The Role of Institutions in the Digital Age

“Sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the eight-track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward.” (Levine 2009)

Lessig and Lethem tackle issues relating to the globalizing digital economy in a handful of ways, but throughout all of the dissonance and discussions of copyright, ownership, and collaboration I found myself analyzing how many of these assumptions had become so institutionalized.  After pinballing from one argument to the next, I was reminded of the writings of TED talk fixture Clay Shirky and his thoughts on the future of collaborative creative models.

 “Groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties.” (Shirky 2008: 25)

In effect, Shirky argues that historical response to such coordination costs has been the creation of institutions. Public and private, for profit or not, the creation of both measly and massive institutions has been the age-old answer to achieving coordinated results. Ribbon cutting ceremonies jumpstart the management of a group’s activities. However, amidst Lessig’s depiction of today’s key players, is this model still relevant in today’s increasingly connected world?

Participatory institution specialist Nina Simon famously outlined five commonly-expressed forms of public dissatisfaction with cultural institutions. Museums can seem irrelevant to visitors’ lives and never seem to change. The authoritative voice of the institution doesn’t always include the visitor’s view or provide context for understanding what’s presented. It isn’t a creative place where visitors can express themselves and contribute to history, science, and art nor is it a comfortable social place for them to talk about ideas with friends and strangers. (Simon 2010: Preface) So this begs the question, how many of these gripes can be directly tied to intuitional mire. Are institutions the answer to many or most of contemporary society’s greater challenges? The facilitation of group communication has certainly proven to be an effective tool in the institution’s tool belt, but at what cost? What is lost through the creation of institutions and how does a globalizing, interconnected network magnify the model’s outdated modes of operation?

The creation of an institution brings with it a management dilemma. Employees must be hired to manage other employees to manage other employees, all the while advocating on behalf of the institution’s goals. Economic and legal frameworks have to be applied and a physical space needs to be secured in which to operate. Famed technologist Clay Shirky goes on to depict institutions as being inherently exclusionary. Organizations can’t hire six billion employees. You can’t recruit everyone. And ultimately, this results in a professional class. Within his work Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization, Shirky assesses the implications of operating outside of traditional organizational structures. Arguing that the digital age has provided a vast array of dynamic tools allowing people to do things together, Shirky warns of the shortcomings of previous models.

“Every institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing that effort. Call this the institutional dilemma–because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice, and the larger the institution, the greater those costs.” (Shirky 2008: 21)

Leaving people where they are, such coordination brings the problem to the people instead of bringing the people to the problem. Preparation caves to flexibility. And while losing the ability to firmly shape the actions and activities of a volunteer-driven community, such a system similarly sheds the institutional cost that comprises the institutional dilemma.

Institutions are certainly not a blight on the planet. And Shirky isn’t advocating for the dissolution of institutions across the board. Alternatively, he is proposing intriguing new ways of framing bureaucracy and challenging many of our assumptions about the way things should/have to be. Pointing to such economic theories as power law distribution and the 80/20 rule to differentiate between institution-as-enabler and institution-as obstacle, Shirky is actually a proponent of institutional solutions as long as they best serve the overall objective. However, the digital age has simply upended traditional modes of communication and contribution, routinely exposing the glaring inefficiencies in many of today’s institutional models.

“Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future.” (Jenkins 2006: 259-60)


Works Cited:

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Mark Levine, NY Times, March 2009.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. London: Penguin Group, 2008.

Shirky Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London, Penguin Group, 2010.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.