The Stink of Boredom

This last Wednesday and Thursday night I attended two back-to-back talks by Alex Steffen at Town Hall. The guy pulled out all the stops and rocked the house. He terrified me and inspired me – yes, he inspirified me.

I tapped notes furiously on my iPhone both nights. It’s hard to pick out one thing to focus on from all of what Alex said. But I will.

Apathy is the enemy of engagement. Alex made the case that one of the ways institutions retain power is by boring others into apathy. We’ve all seen examples of this – usually in triplicate.

While making his point, Alex made reference to the following from Richard White:

In a democracy boredom works for bureaucracies and corporations as smell works for a skunk. It keeps danger away. Power does not have to be exercised behind the scenes. It can be open. The audience is asleep. The modern world is forged amidst our inattention.

From Richard White’s The Organic Machine

I love this quote. You can almost see the little Pepé Le Pew clouds of boredom, wafting out of rows of agency and corporate windows.

Keeping danger away is a strong motivator for established institutions. We’ve come to accept the barriers of boredom that big, bureaucratic companies and government agencies erect to protect themselves. We accept it as normal. But it doesn’t have to be. We can do better and this was a running theme through much of Alex’s second night.

I think a lot about how organizations engage people in their work and something is definitely changing. Smart companies are spending lots of money on relationship marketing and customer relationship management solutions. They’re trying to figure out how to build stronger, more engaged relationships with their customers. Governments are trying to figure out what it might look like to build stronger connections with citizens through “Government 2.0” solutions.

Many of us get hung up thinking about engagement as a technology problem. Technology is an important enabler of engagement, to be sure, but the biggest challenge is actually much deeper. It’s coming to grips with the danger that we ourselves may be trying to keep away. I’m speaking here of the danger of losing control. For the social change organizations I work with, it’s the danger of giving constituents more power over the direction of their organizations; the danger of fully opening our organizations to the power of fully engaged volunteers.

I’m not talking here about online donations, online petition signing or online methods for contacting elected officials. There’s nothing wrong with those things, of course. But come on. There’s got to be more. We need to be thinking about more creative, more interesting ways of engaging our fellow citizens in formulating our shared future. We cannot afford to bore these people. They are the source of any power we have. The interesting contradiction here is that to fully tap that power we must first be willing to give it away.

Losing control is scary. There’s no getting around that. But until we’re willing to do it, we too are the stinkers.