Net Work Does Not Justice Make

October 24, 2013 3 Comments

“Wealth and income distribution no longer resemble a familiar ‘bell curve’ in which the bulk of the wealth accrue to a large middle class. Instead, the networked economy seems to be producing a ‘power-curve’ distribution, sometimes known as a ‘winner-take-all’ economy.” 

 – David Bollier, from “The Power Curve Society”

As is no doubt evident from past posts on this blog, we at IISC are enthusiastic about networks and their potential to create more equitable, healthy, thriving and sustainable communities.  We do not, however, subscribe to the belief that network approaches in and of themselves guarantee the kinds of just and humanizing opportunities and outcomes we seek.  We do encounter people who hold up networks as a sort of panacea, hoping that in an age of more distributed technology and open source approaches to problems and solutions, we will achieve some kind of democratic ideal that has to this point eluded us.  That there is promise is evident in many stories that we have heard, witnessed, and shared on this site.  That there is reason to be vigilant is also illustrated in the many signs of an ever-growing and highly racialized gap between rich and poor in this country and a continued reluctance on the part of many to look at these glaring inequities or the systems that perpetuate them.

An interesting take on this last point shows up in a recent report from the The Aspen Institute, entitled “POWER-CURVE SOCIETY: The Future of Innovation, Opportunity and Social Equity in the Emerging Networked Economy.”  This paper grows out of a convening pulled together by the Institute’s Communications and Society program of twenty-eight experts from the worlds of information technology, venture capital, economics, government policymaking, philanthropy, academia and management consulting in 2012.  Among other topics, these individuals addressed the concern on the part of some about the displacement of jobs, stagnant middle class income, and wealth disparities in an emerging “winner-take-all” network economy.   One of the participants, Kim Taipale, Founder and Executive Director of the Stilwell Center for Advanced Studies, talks about the paradoxical implications of “network effects” in the new economy – “Freedom results in inequality. That is, the more freedom there is in a system, the more unequal the outcomes become.”  The reason given for this is a so-called “power-law distribution” that often manifests on open platforms, whereby wealth flows to “super-nodes.” This phenomenon is apparently sometimes called “preferential attachment.”

While there is ongoing debate about the inevitability of this kind of future, there is both a cautionary tale and a virtual extension of preferential phenomena that we know to be true about the in-person realm of groups and networks.  As Jo Freeman wrote in her classic paper, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” “When informal elites are combined with a myth of ‘structurelessness,’ there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious.” In other words, while openness can certainly be opportunity, it can also be a reinforcement of existing dynamics of power and privilege.  Openness does not in and of itself undo complex and historical amalgamations of structural inequities nor the human proclivity towards implicit bias.

Which is why at IISC we hold up three lenses for our collaborative capacity building work for social change: yes, networks, and also importantly “power, equity, and inclusion” and “love as a force for social transformation.” While each of these lenses brings vital nuance to the work of collaborative social change, we find that one without the others is not as powerful and perhaps even counterproductive to our stated aims.

More about the  three IISC lenses can be found here, and more about bringing an explicit lens towards power, equity and inclusion can be found in the following posts by IISC’s Cynthia Parker:

“Got Bias?”

“Undoing Racism By Design”

And we are eager to hear from others about what you have done to deliver on the promise of networks for the sake of greater equity.


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:


  • MistinguetteS says:

    I am currently working with several groups experimenting with “network” as their intentional design instead of “organization.” While these groups are primarily or completely composed of people of color, they want to be thoughtful about all the ways they have seen networks reinforce not just racism, but class privilege, gender inequality and and social exclusion based on formal education. They don’t want to replace the Old Boys Club with the New Brown Power Elite!

    So, seeing things through a network lens is not a guarantee of justice, but it is an opportunity to notice informal flows of power that support systems of injustice. Or, as the poet Audre Lorde reminded us:

    “Even when they are dangerous
    examine the heart of those machines you hatebefore you discard them
    and never mourn the lack of their power
    lest you be condemned
    to relieve them.”

    (from “For Each Of You”)

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