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Smacking down the hierarchies

My favorite word this week is heterarchy.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a favorite word before, and I confess I was not familiar with the meaning of this one when I saw it in an article from one of those scholarly journals at which journalists like to scoff. So I turned to merriam-webster.com, as I usually do when reading online, but good old M-W left me high and dry. My next stop was Google, and that’s how seeking a definition of heterarchy led me to the Web site — oops, website (damned AP) — of a former Boston Globe columnist.

You’d have to be an idiot to say technology endangers serendipity.

Journalist David Warsh defined my new favorite word thus in his column titled Learning to Love Heterarchy: “a structure with no unfailingly superior authority.” Then he continued:

The term was coined in 1945 by Warren McCullough, the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology neurophysiologist, to describe the organization of the brain. (Was there ever a better laboratory for organization theory than World War II?) McCullough showed the brain to be an overlapping system composed of many parts working together, with many shortcuts and back-channels among them, some capable of overruling others, orderly, but not hierarchical.

This information was so satisfying, I read the entire column. It turned out to be a book review, essentially, of What Is Happening to the News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism, by Jack Fuller, who retired as the president of Tribune Publishing in 2005. Far from having spent a career in a suit, Fuller was a teen copyboy at the Chicago Tribune and held a variety of positions in between.

The title of Fuller’s book totally put me off — it has zero appeal because it does not promise to tell me anything I don’t already know from watching the decline of this field, my field, for several years now. Warsh, however, clued me in to the real substance of the book: “Fuller has been on a journey among the philosophers, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists,” seeking answers to why people like what they like, and why they choose the information sources they choose.

What’s all this have to do with heterarchy?

Boning up on the latest brain science, Fuller has learned that human brains are naturally heterarchical (like the Internet, which adherents like to say routes around damage, such as censorship). Warsh considered the hierarchy of limited, consolidated media (pre-Internet):

Becoming more heterarchical, it seems to me, had been what’s happening to the news business. There was a time when the industry was built around a nicely ordered, mostly hierarchical arrangement of daily newspapers. Most big cities had one or two, along with three television network affiliates, a public broadcasting station, and whatever remained of the once-great radio networks. But the increasing use of the wireless spectrum, satellites, cable and fiber-optic networks and the Internet changed all that.

Heterarchy: The human brain has evolved to prefer it.


Categories: ideas


3 Comments

  1. “You’d have to be an idiot to say technology endangers serendipity.”

    Ahahaha! Is this as directed as I think it is?

  2. Sam Tongue says:

    It’s almost so obvious because human instinct tells us to go to the most important thing, but with ‘information overload’ in journalism’s current state there are so many legitimate things to digest. It also makes the interconnectedness of world news even more real, especially considering the many platforms you can get news from.

    I also agree heavily with this post because of how not only news is overlapping, but the way we get it is also heterarchical. I can learn about the death of a man on the local newscast, their website, the paper the next day, the paper’s website, a neighbor’s blog, Twitter, Facebook, the list goes on and on. Plus, now that each one is slowly gaining trust from readers, they will get the information one way or another. I think that’s what’s so important about heterarchy.

  3. opit says:

    “Gaining trust from readers.”
    That was the original mission of many blogs. Before the proliferation of spiders and on a smaller net, a collaboration of influential blogs worked as information gathering sites. They are still around : but lack of updates in many cases means that there is no way for people to note their presence.
    Social Bookmarking and Blogrolls help that a great deal. The recent malware invasion of RPC Blogrolling meant that I shut down the utility immediately on my site. Delicious is the oldest that I use routinely, though there are many options. Diigo followers are noisy adherents. Clipmarks users are too busy enjoying their community to worry much. Diigo I think of competing showoffs. Care2 and Current TV I found more congenial and social.
    And group blogs and pundits – and newsmen, scientists and educators – all have their favourite bags of tricks.Performancing hasn’t been updated for a while : but it has lots of blogging tips.
    My index my.opera.com/oldephartte/links ( most of which appear in the Topical Index ) were something I put together to share ideas for newbies, especially RSS readers, etc. And the RSS SnapShot! posts illustrate 3 different aggregators working together to provide an online report.
    Bon appetit. Suggestions would be welcome. I seldom have a chance to compare notes with somebody who should have an active interest in using and critiquing the files.

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