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  • Andres Spokoiny

Power, Influence, and the Limits of Maps: A Response to Yehuda Kurtzer

In his article, “‘The Establishment’ Has No Clothes: The New Jewish ‘Influence Economy,’” the always brilliant and thoughtful Yehuda Kurtzer raises intriguing points and does the Jewish communal world a great service by calling attention to the fact that the way we too commonly discuss our communal structures is woefully out of date.

I’d like to add a few angles to this conversation about the “economy of power,” without which our understanding of that new reality will be incomplete.

1. From the Collective to the Individual

Trying to ascertain what organizations or leaders (“establishment” or younger ones) have power and influence today misses what’s probably the key characteristic of power in our days. Power hasn’t simply shifted from one set of organizations to another, or from one group of influencers to another; rather, in the 21st century, power has shifted from the collective to the individual. In the new “economy of power,” as Yehuda calls it, the key player is the individual Jew. That revolution in the structure of power affects all organizations: “establishment” ones and new ones, startups and blue chips. What makes our times unique is not the existence of parallel structures of power; after all, in every society in history a formal power hierarchy co-existed with an informal one. What makes our times unique is the collapse of every institutional structure of power. The main vector of power today is the hyper-empowered individual who makes her own choices with unprecedented freedom. Thus, power doesn’t shift from one set of organizations to another; it atomizes to each individual member of the community.

The idea of the collective as such is questioned. Every collective structure, every institution is hit in equal measure – except those that understand that the hyper-empowered individual needs to be at the center of their exercise of power.

2. From Stable Memberships to Transactional Platforms

In this new regime, two actors concentrate power: the individual and the owner of the platforms. Individuals are hyper-empowered but they still need to interact with others. The ones with the biggest power among social actors are not organizations in the traditional sense but platforms. In our times, the biggest hotel company doesn’t own a single hotel room and the biggest taxi company doesn’t own a single car; they own the platform upon which sovereign individuals connect.

Here’s the catch: in a world of atomized individuals connecting via central platforms, power is not just bimodal, but also fundamentally divided. Platforms tend to exert strong control over the terms of interaction (since it’s so difficult for individuals to connect without them), but limited control over the content, which takes most (though not all) of its cues from the aggregate behaviors of the individuals. The reverse is true for individuals, who use their choices to “vote” for the content presented to them among the near-infinite choices on the platforms, but have little say regarding the terms of the interaction.

How this still-developing trend will reshape Jewish life is still very much an unanswered question.

3. From Social Media to Close Social Networks.

Casual influence is trivially easy to measure, but meaningful influence is far more difficult to quantify. Measures like social media followership are limited. Even more sophisticated metrics of social media influence generally fail to take into account whom is being influenced, or how credible the influencer ought to be; I wouldn’t like to be operated on by a surgeon who’s more influenced by Twitter than The Lancet.

At the 2013 JFN Conference, James Fowler told this story: a celebrity tweeted praise for his book, and Fowler was elated. He was sure that sales would spike. But they didn’t. Fowler later went on to study influence within social networks, and found that while people may have casual ties to countless people, most people actually act on recommendations and social cues from about 6 people who are close to them.

Analyses of influence within the Jewish community can and should distinguish between “light” influence and the kind of “heavy” influence that comes with strong, close relationships.

4. From Maps to Snapshots

Since power in this new situation is so divided and dynamic, I must quibble with Yehuda’s desire for a new “map” of power. A map is a model of a territory that changes relatively slowly, as the physical world has tended to do. Even in the physical realm, the constant wanderings of Google’s camera cars reveal that even physical maps are always changing, and how much more quickly our social realities change. I fear that anything presenting itself as a “map” may mislead us when our knowledge of the relevant dynamics remain so uncertain.

To illustrate this point consider this example: a national organization is truly representative of the enormous majority of the Jews in the country. Yet, one day, the president decides to ignore that organization and deal with a voice that is more sympathetic to his political needs. He then picks a “friendly” Jewish voice, that may not be at all representative of anybody beyond a dozen activists. Yet, that “powerless” Jewish organization became very powerful overnight.

Yes, power shifts are not an invention of the 21st century; in antiquity a king would die, a vizier would fall out of favor, a new conqueror would arrive and the power economy would be radically altered. But the rapid pace of change and the uncertainty surrounding it are unique to our time; the empowerment of the individual adds to this unpredictability. Sometimes the dynamics of power can’t be mapped at all, and can be only understood a posteriori, like the unseen social currents that brought Donald Trump to power.

Perhaps instead of maps, we should think of new understandings of Jewish communal power and influence as snapshots – incomplete pictures of a dynamic reality that look artificially still, which we use to inform our knowledge of the world, even as we understand that even a moment after the snapshot is taken, something new may charge wildly into the frame. A map is something you might update once a year; to really understand life through snapshots, you need a lot more of them – perhaps even frequently enough to make them into a film.

Or perhaps power these days can be likened to neural networks in the human brain: always changing, always readjusting itself. One can get indeed a picture of the brain’s morphology, but only a real-time FMRI can tell you how the brain is working at a given time.

Like everything else, power and influence in the Jewish community are undergoing enormous transformations. Individual empowerment; rapid change; unpredictability and disruption are the underlying features of these new realities and are affecting everything in our world. It’s critical to fully understand these as we attempt to understand power.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.


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