Monday, March 11, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns: Embracing Abundance

This is the latest in a series on platform for postmoderns. Find previous posts (in inexplicably nonsequential order) here. The first post can be found here.


There's a fundamental logic underlying free market capitalism: every equation is zero-sum. For you to make something the world wants or needs, someone else will be forced to not make something else. For every sale you get, someone else loses a customer. For your star to rise, someone else's star has to fall. There's a finiteness to the world; only so much of everything exists, and so only so much of anything can come into being.

It's hard to argue the logic of that premise. The whole notion of environmental responsibility is based on the understanding that oil and carbon and topsoil and water are finite. Put a five-person family in a three-bedroom house and more than one person is going to be sharing a room. Every budget has a fiscal cliff. Even the days of our lives are numbered; as Moses once wrote, "Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10). Pardon my French, but Moses was a bummer.

And yet we are continually inspired to reject the limitations of time, space, money, power. Indeed, it's in defiance of such limits that nearly all innovation emerges. The Wright brothers defied the apparent restriction of gravity, the previously unassailable logic that we are bound to the earth. A few decades later and we're floating freely in space. Arguably as inspiring as Moses' words above are sobering, are Robert Browning's words describing the ache to create, to do an altogether new thing: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" Browning rejects the notion of scarcity that undergirds modern economics; his universe is endlessly abundant.

Moses himself rejected scarcity, actually, even as he was lamenting the limitations of time. He found drinking water in a desert, for pete's sake. And when his lieutenants complained to him that other Israelites were daring to give direction to the people of Israel during the exodus from Egypt--a zero-sum platform grab if ever there was one--Moses countered with an appeal to abundance: "“Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). In Moses' ideal world, everyone had power and wielded it well; everyone had, in fact, everything they needed and nothing they didn't.

That's the fundamental fallacy of a platform mentality shaped by scarcity: that, responsibly handled, there isn't enough of everything for everyone; that to wield influence, one needs to be elevated above everyone else; that for a platform to be effective, it must tower over and even undercut all other platforms. That's not how it plays out in practice, of course: Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, two international church leaders whose platforms were constructed under a modernist paradigm in a free market economy, aren't to my knowledge out to destroy each other. But the assumption underlying the modernist platform strategy presumes that you and I have time and attention and even loyalty enough for only one of them; they are in fact competing with each other for you. More to the point, if you have a message to disseminate--about marriage, for example--you're in head-to-head conflict with massive marriage brands like Les and Leslie Parrott, and John and Julie Gottman. You may as well give up now, because you don't have a fighting chance.

Postmoderns have seen the destructive quality of competition over limited resources in oil-based wars, slave labor and planned obsolescence. Meanwhile, they have grown up with technology that makes everything imaginable available at the touch of a button. Given these experiences, the notion of competing with someone in order to share something with everyone is preposterous. Postmoderns don't enter into competition with people who are interested in the same things; they enter into generative relationship with them. For the postmodern, there is plenty of room at the table, and a smorgasbord of ideas yields a feast of new insight--a vastly different image from the modernist vision of a marketplace of ideas, where supply supposedly drives down demand and only the fittest survive.

Of course, businesses that traffic in platform (publishing, for example) operate in a modernist economy still driven by scarcity, and so they continue to play by the rules of the modernist paradigm. Self-sustaining institutions are usually the last to convert to emerging models. But a new economy, a new paradigm, is possible; the pursuit of platform in an age of abundance requires merely that we think outside the box.

One way of doing so is to disseminate freely--to scatter ideas like seeds in whatever medium is available at any given moment. I write on blogs, for example, because I'm interested in getting an idea out there, to see how others interact with it. You can read what I write here freely, and you can comment as often as you like. We might think of a blog as an outpost in a war on competing brands, I suppose--by posting regularly we draw the attention of an audience away from some other platform and toward our own. But we don't have to think of it that way. We can instead think of it as what it is: one of many social media that is peculiarly conducive to idea sharing and generative conversation. We might think of it, in other words, as what we're bringing to a common table. This view of platform is less mercenary than the old regime's, and it syncs up nicely with a postmodern world in which playing well with others is a high value.

Any common table calls for people to gather around it, and so part of the task of building a postmodern platform is to announce the abundance, to find conversation partners and cultivate the conversation. Publicity, marketing and even sales are still part of this emerging economy. These things are done broadly, as you make scattershot announcements about new content as it goes live and offer incentives for people to engage your content; they are also done narrowly as you engage individuals with your content, commenting on their content and inviting them specifically to critique and build on what you've done. You make space in small and big ways for the conversation you want to take root and grow. You take responsibility for keeping the conversation vital and useful. And gradually you find that you've become a go-to voice in a can't-miss conversation. You've got yourself a platform, and nobody else had to suffer for it.

This approach to platform takes time, obviously. But contrary to Moses' lament, just like everything, there's plenty of time to go around.

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