Building a “Full-Stack Society” with “New Power”

A Review
New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World -- and How to Make It Work for You
Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms
Doubleday, 2018, 325 pages

Building a “Full-Stack Society” with “New Power”
By Wade Lee Hudson

Process is important. So is product. Advocates for democracy who focus on mobilizing popular power can forget that the tyranny of the majority is a real threat. New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World -- and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms acknowledges this reality, and offers a solution. 

As stated by the publisher, Doubleday:

New Power shines fresh light on the cultural phenomena of our day, from #BlackLivesMatter to the Ice Bucket Challenge to Airbnb, uncovering the new power forces that made them huge. Drawing on examples from business, activism and pop culture, Heimans and Timms explain how to build new power and channel it successfully. They also explore the dark side of these forces: the way ISIS has co-opted new power to monstrous ends, and the rise of the alt-right’s “intensity machine.” 

They make a strong case for dynamics that are “open, participatory, and peer driven.” Yet they also write: ”As we see with ISIS and the growing hordes of white supremacists,... the tools that bring us closer together can also drive us further apart.” Heimans and Timms argue we can avoid this danger by creating “a world in which all major social and economic institutions are designed so that [all] people can more meaningfully shape every aspect of their lives.” 

According to their vision:

It will be critical to actually reduce wealth and income inequality and change the material conditions of those who are left behind. But a subtler change is in how we create more meaningful opportunities for people to actively shape their lives and connect with the institutions that shape them. People need to feel more like owners of their own destinies, rather than pawns of elites…. We need something different: a world where our participation is deep, constant, and multi-layered, not shallow and intermittent.

To describe this alternative, Heimans and Timms use a term from computer programming: full stack. When the different components of an operating system “work together to make a product hum,” these layers “come together to form a coherent whole,” programmers call this “a full stack.” So Heimans and Timms describe the society they seek as a “full-stack society.” 

New Power also affirms personal change. In the second chapter, the authors highlight a key issue: identity. When an individual’s sense of self is based on top-down “old power,” it’s hard to engage in collaborative “new power.” 

To illustrate their point, they report on an internal conflict at NASA, the space agency. One group

had what we call old power values. They came from a world with clear boundaries between “us” and “them,”... This group believed deeply in the value of expertise. Their own identities grew out of a tradition that venerated individual moments of genius….

Another group affirmed Open Innovation, a collaborative practice. That method threatened the “core identity” of the old-power group. When a researcher asked members of that group about Open Innovation, they often didn’t answer the question. They only talked about themselves, their training, and their accomplishments. They were self-centered.

With this passage, the book strongly implies the need to undo restrictive conditioning. Heimans and Timms affirm the need to spread new power values with communication strategies that promote “a peer connection with people you care about or share values with.” This dynamic makes you feel part of “a like-minded community” that reinforces and deepens new power values, which involves personal change.

Subjective gut reactions, emotions, beliefs, norms and values shape behavior. Habitual thoughts and feelings call for careful self-examination. We can strengthen our effectiveness by undoing some of our conditioning. If we change ourselves, we can better change the world. New Power’s report on the NASA conflict reflects this critical reality. 

One example of a way to “accommodate and celebrate new power values” described in the book is the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, a church that utilizes “increased agency, flattened hierarchy, and a joyful embrace of diversity”—an example of a new power model, or structure, can encourage “mass participation and peer coordination.”

From my perspective, Heimans and Timms could have devoted more attention to intentional mutual support for self-improvement that nurtures personal and cultural growth. And they could have talked more explicitly about “social systems” or “the System.” 

But their image of a coherent full-stack society clearly suggests a desire for systemic reform. And their discussion of the problems with self-identity at NASA clearly suggests the need for widespread, deep personal change. So all in all, it seems to me, this book promotes holistic, compassionate, systemic reform of the sort that is sorely needed. Regardless, it’s important and inspiring.