Clay Shirky
Image by Derek Dysart via Flickr

David Crotty’s perspective on Clay Shirky’s recent post has its merits, but I think David misses the point Shirky is trying to make.

David is worried that the complex, high-end outputs of scholarly endeavors, theater, film, music, art, and other disciplines could vanish “into the mud” as we race to the bottom through simplification.

I think  Shirky was trying to make a point about cultures, not about outputs per se. Shirky even acknowledges that things have to be complex sometimes, but thinks they don’t have to now be complex all the time:

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.

This blog is a good example of what Shirky’s talking about, I think. The Scholarly Kitchen is about as complex as it needs to be. We’ve veered now and again in discussions toward becoming more complex, toward inserting bureaucratic layers or oversight structure, but each time, it’s felt like too much. We’ve talked about moving the infrastructure to the more complex and involved hosted model of WordPress. We’ve talked about accepting some commercial ideas that have come our way. But we’ve rejected all of these ideas so far, primarily because each one would have introduced an unhelpful level of bureaucracy.

Do we need a managing editor? A raft of copy editors? Administrative staff?

Is the Scholarly Kitchen “low quality” because we don’t have those things? If we were created from scratch by a traditional media company, we may well have them all.

David uses examples like Lord of the Rings and Avatar to indicate how high-end motion pictures require complexity to become attractive market forces. True, but modern technologies also allow directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson to reduce the level of complexity in the bureaucracy. It’s interesting to note that David’s two choices are films that were done largely outside of the traditional Hollywood bureaucracy. Lord of the Rings was approved, and then Jackson went away to New Zealand to make it, far out of the Hollywood spotlight. Cameron worked outside the system as well, thanks to the liberty hits like Titanic and the Terminator movies bought him. I think this is in line with Shirky’s final observation:

. . . when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Jackson and Cameron epitomize this. They’ve worked in ways that were complex in the craft sense, but not complex in the bureaucratic sense. In fact, my perspective on the stories told about their movie-making is that they were able to make such visionary movies largely because they eschewed traditional Hollywood bureaucracy. (Jackson seems to have been caught up in it again, and his output has suffered.)

Shirky’s argument is that cultural fossilization, with strata upon strata of useless practices preserved and treasured inside an organization or in a community of pratice, is a major component of failure, aside from technological changes and innovations. It’s very similar to Clayton Christensen’s disruptive technologies argument, but focusing on the management trap in a grand way.

Quality will always have a place in the  market, there is no doubt. That doesn’t mean that the bureaucracies that have grown up around old media can remain in place, will continue to add value, or are important. In fact, they may be exactly what we must excise, simplify, rethink, and shorten case-by-case to avoid a meltdown of media culture on a larger scale. In some cases, good things can be made with very little or no apparent bureaucracy.

And by bringing about these multiple cultural shifts from “old school” to “modern,” we will be positioned to make the high-quality things of the future.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Counterpoint: The Power of Simplification — Why the Digital Age Means the End of Top-Heavy Bureaucracies"

I’m not sure I missed the point as much as I was interested in adding something new to it, because link-blogging is boring, and frankly, I know how you feel about people who try to get by from simply repackaging the works of others. The first half of my post is an acknowledgment that Shirky is right on the money about the value in reducing complexity (though I’d go a step further, it’s worth doing at all times regardless of disruptive influences).

It’s interesting though, that I chose to take this more to be about trimming the fat in the production chain, thinking about things that are rapidly becoming obsolete, like the infrastructure to support print or owning your own warehouse when that could be more cost-effectively outsourced, while you focused more on the bureaucracies that inevitably build up over time. My point is that complex, quality products often require complex infrastructures, and if you eliminate all of your editorial staff, the quality of your books is likely to suffer. Avatar and LOTR may have avoided some of the complexities of the studio system, but both were incredibly huge, complex projects that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, that required incredibly complex infrastructures. Take those away and you have this.

But streamlining is always valuable. Bureaucracies are an interesting subject though–are they inevitable? I always think of Microsoft, who were able to overthrow the Goliath of IBM because IBM was so mired down in their bureaucracies, while MS was lean and agile. Given years of success and expansion, MS is now the lumbering giant (and their successor, Google, is starting to show signs of creeping complexity as well). Wikipedia is an area where you would think these problems could be avoided, as it’s meant to be a wide open portal to the sharing of the world’s knowledge. Instead, it’s become an incredibly regulated and locked-down environment, completely bogged down by rules and petty dictators who are constantly driving away potential contributors. Building these bureaucracies seems to be endemic to human nature, and really hard to avoid.

I think the complexity = quality argument is situational. I agree that in some cases the equation works, but not in all or even in most. In fact, processes and bureaucracies are often instituted to eliminate deviation, to your point about Microsoft. Once they had something worth preserving, bureaucracy became the norm. It’s a conservative force.

You and I saw different things in Shirky’s post, which I find interesting. No two people ever read the same book or, I gather, blog post. Interpretation is everything.

I’m glad our banter made it out of the comment threads! (Want to see more? Come to the SSP’s annual meeting and the Scholarly Kitchen Food Fight that ends the meeting!)

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