Book Review: New Power: How it’s Changing the 21st Century and Why you need to Know

December 20, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Here’s my recommendation for a last minute panic Christmas pressie for your activist friends. You’re welcome

As befits a grumpy old technophobe, I have long been sceptical of the hype around online activism. I’ve cited Malcolm Gladwell’s bah humbug piece on the Arab Spring ‘why the revolution will not be tweeted’ as pretty much summing up my views.

But after reading New Power, by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, I’m going to have to change my views. The authors are leading digital gurus – Timms came up with ‘Giving Tuesday’, Heimans founded GetUp! and now runs Purpose. Between them, they have a vast pool of stories of both success and failure to draw on. And backstories – they’ve done their research on everything from Kony2012 to Boaty McBoatface.

First of all, definitions (or something approximating them – this is not an academic book):

‘Old Power works like a currency. It is held by a few. It is closed, inaccessible and leader-driven. It downloads and it captures. New Power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It uploads, and it distributes. The goal with new power is not to hoard it, but to channel it.’

New Power is reflected in both models (crowd-sourced, open access, very different from the ‘consume and comply’ Old Power variety or the ‘participation farms’ of Uber and Facebook) and values (informal, collaborative, transparent, do it yourself, participatory but with short-term affiliations).

It is built on what the authors see as ‘an increasing thirst to participate….. a huge wave of joining, affiliation and participation’ especially among millennials ‘formerly known as the audience’. Social media has allowed the lift-off of broad social movements like #MeToo or

#BlackLivesMatter, new business models like Airbnb and Uber, but also ISIS and the NRA, which have both proved adept at combining old and new power. And some spectacular failures, as when Starbucks boss Howard Schultz decided his baristas would build a ‘race together’ movement by discussing racism as they served up flat whites.

One of the more striking case studies of failure is the story of the Boaty McBoatface debacle (if you haven’t heard of it, check it out – it’s hilarious). Not just because it shows how things can go wrong if you encourage participation without actually meaning it, but also because the authors imagine what could have happened if the organizers hadn’t pulled the plug:

‘Had it leaned into all that engagement, and proudly smashed the champagne bottle on the hull of Boaty McBoatface, it could have built a community that delivered for the Natural Environment Research Council for years. You might imagine a generation of Brits following Boaty’s adventures by GPS; schoolkids greeting Boaty when she docked in their town. Boaty might have become the most participatory vessel in the world, capable of delighting the public, but also of providing a portal for more substantial engagement with the scientific enquiry she pursued.’

Although the authors are clearly more into new power than old, there is a nuanced discussion of the links between them. Organizations

Decision tree for using New Power

like the NRA strike a different balance of the two at different moments, brilliantly out-manoeuvring gun control advocates. Getting that combination right avoids the ‘fate of fizzle’ suffered by Occupy and other movements that failed to vary their repertoire (see my rubbish phone pic for their decision tree on this).

Another perversion of new power values is the rise of ‘platform strongmen, mastering new power techniques to achieve authoritarian ends’. They see Donald Trump as one such, who ‘revels in the instability of countless truths.’

New Power acknowledges the as yet unfinished battle between the countervailing tendencies of the online world: the tendency to centralization v the possibility of digital cooperation, as when the city of Austin, Texas replaced Uber with a locally run cooperative equivalent (why aren’t more city governments doing that? Heads up, Sadiq Khan!)

But they also celebrate leaders who have combined both the techniques and the values of New Power, such as Al-jen Poo of the US National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, Lady Gaga and her ‘little monsters’ or Beth Comstock of General Electric.

To generate a series of recommendations and recipes, the authors rely on use numerous case: the ice bucket challenge (new power) vanquished the telethon (old power) because it got the right combination of ACE: something that was Actionable, Connected people together and that was Extensible – it could be customised by the participant.

A particularly useful insight comes in their ‘5 steps to build a crowd’, where they stress the importance of ‘superconnectors’ – a relatively small set of highly engaged participants who can be a massive resource. Lego’s flagging fortunes turned around largely because new management recognized the importance of the AFOLs – Adult Fans Of Lego who had previously been seen as a bit of a joke. Who are Oxfam (or LSE)’s superconnectors and how do we talk to them?

As I read, I found myself regularly scribbling notes to self in the margin – could Oxfam do this? How could we enable a community of people who’ve taken the Make Change Happen MOOC to stay in touch and do stuff? Should Oxfam encourage people to play with its logo (informally known as ‘The Kenny’ after South Park), as Airbnb has? Could there have been an online response to the Haiti scandal earlier this year, learning how to ‘embrace the storm’ like the US Girl Guides on transgender members?

Any criticisms? I found myself hankering for a tighter ‘so what’ section – it gets a bit hand-waving in its final call to arms. Here is the world they want to see:

‘People need to feel more like owners of their own destinies, rather than pawns of elites. If the only meaningful expression of all this pent-up agency is the occasional election or referendum, people will naturally be inclined to use their participation as a way to lash out. Platform strongmen and extremists will offer easy answers. But we need something different: a world where our participation is deep, constant and multi-layered.’

A bit vague perhaps, but a highly stimulating book, recommended for technophobes and technophiles alike.

And here’s their New Power 2×2 of players against models and values

Model and values of new power and old power