Earlier this year I wrote a 1st posting of 3 about Agency, and I started with describing how a key affordance is the distributedness that internet and digitisation brings. A key affordance we don’t really fully use or realize yet.
I am convinced that embracing distributed technology and distributed methods and processes allows for an enormous increase in agency. A slightly different agency though: networked agency.
Lack of agency as poverty and powerlesness
Many people currently feel deprived of agency or even powerless in the face of the fall-out of issues originating in systems or institutions over which they have no influence. Things like the financial system and pensions, climate change impact, affordable urban housing, technology pushing the less skilled out of jobs etc. Many vaguely feel there are many things wrong or close to failing, but without an apparant personal path of action in the face of it.
In response to this feeling of being powerless or without any options to act, there is fertile ground for reactionary and populist movements, that promise a lot but are as always incapable of delivering at best and a downright con or powerplay at worst. Lashing out that way at least brings a temporary emotional relief, but beyond that is only making things worse.
In that sense creating agency is the primary radical political standpoint one can take.
Lack of agency I view as a form of poverty. It has never been easier to create contacts outside of your regular environment, it has never been easier to tap into knowledge from elsewhere. There are all kinds of technologies, initiatives and emerging groups that can provide new agency, based on those new connections and knowledge resources. But they’re often invisible, have a barrier to entry, or don’t know how to scale. It means that many suffering from agency poverty actually have a variety of options at their fingertips, but without realizing it, or without the resources (albeit time, tools, or money) to embrace it. That makes us poor, and poor people make poor choices, because other pathways are unattainable. We’re thirsty for agency, and luckily that agency is within our grasp.
Agency in the networked age is different in two ways
The agency within our grasp is however slightly different in two ways from what I think agency looked like before.
Different in what the relevant unit of agency is
The first way in which it is different is what the relevant unit of agency is.
Agency in our networked age, enabling us to confront the complexity of the issues we face, isn’t just individual agency, nor does it mean mass political mobilisation to change our institutions. Agency in a distributed and networked complex world comes from the combination of individuals and the social contexts and groupings they are part of, their meaningful relations in a context.
It sees both groups and small scale networks as well as each individual that is a node in them as the relevant units to look at. Individuals can’t address complexity, mass movements can’t address it either. But you and I within the context of our meaningful relationships around us can. Not: how can I improve my quality of life? Not: how can I change city government to improve my neighborhood? But: what can I do with my neighbours to improve my neighborhood, and through that my own quality of life?
There are many contexts imaginable where this notion of me & my relevant group simultaneously as the appropiate unit of scale to look at agency exists:
- Me and my colleagues, me and my team
- Me and my remote colleagues
- Me on my street, on my block
- Me in my part of town
- Me and the association I am a member of
- Me and the local exchange trading group
- Me and my production coop
- Me and my trading or buying coop
- Me and my peer network(s)
- Me and my coworking space
- Me in an event space
- Me and my home
- Me in my car on the road
- Me traveling multi-modal
- Me and my communities of interest
- Me and my nuclear family
- Me and my extended (geographically distributed) family
- Me and my dearest
- Me and my closest friends
agency comes from both the individual and immediate group level (photo JD Hancock, CC-BY)
For each of these social contexts you can think about which impact on which issues is of value, what can be done to create that impact in a way that is ‘local’ to you and the specific social context concerned.
Different in how agency is constituted based on type of impact
Impact can come in different shades and varieties, and that is the second way in which my working definition of agency is different. Impact can be the result of striking power, where you and your social context create something constructively. Impact can take the form of resilience, where you and your social context find ways to mitigate the fall-out of events or emergencies propagating from beyond that social context. Impact can be agility, where you and your social context are able to detect, assess and anticipate emerging change and respond to it.
So agency becomes the aggregate of striking power, resilience and agility that you and your social context individually and collectively can deliver to yourself, by making use of the potential that distributedness and being networked creates.
Whether that is to strengthen local community, acting locally on global concerns, increasing resilience, leverage and share group assets, cooperatively create infrastructure, create mutual support structures, scaffold new systems, shield against broken or failing systems, in short build your own distributed and networked living.
Designing for agency
For each of those contexts and desired impacts you can think about and design the (virtual and real) spaces you need to create, the value you seek, the levels of engagement you can/should accommodate, the balancing of safety and excitement you desire, the balance you need between local network density and long distance connections for exposure to other knowledge and perspectives, the ways you want to increase the likelihood of serendipity or make space for multiple parallel experimenting, the way you deal with evolution in the social context concerned, and the rhythms you keep and facilitate.
The tools that enable agency
To be able to organize and mobilise for this, we need to tap into two types of enabling technology, that help us embrace the distributedness and connectedness I described in part 1. The ‘techie’ technology, which is comprised of hard- and software tools, and the ‘soft’ technology which consists of social processes, methods and attitudes.
What types of technologies fit that description, and what those technologies need to be like to have low enough adoption thresholds to be conducive to increased agency, is the topic of part 3.