December 31, 2005

Do Links Subvert The Hierarchy?

Doc Searls, in his New Years wish, asserts as fact that

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy, Dr.Weinberger has been teaching us, since long before he installed that fact as a thesis in Cluetrain. I love that.

Dave Rogers responds, with some irritation, that Doc keeps asserting this fact even though it appears to be false.

Doc, for the umpteenth time, hyperlinks to do not subvert hierarchy. In fact, they help establish their own hierarchies. They may help overturn existing hierarchies, they may increase the rate of 'churn,' but as should be abundantly clear by now, human beings are all about competing for rank in a hierarchy and hyperlinks are merely another tool.

First, let's drop this term "hyperlink". It's not a hyperlink: it is a link. All hyperlinks are links, and all links are hyperlinks: the prefix is mere showing off.

Second, let's be precise. Do links subvert hierarchy? If we take "hierarchy" literally, links do subvert hierarchy. In a hierarchy, every member has one superior, any member may have multiple inferiors, and there can be no cycles: my superior is also superior to all my inferiors. That's what hierarchy means.

Now, links can and do break this structure. My master the Duchess is not subordinate to my footman, but her grace is free to link to my servants and my servants are free to link to her. Cycles happen all the time: they are the atoms of hypertext structure.

Does this mean we can't find power imbalances in link networks? No! Does this mean we can't find de facto hierarchies, or construct spanning tree, of hypertexts? Certainly not: you can always find a spanning tree in any connected graph. That's mathematics.

Dave Rogers concludes with an appeal to the better angels of our nature.

If we want a better world, a "cure" for high school, we don't require better technology, we need to work on being better people.

But he begins by denying the possibility, taking the side of inherent human nature:

Human beings are all about competing for rank in a hierarchy and hyperlinks are merely another tool. Technology changes how we do things, it doesn't change what we do.

Technology does change what we do. I drove to work; without a car, I couldn't do that. I flew, last year, to Sydney and Melbourne and Salzburg and Brussels; without planes, I couldn't do that. I'm writing this note, this morning, to a few thousand people who happen to enjoy reading about hypertext technology here on this page; without TCP/IP and HTTP and Tinderbox, I couldn't do that and you couldn't, either.

  1. Searls is right: links do break hierarchies.
  2. Searls is wrong: there's no evidence that these links don't simply form a new hierarchy -- or even recreate the old one -- although there's no particular evidence that they do.
  3. Rogers is right: people compete, nothing changes that. And he's right to point out that asserting a politically-desirable conclusion does not constitute evidence.
  4. Rogers is wrong: technology does change what we do. Moreover, appealing to people to work against their competitive nature to become better people is not, in the end, a better-established strategy for building a better world than creating better tools and better things. Food and shelter and art and science are good things, and we know we can make them; whether working "on being better people" will prove efficacious is open to doubt.