Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

The Starfish and the Spider

December 8, 2007

Finally got around to reading The Starfish and the Spider, a great and quick read about the broad trend away from ‘spider’ organizations (hierarchical entities that can live without an appendage or two, but not without their head) toward the ‘starfish’ kind (which don’t have a centralized brain, and which can regenerate any pieces that are removed). As someone who’s part of a group that’s been pursuing this for a good while, it was fun to see these ideals presented so winsomely. (And I was particularly proud of myself, as in true old-school, open-source fashion, I checked the book out of the library.)

The book did a great job of featuring organizations like eBay, Craigslist, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Wikipedia with their flat structures, open-source models, and near indestructibility, but it seemed strangely silent about the fact that such orgs were decidedly single-source and hierarchical when they were being conceived and developed. My new friend Tim has said some provocative stuff about this phenomenon, and so I’m looking forward to continuing the exploration.

Most compelling was the opening metaphor of the Spanish conquest of the (massive, hierarchical) Aztec society which occupied what is now Mexico City– the Conquistadors simply killed the king, stole the gold, starved the city, and took over. But the same would-be conquerors weren’t so successful in what is now New Mexico. With no formal leadership structures or centralized government, the Apaches were essentially impossible to defeat– they could absorb huge losses (of personnel, habitation, and material), incite widespread skirmishes, and survive the death of many leaders. The chilling anticlimax that comes up later in the book is that the source of their eventual decimation was cattle. Not disease or starvation, but the introduction of the previously foreign concepts of ‘wealth’ and ‘scarcity’ that came when Apache leaders were gifted with cows by the Spanish, which brought the eventual downfall of this proud people.

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One Response to “The Starfish and the Spider”

  1. P3T3RK3Y5 says:

    oh cool man – a friend recommended this book to me a while ago – and obviously it’s intriguing… now i need to get off my butt and read it so i can discuss it with you.

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