Reading List: The Starfish and the Spider

Decentralized networks are dismantling old industries and creating new ones, write the authors of The Starfish and the Spider.

The Starfish and the Spider

By Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom
Portfolio, October
256 pp., $24.95


It sounds like the opening line to a bad joke: What do the Apache Indians, Craigslist, Skype, and Al Qaeda have in common? The answer goes to the heart of a rewardingly simple new book: They’re all decentralized organizations that have bedeviled the established hierarchy hell-bent on crushing them.

The Starfish and the Spider is about the open-source revolution, a trend that authors Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom demonstrate is simultaneously dismantling many established industries while harnessing the creativity of the masses to generate new ones. (The title refers to the authors’ metaphor that a starfish and a spider appear to be structured similarly, but if you crush a spider’s head, it dies. Cut a starfish in half, and you’ll end up with two.) Open source has spread far beyond its recent successes with file sharing and software. You can now find cooperatively developed art, literature, even religion.

What Brafman and Beckstrom attempt to add to the discussion is a sense of how you can harness the power of leaderless, decentralized movements. Their effort has mixed results. The authors do an excellent job of illustrating how cooperative networks–such as the Apaches prior to the early 1900s, or Al Qaeda today–benefit from operating without a central hierarchy. But they can’t exactly explain how you can do it. Ironically, the best they can do is explain how to interrupt or redirect a starfish network when it’s chewing away at profits. The U.S. government finally bested the Apaches, for instance, when it provided its leaders with cattle, a form of wealth that reshaped the amorphous, nomadic tribes into easily manageable hierarchies.

Wealth, it turns out, is the elephant in the room. As the authors put it, “The moment you introduce property rights into the equation [be they intellectual, physical, or otherwise], everything changes: The starfish organization turns into a spider.” As a consolation, they make a case for the viability of hybrid entities. Think eBay or Intuit –firms that channel customers’ and employees’ bottom-up efforts into hierarchical businesses. They may be the best one can hope for. Brafman and Beckstrom make this much clear: If you’re the head of a spider, look out for the starfish.

Combine Cluetrain‘s storming-the-gates passion with… examples like Linus Torvalds’s Linux and its place in the open-source revolution to get… Starfish, which needed more Linuxes but whose underlying ideas ring true.