Learning to think like a molecule

In 16 years as a daily newspaper reporter I’ve covered some mind-expanding stories including the race to map the human genome which revealed nothing so much as our stunning ignorance of the baffling complexity of the smallest, dumbest purposeful thing in the universe, the organic macromolecule.

Molecules, you will recall, are strings of atoms. Macromolecules are more complex strings. I’m not certain whether only organic molecules can form macromolecules; polymers are non-organic and may be macromolecules. But I do know that organic macromolecules, such as most famously DNA, do engage in purposeful action. And non-organic molecules do not. The most prolific macromolecules are more colloquially known as proteins. Our science has no idea how many proteins exist in life’s repertoire. But what we do know is that proteins are tiny little machines that run every function in every living organism. These macromolecules — think of proteins as long strands of rough pearls — literally fold and unfold, just as you might open and close your hand. Proteins are the smallest functioning unit of cells. They are the gears and levers of life. Proteins direct my fingers to press the appropriate keys on my keyboard. Proteins focus your eyes on the words and conduct them to the brain where they are reformulated as thought. To borrow a phrase that might succinctly explain the magic of life: It’s the macromolecules, stupid!

I felt obliged to offer that background before I tried explain what molecules have to do with media because it was a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, speaking at a biotechnology conference in 2003, who first drew the connection between the ability of stupid proteins to perform miraculous feats and the possibility that the machinations of macromolecules hinted at a revolution in the coordination of human affairs.

The conference in question turned out to be my last junket as a biotech reporter and it was held in a swell California venue, the seaside city of Monterey. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule which opened up a new way of thinking about the inner workings of cells as collections of gazillions of complex organic machines.

My published clip for that event made no mention of the Marine general’s remarks* which were so amazingly incongruous so as to stick in my head. So imagine this ramrod-straight Marine Corps general telling a few dozen slouching scientists and their hangers on like me that he found leadership inspiration in molecular biology. More often than not, the general explained, the Corps anticipated that future “battles” might involve two or three Marines from a platoon engaged in guerrilla conflict, none above the rank of private –  and God forbid they should get cut off and out-of-radio contact, and be unable to think for themselves.

Now despite the fact that enlisted Marines are commonly known as “jarheads” I do not mean to suggest that the general compared them to dumb-as-brick proteins. But as a former enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, I still recall quite vividly the night when a bourbon-and-cigarette-breathed drill instructor stood nose-to-nose with me to shout, “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR MOMMA, BOY?” — which absurd question I did not take personally but rather as proof that insofar as the Navy was concerned I was indeed a dumbfuck as was the swinging dick to my left and right to use the Boot Camp parlance.

Thus it struck me rather forcefully to hear this retired jarhead general talk about a form of organization that fell rather lightly on the rank and file because on the day that two riflemen get stuck in the boonies, back to back, with nothing between them and being overrun but their training and wits, they will be truly fucked if they have been conditioned to act purposefully only when orders are delivered in a shout at nose distance.

That was in 2003, but since I was then 49 and did not anticipate going into combat I had no immediate use for the thought. So I parked it until three years later when a brief meeting outside yet another conference in Monterey — Technology, Entertainment and Design or TED — caused me to dredge it up from memory.

Again my story about that TED conference made no mention of my chat with Rod Beckstrom, a co-author of “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book subtitled: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” But you can see the obvious connection and understand my receptivity to the notion of leaderless yet purposeful groups. However, as I had no venue to write about that in the newspaper I once again put that fanciful notion to bed.

Recently, however, I revived this idea of a leaderless media in a posting of my own titled, The Pyramid and the Cloud. That posting looked backwards at corporate media and was part of a series of blog entries in which I argue that hierarchy of journalism is at war with its truth-seeking mission. That is quite a conundrum given that the only journalists who draw regular paychecks work for corporate hierarchies. Those essays which start with a posting titled, Take Me To Your Leader, suggest reforms for corporate media to loosen their control mechanisms through blogging and thus delegate more independent truth-seeking power to the rank-and-file.

So I obviously hope for some movement in that direction on the part of Organized Journalism by which reference I do not mean to liken Corporate Media to the La Cosa Nostra. But after 16 years inside the system, I fear that newspaper leaders may not be as progressive as Marines in recognizing the need for new forms of organization to meet the operational challenges of competition for attention in a networked world (here let me mention “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” the book/philosophy by Web guru David Weinberger).

Meanwhile, let me redirect my molecular thinking toward creating a metaphor that would help unorganized journalists aggregate in purposeful ways with minimal overhead. That is the lesson I extract from nature. Systems of extraordinary complexity can function smoothly with no one shouting orders! Tomorrow I will suggest how some of the mechanisms to coordinate purposeful combinations of scattered content creators may already exist — and how we can use molecular biology as a template to help us understand what other software tools, social norms and perhaps loose organization might be needed to derive greater purpose and profit from Disorganized Journalism which is not a knock on citizen journalism but a statement of fact.

* Though I did not write about Lt. General Paul Van Riper’s remarks on molecular biology I learned that he had played an Iranian leader in a 2002 wargame in which his tactics inflicted, on a U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, the worst (simulated) defeat in naval history. I wrote a story about that in 2003. Earlier this year a New York Times article about U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Gulf repeated Van Riper’s lesson about how a loosely coordinated attack by inferior forces had so completely bamboozled America’s overconfident military brass.