My group Fifth Quadrant performed at the opening of a conference the other day, where no less a speaker than Malcolm Gladwell was giving a keynote. He had some fascinating insights about how global society is changing (which I think can inform the way in which musical ensembles, orchestras, and musicians model their work).
Generational Paradigm was his term for describing the fundamental shift in mindset that occurs between different generations. For people who lived through World War 2, the militaristic-hierarchical structures that powered much of society’s infrastructure were crucial to their need of forging a secure and stable reality in an environment that had often seemed apocalyptic.
As time passed, things began to change. New opportunities emerged throughout the Western world, and the arrival of the ‘Baby Boomers’ gave rise to a new sense of individualism that built upon the strength of hierarchy. ‘Pay me what I’m worth’, ‘the better/more/etc. that I achieve the higher up the hierarchies I will go’, ‘if I win a reward for what I do, it’s entirely mine to keep and spend’; these are all classic attitudes that have permeated much of the professional world during the final decades of the 1900s.
But as we move into the 21st Century, the ‘Millennials’ – loosely defined by Gladwell as those born in the 1980s and 1990s – have begun to turn away from hierarchical structures. Wikipedia, said Gladwell, is a great example: whereas a paper encyclopedia is a closed, finite structure, created by the few for the many, Wikipedia, is an open, crowd-sourced structure. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of an encyclopaedia. It’s a very different way of achieving the same thing (and brings with it very different problems).
What exactly has caused this change in mindset is beyond the scope of this blogpost, however it’s fair to say that the internet and networked social media has been the predominant force behind the change. Technology has enabled different types of behaviour, and those behaviours have in turn changed the structures that we use to make things happen.
Occupy is a good example of a movement that changed the global conversation about how society works. People grouped together on the basis of shared interest; there were many things they wanted to see happen, and much common ground between people about what they believed in. But they did so without a leader, and without an ideology.
This model of interaction reflects the transformation of how the youngest generation sees the world; the ‘old-fashioned’ offline perception of manifold, wide-ranging hierarchies is replaced by an ‘everyone is equal’ attitude, which mirrors the hyperlinked, social-media-enabled online worlds where everything is just one click away. If everyone can be linked directly to one another online, why not take a similar approach offline?
Of course, there are massive advantages and disadvantages to this ‘network model’ way of thinking that you won’t find in hierarchical models. Network learning, for example, offers big benefits; forget the received wisdom of 10,000 hours to become ‘really good’ at something — if you can eat up the accumulated wisdom of many thousands of other people, then in very little time you can acquire the knowledge of a master.
But therein lies the rub. Acquisition of knowledge is one thing; application is another. Just because you can cut the learning time in half, doesn’t mean that you can shortcut the mastery process. Learning still takes time, and for that, you need the guidance and leadership of someone who has already achieved mastery. In other words, you still need a hierarchy to guide you through. Someone who is committed to a network model instead of a hierarchical model is in danger of missing the important roles that hierarchical relationships have to play. I use learning as the example here, but it is true of many things.
The network model is just as susceptible to corruption as the hierarchical model, only in a different way. What happened in Egypt in 2011 was a perfect example, said Gladwell. The revolution was sparked initially through online networks. But once those online networks were blocked and people were forced offline and out of their houses in order to interact, that revolutionary energy spilled out into the ‘offline’ physical world.
But the revolution was not a success. The network model got things started, for sure, but the lack of effective hierarchy prevented any meaningful followthrough. The net result was that the candidates who finally ended up competing in the elections the following year had very little connection to the revolution at all. One was an incumbent minister of the previous pre-revolution administration, and the other was from the Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept apart from the revolution all along.
When the network failed, the hierarchy came into play. But for the Egyptians who had started the process, they were not the hierarchies which they had had in mind.
So, how do you successfully fuse hierarchy and network?
Culturally, this is going to be one of the biggest questions of the next few years. For music, we have especially interesting models to play with; orchestras and conductors offer fertile ground for exploration, although perhaps it is in the smaller and more subtle models such as the string quartet – where such tensions have always seen the most subtle interplays – that the most interesting insights will lie.
What would a musical ensemble look like if it optimised the best of hierarchy and network models? It certainly wouldn’t be the didactic, Toscanini-led conductor-as-god structure of the 20th century orchestra. What could it be instead?