Power Dynamics

Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans write how 'new power' is essential for brand building and engaging audiences

Published 6 years ago on Sep 29, 2018 4 minutes Read

People have always wanted to take part in the world. Throughout history, movements have surged, people have organized collectively, communities have built collaborative structures to create culture and conduct commerce. There has always been a dialectic between bottom-up and top-down, between hierarchies and networks.

But until recently, our everyday opportunities to participate and agitate were much more constrained. Thanks to today’s ubiquitous connectivity, we can come together and organize ourselves in ways that are geographically boundless and highly distributed and with unprecedented velocity and reach. This hyper connectedness has given birth to new models and mindsets that are shaping our age, as we’ll see in the pages ahead. That’s the “new” in new power.

A popular thread on Reddit, the link-sharing platform, crowd-sourced memories of growing up in the 1990s, when life felt very different. For those who were there, the posts offered warm nostalgia. For those who weren’t yet born, it told stories of an alien world: The anxiety of waiting for your yearbook photo to arrive, which was “the only time you saw a picture of you and your friends at school.” You only got one shot to get that right, and you never knew how it would turn out. The tension of calling the local radio station, requesting your favorite song, and then waiting, fingers poised on the record button of your tape cassette player, to capture it when it came on. The excitement of stopping by the Blockbuster Video store to rent a movie on the way home. The frustration of going to the library and finding the one book you need has already been taken out or “should be in the stacks but can’t be found.” The tedium of doing math without a calculator because they were banned, the sturdy reasoning being  “you won’t have a calculator in your pocket all the time when you grow up.”

Of course, we now have much more than a calculator in our pocket. In today’s world, we all have our hands (quite literally) on what we can think of as a new means of participation. And this isn’t just changing what we can do, but how we expect to engage.

These new means of participation-and the heightened sense of agency that has come with them-are a key ingredient in some of the most impactful models of our time: big business like Airbnb and Uber, China’s  WeChat or Facebook;  protest movements like Black Lives Matter, open software systems like GitHub; and terrorist networks like ISIS. They are all channeling new power.

Think of these as new power models. New power models are enabled by the activity of the crowd-without whom these models are just empty vessels. In contrast, old power models are enabled by what people or organization own, know, or control that nobody else does-once old power models lose that, they lose their advantage. Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume. New power models demand and allow for more: that we share ideas, create new content (as on YouTube) or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community (think of the sprawling digital movements resisting the Trump presidency).

To grasp the essential difference between old and new power models, think of the difference between the two biggest computer games of all time, tetris and Minecraft.

You will likely remember the block-based game Tetris, which exploded with the Gameboy craze of the 1990s. The way it worked was simple. Blocks fell down from the top of the screen and the player’s job was to make them fit into neat regular lines. They came down faster and faster until the player was eventually overwhelmed. In old power fashion, the player had a limited role, and you could never beat the system.

New power models work more like Minecraft, now the second biggest game of all time. Like Tetris, it is a clunky block-based game. But it operates very differently. Instead of a model built on top-down compliance, it is a game built from the bottom-up, with players around the world co-creating worlds together, block by block. It relies entirely on participatory energy. In the world of Minecraft, yoy will find houses, temples, and Walmarts; dragons, caves, boats, farms, and roller coasters; working computers made by engineers; forest fires, dungeons, cinemas, chickens, and stadiums. The players set their own tasks. There is no “manual”; players learn from the example-and often the homemade videos-of others. Some players (known as  modders” ) are even entrusted with the capacity to alter the game itself. Without the actions of the players, Minecraft is a wasteland. A key dynamic in the world today is the mutual incomprehension between those raised in the Tetris tradition and those with a Minecraft mindset.

 This is an extract from Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans' book New Power published by Macmillan