I have been thinking about interstices a lot these days–that is, ever since one of the Chinese students in my Networks and International Development Class protested that, given institutional lock-in, reforms could never come about in China. I gently begged to disagree. As I told her, and as we had discussed in class, in a networked society, small changes in any one part of the system can have major ramifications throughout. As important, by focusing on these small changes in the interstices of a social order, reformers could remain under the radar, and thereby circumvent the powers that be. The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.
The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.
Somewhat skeptical, the student persisted, asking for examples. So I provided an account of how the rise of cities in the Middle Ages helped to undermine the European feudal order (Braudel 1992).
It so happened that I was well prepared for the task, having listened only a few days before to a lecture on tape by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, in the series Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal, which was sponsored by The Teaching Company. As the lecturer had pointed out, although late Medieval cities originally emerged as an off-shoot of feudal land holders, they eventually took on a new, and transformative, life of their own.In fact, with the rise of commerce and the city merchants that promoted it, Europe was never the same. This new merchant society, which was based on the accumulation of wealth and industrial performance, gave rise to a new class–the bourgeoise–as well as new institutions –such as the guilds– that sought not only to restrict the powers of the nobility but also to extend the social order outside of the parameters of the feudal world itself.
Where are the critical interstices in our global society today? Recent events in Iran provide a clue. Just as, during the Middle Ages, cities went relatively unnoticed as they developed the commercial resources that allowed them to overturn the prevailing social order, so today Iranian hackers have managed to develop the kinds of net-savvy skills required to create a protest movement in an interstitial, virtual space, making it possible for them to outwit a very powerful and seemingly entrenched regime. As described by Murad Ahmed, writing in The Times Online, June 18, 2009:
It has come as a surprise to many, not least to Iran’s regime, just how effectively the country’s young population has been able to articulate and organize [an] opposition protest on the web. New technologies have turned yesterday’s flashmob into today’s political rally. With elements of the Iranian mobile phone system disabled, the internet has become the organizing medium for the opposition and Facebook and Twitter the tools of choice to communicate and organize dissent.
Further contemplating the notion of interstices, I see a new link between some of the ideas that we discuss in my Networks and International Development class and those that we focus on in my class on The Networked Economy. In the latter, we read Ron Burt, and discuss the resources gained by an organization when it develops structural autonomy by bridging structural holes (that is, the gaps in social structure). With the recent events in Iran in mind, it seems that Burt’s notion of structural autonomy is also apropos for describing that situation. For it would appear that the interstices that I speak of in my development class are non other than Burt’s structural holes where– with a little bit of strategic networking–formidable resources and power can be cultivated.