Posted on September 7, 2010
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.