June 24th, 2010

A thing for pyramids

Pyramids are everywhere. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about hierarchy these days. And I’ve noticed something rather interesting: humanity has an obsession with pyramids.

Pyramids: built for Kings of the (sand) castle

I’m not talking just about Egypt, but why not start there? The pyramids in Egypt were built for a sole purpose: to serve as a tomb for their Pharaohs. These pyramids are a frivolous thing: huge imposing structures that did not serve the community or provide any value to the public. Their only purpose was to state: “I am king, I am better and bigger than you.” It’s much like that game we used to play as kids in the winter when we’d climb up on top of huge snow banks and chant: “I am the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.”

In other words, the pyramids stand as symbolic proof of our tenacious relationship with hierarchy.

It wasn’t always like this. About 100,000 years ago, humans were organized in decentralized hunter-gatherer bands. This changed in about 10,000 B.C. when people first started cultivating the rich agricultural land of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. As agriculture spread and population densities increased, hierarchical forms of organization started to become more prevalent. These early farmers eventually found themselves organized into kingdoms, empires and fiefdoms which were ruled by kings, emperors and chiefs. Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Macedonian Empire (ruled by Alexander the Great), the Han Empire in China: the list goes on and on. Humanity had turned to hierarchy as a way to provide structure to governments and societies.

If you had a choice, why would you? Why would hunter-gatherers and early farmers, who were essentially free men and women, trade in their freedom in exchange for rule by Emperors and Kings, who would command such useless frivolities as the pyramids? The answer, according to one reference, is that the empires, or larger groups, were better at two things: making lots of stuff (like food) and fighting.

The power of bigness. As we have seen with the appearance of managerial hierarchy, bigger things offer economies of scale and specialization of labour. By organizing themselves in a hierarchy, the members of the community were able to make more things for more people more efficiently. But that specialization came at a price: someone had to organize who made “what” and “when”. That someone ended up being a chief or a king, who, of course, in return for this effort, kept some, if not most, of the stuff for himself.

As for the fighting: quite simply, once again, there is strength in numbers. The more people you have, the more likely you are to defeat your opponent. And when you did, you got to keep their stuff. Including picking up a few slaves from the defeated society. So, naturally, you’d go out and get even more of someone else’s stuff. And you’d get it by fighting, and winning, wars.

But these two factors don’t quite answer the question: why would a free and autonomous farmer allow himself to be ruled by a king?

Five good reasons. In my opinion, our farmer ancestors traded in their freedom and autonomy to be ruled by a King for five reasons: they had no voice, they had no choice, they didn’t know better, they didn’t know that they didn’t know, and they couldn’t find out what what they didn’t know. And, yes, this is strictly my interpretation based on my reflections and readings of the history of hierarchy. Here’s a bit more detail:

  1. No democracy. In a democracy, people vote for their leaders. Why would they vote for some idiot pharaoh who wastes the country’s resources on building a really big tomb? The answer: they wouldn’t. An essential ingredient to keeping these ancient hierarchies or kingdoms working is the lack of democracy. The best way to keep democracy away? A really big army. With lots and lots of weapons.
  2. No human rights. In order for a political hierarchy to be sustainable, you must adhere to the belief that you have no choice, that some lives are worth more than others: the King is God, you are an idiot peasant whose life is worth nothing. That’s just the way it is. The moment that humanity started questioning this, kingdoms started to fall. The French Revolution is just one example.
  3. No education. If you don’t know better, how can you have the tools to question your Chief, your King, your self-proclaimed leader? As education levels rise, the stupidity of building a pyramid for a dead king becomes more and more evident: you ask questions. Something like I did in Grade Eight.
  4. No information. If you don’t know what’s going on around you, you can’t ask questions or challenge your leadership. Information and education do go hand in hand: you might be well educated but if you don’t know that the village next to you is being slaughtered by your King because they asked too many questions, then you can’t begin the process of wondering: “WTF?” and organizing a rebellion. Information really is power: education simply gives you the tools to wield that power.
  5. No communication. When my husband and I were watching The Tudors, we would make the same joke over and over again. (We do that.) Every time King Henry VIII received a letter, delivered to him by a messenger who had travelled weeks by horse and ship, we’d say: “Oh look, he’s getting another email.” (Yeah, we’re sooo funny.) Clearly, when you have little or no communication methods, you have practically no access to information. It takes far too long to make a decision, and it’s very expensive. So it’s actually more efficient to leave the decision-making to one person, or group of people, who have access to information through communication. I love this table (scroll down to see it) as it actually spells out the dramatic reduction in communication costs and time from the telegraph to email.

So there we have it: the five factors that you need to make any form of hierarchy sustainable, whether that hierarchy be social, political or management. Hierarchy sticks if you have no voice, no choice, if you don’t know better, you don’t know that you don’t know and you can’t find out what you don’t know.

Same story, repeat. When we look at the rise of the large corporation which characterized the Second Industrial Revolution, it makes even more sense that we turned to management hierarchy to solve the problem of managing bigness, doesn’t it? We were just applying a model with which we were very familiar and comfortable. So it was only natural that in the late 1800s, we would turn to hierarchy to manage these large now unwieldy corporations.

Fast forward to 2010. Let’s take a look at any modern day nation and society. Just to stay on familiar territory, I’ll stick with Canada and the US. But, really, this analysis applies to many nations in our modern world.

  1. Democracy. Yes, Canada is a democracy (even if our Prime Minister thinks he can prorogue Parliament when he feels like it.) And even if the American system of electing presidents mystifies any Canadian, it, too, is most definitely a democracy. If we don’t like our Prime Minister or the Americans their President, we can vote him out of office next term. It’s that simple. And clearly not an option for any of the Empires I listed above.
  2. Human Rights. Slavery is illegal, as is discrimination by race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation. And while I am not naive that, globally, we still have much work to do, I’ll go out on a limb and say that we have all made much progress since Ancient Rome. All citizens are considered equal, regardless of birth, colour, religion, race, sexual orientation and so on. You are not king of the castle, and I am not a dirty rascal.
  3. Education. My Italian parents, raised in post-WWII Italy, barely finished primary school. Their four children? University degrees, every single one of them. Access to education is not restricted to the rich, or the upper class. And when it comes to first year physics in engineering, we are all equal…likely to fail that is. (Physics is a bitch.)
  4. Information. I read somewhere that we have more access to information in a week than our grandparents had in a lifetime. (Nope, I can’t find a link but intuitively doesn’t that make sense?) You’ve heard of a tiny thing called the Internet perhaps? If you’re still not convinced, take a peek at my blog reader. There is no way I can read all of that stuff…and still sleep.
  5. A modern day pyramid

  6. Communication. This is the key that unlocks revolutions, just as the telegraph unlocked the Second Industrial Revolution. Personal computers, smart phones, word processors, email, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, collaborative software: all of this means that we can talk to anyone anytime anywhere. We don’t need a chief or a king to do that for us anymore. The power of many-to-many conversations, the hyperlink, should be more than sufficient to kill hierarchy. (I said “should”.)

Stuck in the past. And what about the corporation? Here we are in 2010, and most companies still have these pyramids floating around. By all logical and rational reason, we should no longer be structured like this, a 160-year-old business model, designed to solve problems that are long gone.

And yet, we still are. We’re stuck in the past. The far past.

And I can’t for the life of me fathom why. Can you?

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