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March 5th, 2022
The fickle pair of power and influence has always been quite close. Those with the power have the influence. And to a large degree, this is and probably always will be the case, in some form or another. But is influence and power always perfectly correlated? Is it always the case that those with power have influence, and those with influence have the power?
Looking at the advent of recent social technologies, it’s arguable that influence and power have decoupled, somewhat. Those formerly without power or influence have gained some influence, which changes the way power operates. This can easily lead to a quagmire of semantics. Let’s define power as the practical elements: having control of money and force. And let’s define influence as an ability to guide, or alter mass opinion. Traditionally those with power had the money to shepard mass opinion by controlling the vehicles of information distribution. But free social platforms subvert that old structure, allowing those without power to gain influence, hence the horrible new term: influencer. What is an influencer? Someone with a lot of eyes and ears, but perhaps nothing else. The Kardashians, perhaps more than any other human entity, has demonstrated that it’s possible to bootstrap a flywheel, where generating influence can generate power (money) which can then be used to generate more influence. Tik tok stars who were known by no one but a few short months or years ago demonstrate that this bootstrap process is accelerating with the advent of social media.
Recent events show that quite a larger portion of the world can now listen to itself, unconfined by the gatekeeping of prior media, like television and print journalism. And when eyes and ears have new sources to stumble upon and ingest, influence becomes less centralized. But does power follow influence?
Perhaps in some places, but not in others. Power, unlike influence, is more grounded in physical systems, such as who actually has this and that money, and who dives orders to this and that set of professional armed people, such as militaries and police. The nature of these physical structures are far more rigid, and less susceptible to the wander and whim of influence. But while the two may not be fused twins, they certainly share an umbilical cord, and when one marches off in a direction with enough force, the other is likely to get yanked along. Unless of course it yanks back.
What’s important is to remember that the relationship between the two is never one to one. Those who think they have all the influence can be deluded into thinking they therefore have all the power. The compliment is also true. Those with all the power would be unwise to think they also have all the influence.
The important questions examine how these two act upon each other. Can either conclusively force the other? Authoritarian regimes go all-in on the answer being yes - for at least one direction: With all the power, influence can be forced. Is this always true? Hard to say, regime leaders eventually die, and then the details of the question become hazy: if a predecessor is not chosen, does it then fall to the one with the most influence? Even in regime’s that glorify power over influence, ignoring the latter can lead to an unravelling.
What’s also good to note is that the structure of influence is also rooted in certain physical structures. The two most obvious examples of this are work and social media. These are the two places where attention is pooled most. Work dictates that attention should be spent in a certain way for a reward. Social media plugs attention into a novel phantasmagoria of current events, seemingly unburdened by the curating opinion of an editor or a news station producer.
It was an extremely lightweight set of software innovations that created this massive shift in attentional options. It’s impossible not to wonder: what other software innovations might create different organizations of attention, and ultimately, different avenues of influence? And even more important: when the avenues of influence change, does this create a different relationship between influence and power? Could there ever be an organization of influence that fundamentally changes the relationship between power and influence? These are all quite lofty questions, but it begs to wonder: we are gaining the ability to toggle with the genetic make up of our own culture, and fast track it’s evolution. And remember, evolution, no matter how fast or slow doesn’t mean it’s headed in a useful direction. Plenty of species evolved themselves out of existence.
Issues of both influence and power, ultimately boil down to a cultural question: is our global culture becoming more or less mindful of the long term situation?