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Discussing the Multitude At the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum
European Straits #83
On November 18, 2016, I was on stage in the Aula der Wissenschaften in Vienna as part of a panel moderated by the Financial Times’s rising star Sarah O’Connor. The event was the 8th Global Peter Drucker Forum, and the topic was technology and its impact on the quality of jobs.
The widespread assumption back then was that technology was turning work into a new precariat. It brought wages down and deprived workers of their economic security. It was the adverse agent of change—with all those robots, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning algorithms, and crypto protocols imposing the pace of innovation onto the global economy. By contrast, we humans appeared as the dispensable victims in a world eaten by software. Technology suggested strength, rigor, predictability, power, and profits. Humanity, on the other hand, seemed to be more about weakness, messiness, uncertainty, costs, and being sidelined in a more digital economy.
It doesn’t help that the world of technology is populated by, well, technologists. For some reason, this particular population rarely appears as humanity’s best friend. There’s the fascination for the assumed perfection of machines as opposed to humans. There’s the unease in human relationships that contributes so much to the cliché of nerds stuck to their screens rather than speaking to other people. There are the fantasies around the singularity and becoming immortal. And there’s the spectacular absence of women, with its dire consequences.
The technologist’s bias can be reinforced by a collective ethos. I often discuss what I call the “French passion for technology”, explained by a centuries-long legacy of excellence in mathematics and engineering. We French engineers excel at harnessing the power of technology to operate one-size-fits-all products at a very large scale. On the other hand, whenever it’s about listening to customers, training workers to care more, and customizing an exceptional experience for the many (in other words: bringing humanity into business), we’re among the worst in the world. It explains why we’re (still) lagging behind at being successful entrepreneurs on consumer markets.
Yet although I’m French and an engineer, the message I conveyed that day in Vienna went against the idea of technology and humanity as separate dimensions. What I advocated instead was the idea that the corporation is a human system bringing together three conflicting parties: shareholders, employees, and customers. What I then called the “new corporate contract” derived from a human-centric view of the corporation rather than a tech-centric view—even though technology directly impacts how power and wealth are distributed within the contract.
This idea of the new corporate contract, which I detail in my new book Hedge, goes all the way back to the concept of the “multitude” that Henri Verdier and I borrowed from Italian post-marxist philosopher Antonio Negri. The history of how we came up with this concept in 2012 was linked to our positioning our book L’Âge de la multitude and its core thesis. We wanted to write the book around what we dubbed “the single law that explains the digital economy”. We were looking for a polarizing view of what technology is all about. And we came up with the following: “The key to understanding the digital economy is that it redistributes power from the inside to the outside of organizations”.
What exactly is the nature of that outside power? For Henri and I, today’s power is vested in this mighty “multitude”—that is, the billions of individuals that are now equipped with powerful computing devices and connected with one another through networks. And it inspires a lesson in strategy and management that every corporate executive needs to keep in mind: the businesses that succeed in the digital economy are the ones that realize how power has been redistributed outside of their organizations. The winners are not the companies who use the most technology. Rather, they are the companies that best use technology to harness human power, which in turn fuels growth and generates profits.
Of course the world didn’t wait for Henri and I to develop the idea of the networked multitude. Before us, there were Don Tapscott’s “Wikinomics”, Shoshana Zuboff’s “Distributed Capitalism”, and the more widely used “Web 2.0” crafted by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty. While most people—including policymakers and journalists—like to think about robots and software, many others realize that value creation is mostly about the many humans that computing and networks have so greatly empowered.
Rediscovering the human dimension in the digital economy won’t solve all the problems the current transition brings about. But, again as detailed in Hedge, it’s a step in the right direction. The constant pressure on wages and the downward quality of jobs has but one explanation: the unprecedented power of customers at the expense of workers, one human party against another. Likewise, the widespread instability of the Entrepreneurial Age can be explained by the many ups and downs of large network-driven consumer markets. You cannot solve all these problems (with a new Safety Net) until you realize that they are dominated by a human dimension rather than a technological one.
I’ll be participating again as a speaker in the Drucker Forum this year and look forward to being part of this wonderful gathering again. I like that it’s in Vienna, Peter Drucker’s birthplace and a city that for better and for worse symbolizes Europe and its history. Above all, the theme of the Forum this year is “The Human Dimension”. And so this will be the perfect stage to stress this message: the problems brought about by the Entrepreneurial Age are all too human; therefore it’s up to us humans, as a society, to collectively imagine the institutions that will contribute to solving them.
Don’t forget to check out the at Azeem Azhar’s invitation, which includes an essay on platforms and worker empowerment. Also, make sure you get your copy of Hedge by clicking on the relevant link depending on where you are: 🇺🇸US, 🇬🇧UK, 🇫🇷FR, 🇩🇪DE, 🇮🇹IT, 🇪🇸ES.
Here are a few readings on the central human dimension of technology-driven business models–most of them classics, and a few mine:
The Cluetrain Manifesto – 95 Theses (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls & David Weinberger, 1999)
The Architecture of Participation (Tim O’Reilly, June 2004)
What Is Web 2.0 (Tim O’Reilly, September 2005)
Creating value in the age of distributed capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2010)
The Economics of the Multitude (Henri Verdier and me, Paris Innovation Review, June 2012)
We Need a New Language for the Collaborative Age (Nilofer Merchant, Wired UK, March 2013)
The Five Stages of Denial (me, The Family Papers, May 2016)
A New Corporate Contract for the Digital Age (me, The 8th Global Peter Drucker Forum, October 2016)
Warm regards (from Normandy, France),