Why Occupy Wall Street’s non-hierarchical vision is unobtainable

Adrian Bejan & J. Peder Zane Authors, Design in Nature
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Occupy Wall Street’s demands may be hazy but its organizational mantra is crystal clear. Time and again its members use the terms “decentralized” and “non-hierarchical” to describe their vision.

Their language expresses the common view that hierarchy means inequality and repression, shorthand for the idea of the few controlling the many. Indeed, even when Wall Street bankers were cool — remember the 1980s? — hierarchy was a term of opprobrium.

This is, however, a false notion; it is a misreading not only of history but of physics — yes, physics. Hierarchy is, in fact, a form of organization that arises spontaneously across the natural world and human civilization because of the tendency of everything that flows to generate designs that allow it to move more easily. Hierarchy occurs everywhere because it increases efficiency, benefiting everyone and everything.

Hierarchy is one word to describe a design that is marked by a few large entities and many smaller ones that work together. It is ubiquitous in nature. One of the best-known examples is the tree-shaped river basins that evolved over millions of years and now cover the globe. Every river basin has a single main channel — the Mississippi or the Danube — as well as a few large streams and many more tributaries, brooks and rivulets.

We find the same hierarchical design in the tree-shaped bolts of lightning that flash across the summer sky. They are also in the neural pathways in our brains and the alveoli in our lungs. Our circulatory system has a single main channel — the aorta — which feeds a few main arteries. At progressively smaller scales, greater numbers of capillaries deliver blood to every cell in our bodies. All this is hierarchy — the design of life.

We humans create hierarchical designs naturally, without even thinking about it. Our air transport system is defined by a few large channels (the hubs) and many smaller channels (the spokes) that get us to our destinations. When we drive to work or the store, many of us travel along many small streets and few avenues that feed the fewest and largest channels — the interstate highways.

These hierarchical designs emerge and evolve over time because they facilitate the flow of currents (water, electricity, neural signals, oxygen, blood or travelers) from points to areas, and vice-versa. The larger channels move more current more efficiently; the smaller channels serve areas the large channels cannot reach. This is why both are needed, the few large and the many small.

The same design emerges naturally and for the same reason in science, politics, economics and other forms of social dynamics. Every government has one leader ― the chieftain, king, sultan, president, prime minister, governor or mayor ― who, like the main river channel, must handle the most important flow of information and authority. The big channel is connected by a few top advisers (the big branches) to the many individuals that flow in the design called bureaucracy. Hierarchy is the structure of most corporations (one CEO, a few top managers, many workers), universities (one rector or president, a few provosts, more deans, even more department heads and many more professors, teaching assistants and students) and sports teams (one head coach, a few assistant coaches, one team captain, many players).

Today, we are witnessing the emergence of a new hierarchical design for the flow of information: the Internet. Instead of smashing hierarchy as many commentators have suggested, the Internet is thriving because it is a much larger flow system than had previously existed. It is dominated by a few large websites, such as Google, YouTube and Facebook, which are fed by many smaller blogs and individuals.

The natural (physics) origin of hierarchy means two things that must not be overlooked. First, the large and the small depend on each other. They flow as one. The Mississippi would be a dry riverbed without the tributaries, and the small streams would flow nowhere without the efficiency offered to their flowing by the big stream.

Second, the urge to organize is selfish. Everything coalesces — from raindrops on the river plain to people on the civilized landscape — because all the moving entities move better together. They generate hierarchical designs because they facilitate the flow of everyone and everything.

This tendency of nature to flow more and more easily does not mean that every hierarchical design is ideal. In fact, all designs are imperfect, which is why they are destined to evolve to increase their flow.

Protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street are one example of how people who find themselves in the same place try to accomplish a better design. But make no mistake, all successful efforts to destroy the existing hierarchy are destined to make room for a new hierarchy, one that enhances the movement of people, goods, ideas, etc.

When the old design does not flow, a new hierarchy is loosed upon the world.

Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, and J. Peder Zane, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, are the authors of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization,” which will be published by Doubleday in January.