social media post, and took off from the ground up. In another example that seems ripped from the headlines, they take on why the old power of the NRA keeps winning politically, which we are seeing so inspirationally contrasted in the real world by the courageous students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, and the #NeverAgain, #EnoughIsEnough movement, including the demonstrations we see continuing today as students across the country stage another school walkout on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
And they even detail why old power may actually produce better outcomes in some situations, and why it is often a question of when to switch between the two or blend them rather than usurping old power altogether. But, in the end, there is no denying that new power is ascendent today. And, according to the authors, it's not solely a technological phenomenon:
Yes, this is because technology has changed. But the deeper truth is that we are changing.
It has been awhile since I read a book about the ways in which technology is changing the world, and us as people, that has made me feel more optimistic about these topics. Wrapping up with the idea of platform co-ops replacing platform farms—with examples like “the #BuyTwitter movement [which] was significant enough that it ended up as one of five proposals on the table at Twitter’s 2017 annual general meeting”—I finished New Power feeling almost giddy. In addition to the great social movements that have mobilized (largely) online recently, perhaps the next generation of platform creators will build them with the public interest rather than (or at least as much as) their own private profit in mind.
Power tends to corrupt and new power corrupts newly. Hopefully, with its inherently anti-authoritarian values and ethos, perhaps it will spare us the ability to corrupt absolutely—unless you view things like the crowd-sourced naming of a British research vessel Boaty McBoatFace a corruption.