The Freedom of Order


WHEN I SENT THE manuscript of my book, The Future and Its Enemies, to the publisher, my editor there made a good suggestion: You're trying to do too much in the first chapter, he said. Put the discussion of the book's overall thesis in an introduction and focus Chapter 1 entirely on the "enemies." Then he made a bad suggestion: "You could call the first chapter something like 'The Quest for Order.'"

Oh, no! I hate when that happens.

If you read this column regularly, you know that I am a great defender of the open-ended, unpredictable future, against those who want to close it off to serve their ideals of stability or control. I emphasize the importance of experiment and feedback, of serendipity and adaptability, of taking chances on untried ideas. My book is a defense of creativity, enterprise, and progress.

But I have nothing against order. The dynamic processes I celebrate in my book don't undermine order. They establish order without design.

And unlike my friend and fellow ASAP columnist Tom Peters, you won't see me writing about "thriving on chaos." I don't like chaos. I can't stand it when Kinko's screws up my photocopying job because it lacks well-established procedures. I prefer the tidiness of Borders to the funky hodgepodge of traditional "independent" booksellers. And I get downright cranky when editors play hurry-up-and-wait-and-hurry-up-again with my copy because there are glitches in their editorial systems.

It's easy to imagine that dynamism and order are opposites. After all, the hyperplanners—whether they're corporate bureaucrats or government officials—are always telling us that if we set people free to invent, they'll just screw things up. And those hyperplanners are indeed the "enemies" of Chapter 1 fame, always trying to impose stasis on the evolving future.

But there's a big difference between establishing order and prescribing outcomes. Order takes many forms and it is, in fact, one of the great products of dynamic processes. Order is something humans crave and markets reward.

And certain types of order make experimentation, innovation, and learning possible. They provide foundations on which we can build new structures. Such foundations include legal institutions, such as contract law, that allow people to form new bonds. They also encompass norms, such as the peer review that governs scientific inquiry.

Increasingly, our most important foundation-orders include methods of indexing and tracking information. A library of all the world's books, shelved randomly, is a treasure trove. But it is also an incredible waste of time. The Web wouldn't be half the phenomenon it is today without the search engines and directories that let us find the order we seek in all that abundance. What makes Yahoo more valuable than the searches that yield 10,000 answers is the intelligence—the order—it provides.

There are also profits to be made by selling business order: procedures that will let creators concentrate on what they do well, without worrying about how to set up, maintain, or track the supporting paperwork. That's what Tom Zimberoff, the founder of Vertex Software in Sausalito, California, is doing. After 22 years as a commercial photographer, he set out to embed in easy-to-use software all the order needed to run a photography business: the right copyright-licensing language, the best way to track licensing and distribution of stock photos, the proper invoice forms, and so on. The resulting product, called PhotoByte 2000, sells for $ 1,295 and, boasts Zimberoff, offers a "business in a box. This software knows every bit of minutia about running a photography business."

VERTEX PLANS TO EXTEND THE IDEA to other common types of small businesses: sole-practitioner law offices, architectural firms, graphic design studios. Each has its own unique routines, evolved over time to suit its particular environment and needs. Those practices represent the wisdom and experience of generations, information that can take years to acquire or reinvent. Hence the value of Vertex's products and others like them: By selling off-the-shelf order, they set entrepreneurs free to create. Nothing chaotic about that—and nothing static, either.