I watched The Lion King this week.
First of all, Donald Glover was the wrong call for Simba — the singing was great (please listen to his “So Into You” cover), but I don’t think he did the character justice.
It was perfect timing, though, because I realized that Scar serves as a really great example to use in this piece. He is your quintessential power-hungry villain, vying for the throne in order to establish dominance and to have the authority to command others.
When we think of someone who is “power-hungry,” Scar fits the mold. Which means our understanding of “power” is just that: authority over others.
But not everyone who we consider “powerful” shares Scar’s characteristics. I’d consider Kim Kardashian powerful, but really she’s just rich and famous. Sure, she could throw some money at an election or lobby to pass policy — but she doesn’t. Yet, we still consider her powerful.
Apple is another example. Apple is a super powerful company, and they do lobby government and the like. But even if they didn’t explicitly try to change the laws that govern us — if they just sold us products and services — we would still consider them powerful, right? I think so.
Why? If power is not the explicit authority to command others that Scar and other movie villains are pursuing, what is it?
That’s the million dollar question.
The Law is Behind
My plan here isn’t to do a legal analysis, I promise. But the state of American law can help shed light on an outdated understanding of power.
Lina Khan is an absolute phenom. A Yale Law grad and current Academic Fellow at Columbia, Khan has brought a centuries-long discussion back to light: antitrust. And as boring as it sounds, it’s as important now as ever.
America has a long history of antitrust and competition policy. Basically, companies were getting too big and were using their size to raise prices and block competitors from entering the market. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted saying about these companies:
The State not only has the right to control them, but it is duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.
And control them he did. Predatory business practices were strictly outlawed and prosecuted with a heavy hand.
The problem? According to Lina Khan, the law assumes that if a company could explicitly take advantage of its monopoly on the market (i.e. predatory pricing), it would.
But look at a company like Amazon. Here’s an excerpt from Khan’s paper on the topic:
Although Amazon has clocked staggering growth, it generates meager profits, choosing to price below-cost and expand widely instead. […] Elements of the firm’s structure and conduct pose anti-competitive concerns—yet it has escaped antitrust scrutiny.
The company is not technically doing anything wrong. The law assumes that a company that big would raise prices and hurt customers — but Amazon is actually doing the opposite.
Regardless, Amazon is powerful. Amazon is powerful because it is really big. It’s powerful because we use it every day. It’s powerful because everyone knows about it, and it has come to impact almost every aspect of our lives.
That is power in the 21st century.
Presence is Power
I wrote a piece at the very end of last year called “The Attention War”. I argued that companies “have a financial incentive to grasp our attention and never let go.” An old Mozilla employee stated:
Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.
I realized soon after publishing the piece, though, that the attention war isn’t unique to companies. Every single person has an incentive to get your attention, including me, because power in the 21st century is about presence:
How can I, as a company or influencer or politician, be everywhere that you are? How can I make sure you see me or hear about me in everything you watch and use and read?
How can I make sure you know my story?
That's a mindset shift. But it’s critical to understanding how power works today.
This shift has led to a huge change in what kinds of people and organizations hold power. Political scientist Joseph Nye explains:
The stage on which governments act is now crowded with many more smaller actors. Some of those smaller actors are benign – for example, Oxfam, which serves to relieve poverty – and some of them are malign such as Al Qaeda, which is trying to kill people…. We need to realize that in an age in which information technology is so powerful and important, it may often be the case that it is not only whose army wins, but whose story wins; and that the ability to create an effective narrative is crucial.
That’s the key:
How can I make sure you know my story?
Presence Breeds Trust
Here’s where the fun stuff really kicks in.
A study from Stanford University found that those with less power tend to be far more trusting of their more powerful counterparts in virtually every type of transaction.
The researchers found that “power-disadvantaged actors effectively protect themselves by perceiving power holders in a positive light, even if little or no relevant information would support such perceptions.”
Basically, low-power individuals and companies are more likely to trust their powerful counterparts literally because they are in a position where they could help them, so their natural instinct is that they will help them.
“But nobody trusts the White House! And they have way more power than we do!”
Good point. But the study has an answer:
While self-reported trust in anonymous political decision-makers in faraway Washington may be at all-time lows, trust in local politicians with whom people have interpersonal interactions is often high.
The closer a high-power exchange partner is believed to be (socially or even physically), the more likely it is that a low-power actor will place trust in that partner…
That’s a huge revelation: the closer someone is to us — the more presence they have in our lives — the more likely we are to trust them. We expect good outcomes from them, even if they aren’t necessarily benevolent.
How Power Gives an Advantage
Obviously it’s not good to put trust into people or companies simply because they are powerful, but it’s not immediately clear why it’s a problem. How is it affecting us?
Three big ways:
- Power breeds inequality. If presence is power, then it is dependent on your voice — your story — being heard by as many people as possible. The problem is that, by nature, social networks are unequal: the voices that are heard the most generally get heard more and the voices that are heard least disappear. While that’s true from politics to Facebook, look to Twitter for an example: the top 20% of Twitter users own more than 96% of all followers, 93% of the retweets, and 93% of the mentions.
- Power breeds wealth. This one is pretty straightforward. It ties in with the Attention Wars piece I mentioned earlier. Companies and people have a financial incentive to get your eyeballs on them, whether it’s for ad revenue or purchases or whatever it may be.
- Power justifies itself. In another study, the more participants reported feeling powerless, the more they believed that economic inequality was fair and legitimate. Being powerless often leads to justifying your own powerlessness to make yourself feel better about the situation — it’s a natural psychological phenomenon, but it makes the other problems worse.
Building Power in the 21st Century
It took me a while to get here, but this last section is the reason I wanted to write this piece.
In a world where power is transitive, it is difficult to take back. You would literally need to take down the person or company that has it.
In a world where power is structural — where it is dependent on an idea flowing through a network — then the power is the hands of the network itself.
Put bluntly, we are more powerful than we think.
Attention can only increase through networks, and networks only grow through sharing. We are the vessels through which power travels. Which means we can redirect it. Which means we can control it.
Think about it: What ideas get hot? What goes viral? It’s almost random, a complex interaction of ideas at any given time.
Duncan Watts uses this idea to argue against the impact of “influencers,” but I think it neatly fits into our argument as well:
He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?
Basically, if today’s power was so easy to wield, those who have it could treat it like old power: hold it over us, and command us to think or act a certain way. But that’s not the case — networks are far too complicated to work that way.
Under this framework, power in the 21st century becomes a positive-sum game. We can’t view power as something one holds over another. We must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals, which involves power with others.
Power in the 21st century is presence. It’s the ability to manage what flows through a network. It’s the ability to tell the stories that matter.
We need to be conscious of what we share, who we share it with, and what impact that will have on the world.
That’s how you build power.