OccupyWallStreet and Failing Institutions

Jeff Jarvis has written about the OccupyWallStreet movement:

#OccupyWallStreet, to me, is about institutional failure. And so it is appropriate that #OccupyWallStreet itself is not run as an institution.

We don’t trust institutions anymore. Name a bank or financial institution you can trust today. That industry was built entirely on trust — we entrusted our money to their cloud — and they failed us. Government? The other day, I heard a cabinet member from a prior administration call Washington “paralyzed and poisonous” — and he’s an insider. Media? Pew released a study last week saying that three-quarters of Americans don’t believe journalists get their facts straight (which is their only job). Education? Built for a prior, institutional era. Religion? Various of its outlets are abusing children or espousing bigotry or encouraging violence. The #OccupyWallStreet troops are demonizing practically all of corporate America and with it, capitalism. What institutions are left? I can’t name one.

He goes on to say:

What’s happening is an attempt to define a new public, now that we can. Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are all countries being reimagined and remade: start-up nations. Hear Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir talk about building a new constitution, using Facebook, on the principles of “equality, transparency, accountability, and honesty” — liberté, égalité, fraternité, updated for the networked age.

In the end, this is why I wrote Public Parts, because we have the tools and thus the opportunity to rethink and reorganize our publics and decide what they stand for. The power and freedom that Gutenberg’s press brought to the early modern era, our networked tools now bring everyone in this, the early digital age. “They empower us. They grant us the ability to create, to connect, to organize, and to aggregate our knowledge…. They lower borders, even challenging our notion of nations.” That’s what the youth of these countries are doing.

I agree with the observation that many of our institutions are failing in important ways. However, I think this failure is symptomatic of larger changes happening in our world.  It’s not a matter of intent – the leaders of these institutions aren’t trying to be evil.  Rather it’s a reflection of the fact that those in charge are products of a different era and mindset, which is incapable of understanding and adapting to our changed world. As I have written before:

…many institutions are failing because they haven’t adapted to the ways our world has changed. One thing that’s striking about many of the big institutions finding themselves in hot water these days is that a big part of their problem appears rooted in a mistaken belief that they are able to tightly manage/control the information about problematic issues. Toyota had problems with car defects; it tried to hide them. The Church had problems with perverted priests; it tried to hide them. Goldman Sachs had problems with very risky investments and very shady dealings to get rid of them; it tried to hide them. Tiger Woods had a thing for cocktail waitresses; he tried to hide it.

In an earlier, less connected time, perhaps these things wouldn’t have become such big deals. Probably past experience in hiding problems had led the leaders of these institutions to try a similar approach in these cases.

However, they apparently didn’t realize that in today’s hyper-connected world it’s almost inevitable that bad things will come to light – whether it’s vehicle flaws, priests behaving badly, devious investment strategies, or adulterous affairs. And now when the news DOES come out, the impact is likely to be much greater than it might have been before the Internet and global communications – especially if it’s apparent there was a cover-up involved.

As I noted last year, the end result for all of these failing institutions will depend on their ability to adapt to our changed world:

I think this time is like any other in which great change has taken place. Some people and institutions will adapt to change and thrive; others will fail to adapt and fall by the wayside, deserted by their former supporters and clients.

Some may loudly protest the change and uncertainty of today’s world. They may even gain enough influence to hamper some institutions’ ability to adapt to these changes. But they can’t stop the change itself. In attempting to turn back the clock and to resurrect an illusory past they will be much like a bunch of Americans in the Panama Canal Zone back in 1964: all they are likely to accomplish is a quicker demise of the institutions they had hoped to preserve.

I’ve never been a believer in the so-called “Wisdom of the Market” as the term applied to Wall Street. But I do believe in the idea as it applies to transformational times and ideas. When the times are changing, the ones who understand and adapt to those changes will be the ones who thrive in what comes.

In the end we will be left with a combination of old institutions that adapted and new institutions that saw a better way and followed it. Everything else will just be history.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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