The Starfish and the Spider: On Napster and Apache Leadership

[Editor’s Note: If you’re just joining us, we are in the middle of reading through “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Each Monday and Thursday I’ll summarize a few important principles from a chapter in the book. Each Tuesday and Friday, I’ll apply those principles to the starfish-shaped church I believe the Lord is building in the Earth.]

The first chapter “MGM’s mistake and the Apache Mystery” starts off the book describing a problem that started to plague the music industry around the turn of the century. Tired of paying for music and having to drive down the street to pick up the next movie, enterprising technologists began to develop peer to peer (P2P) sites that allowed users to trade music and movie files.  This essentially allowed people acquire music or watch movies for free and it began to hit production companies hard. Compared to a company like MGM, these P2P sites were small potatoes, but they were responsible for a 25% loss of revenue to the recording industry.

So what did MGM and its other corporate counterparts do? They decided to sue. And they sued big time, taking their cases all the way up to the Supreme Court. They hired the best attorneys to pursue not just those who were pirating the music, but also the sites that were allowing the pirates to trade music between each other. The goal was to stop the practice altogether, but a curious thing happened–the more MGM won cases against the thieves and the P2P sites that operated on them, the more widespread the problem became.

Why? Brafman and Beckstrom find the answer in the history of the Spanish conquistadors. Hernando Cortez was sent to Mexico to acquire land and resources. When he came to Tenochtitlan, he met with the Emporer, killed him, and took over the Aztec nation.  A similar conquest of the Inca’s was enacted several years later by Francisco Pizaro. This continued until 1680’s when the Spanish headed north and encountered the Apaches. Upon reaching the much-less-civilized-looking Apaches, the conquest of the continent stopped and remained at a stand still for hundreds of years.

The secret, according to Tom Nevins, an anthropologist who has lived among the Apaches, was the way in which their community was formed. Instead of a centralized government where power is held by very few people, the Apaches were lead by Nant’an. These were social and spiritual leaders who led by example. No one could be elected a Nant’an. Apaches would follow Nant’ans based on the wisdom they saw in their lifestyle.  This made the Apaches incredibly hard for the Spanish to fight. There were no Emporers to kill to take over the Apaches. Kill one Nant’an and two or three more would rise in his place. The decentralization that characterized the Apaches made them immune from the attacks that worked so well in a centralized society.  Surprisingly, not only did attacks on the Apaches not destroy them, but it made them stronger. The more they were attacked, the more decentralized they became.

And here is where our authors teach us the first major principle of decentralization: “When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and more decentralized.” They go on to explain how this has happened within the music industry. MGM and other companies continue to sue P2P sites. Every time they win, the P2P site close down, but the community becomes more grass roots and more decentralized, effectively making them harder to track and bringing more attention to the “cause” of free music.  While the music industry is winning court cases, they are shelling out massive amounts of money. The glory days of making the money they were once used to are over. Meanwhile, the P2P sites get more decentralized and harder to track down…

What does all of this mean for the church? Well, there are some profound implications that we’ll look at tomorrow…


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About traviskolder

Travis Kolder is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father of five, an organic church planter, and a writer. He lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he serves as part of the Cedar Rapids House Church Network.

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