The Starfish And The Spider, Part 2: Eight Principles Of Decentralisation

Here is part two of my summary of The Starfish And The Spider. Of the eight principles of decentralisation enunciated here, six fall together fairly early on in the book, but numbers seven and eight are separately scattered later on.

First principle of decentralisation: when attacked, a decentralised organisation tends to become even more open and decentralised.E.g., killing of Apache Nant’ans, suing of P2P networks. Decentralisation is not new to Christianity with the emerging church. Not only did it exist in movements like the Brethren, it has surely also been a reason for the flourishing of underground churches in countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. If persecution of the church broke out in the west, Brafman and Beckstrom’s theory suggests our spider structures would leave us vulnerable to decimation, but a move to starfish decentralisation could help us survive and thrive. If this were to be true, what steps should we take now?

Second principle of decentralisation: it’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders. Whatever the advantages of centralisation, distributed power can make for quicker decisions and adaptation. No-one’s in charge, yet everyone is. No-one owns the group. Each can do what they believe is right.

Third principle of decentralisation: an open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. Information and knowledge naturally filters in from the edges, where the action is. This is about working from the margins, a typical postmodern theme, but also one that resonates with the Gospel. God uses a small, insignificant nation like Israel; the Messiah is born into obscurity, salvation comes through the Cross, etc.

Fourth principle of decentralisation: open systems can easily mutate. Note the spread of AA. Those of us who work in centralised churches will appreciate this point, given how long it can take to get permission for action. It would be interesting to hear the perspectives of Christians in more federal or independent traditions.

Fifth principle of decentralisation: the decentralised organisation sneaks up on you. Fast mutation means rapid growth and with it, the quick takeover of an industry. Brafman and Beckstrom cite the changes in the music industry, from the dominance of individual performers, to the power of the record labels in signing artists, and then the P2P networks, the last phase taking only five years to cause damage. However, they might want also to bear in mind the way things generally happen faster today, due to improvements in communications technology (on which P2P depends). One might think of the progress made by the early Church as a parallel, but it doesn’t entirely work. What began in a largely decentralised form became more and more centralised (‘catholic’) and eventually achieved a takeover through Constantine, which meant considerable centralisation. So a Christian equivalent is difficult to find.

Sixth principle of decentralisation: as industries become decentralised, overall profits decrease. The record companies lost profits, and the P2Ps hardly made any. For a church based on megachurches and stipendiary clergy, ‘profit’ is an issue. Well, income is. Decentralised churches have lower running costs: they have fewer buildings and programmes, and their leaders are far more likely to be bivocational. Rather, they concentrate on community and relationships, qualities that are not absent in traditional churches and indeed are ascribed high value there, but which do not always get the concentration they deserve because centralised structures get in the way.

Seventh principle of decentralisation: put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute. Apache software, Wikipedia, etc – no profit for contributors, just the pleasure of contributing and helping others. There may be chaos, but there will also be creativity. And we wonder about the problems of getting people to participate in church life. Is it because we are too centralised and there is little incentive, only a sense of obligation and moral pressure we put on people we are trying to persuade to help out? Do we prefer orderliness to chaos and this miss out on creativity? Cf. keeping ‘good order’ at communion is biblical but wrongly centred on a person and an office, not on teaching (1 Cor 1 & 11).

Eighth principle of decentralisation: when attacked, centralised organisations tend to become more centralised. Obvious examples w.r.t. Islamic terrorism and centralisation of US ‘Federal’ government. This could be life and death for the church, though, when persecution comes. 

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