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Routing Around the Office

Dror Poleg
2 min read
Routing Around the Office

Can you force people to work a certain way? Companies and labor markets are networks. Collaboration and innovation depend on the flow of information. Once you plug your business into the internet, it starts behaving in ways you cannot control. If you try to force your views on the network, you risk getting cut off completely. One of the fundamental laws of the internet explains why.

In 1993, Time magazine ran an article on this thing called "the Internet." The net had 20 million users and added a million new ones a month. As Times put it, "the Internet is suddenly the place to be."

The authors described the lack of online censorship and the variety of bulletin boards and chatrooms where people talked to each other about anything from science to sex. In the article, John Gilmore commented on the difficulty of censoring online information, "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Gilmore is an internet pioneer and a co-founder of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Gilmore's phrase on routing around censorship has since become known as Gilmore's Law. It originally referred only to how network hardware and software behave. But over time, the law expanded to describe the efforts of internet users themselves. As Gilmore told The Guardian in 2010:

"In its original form, [the law] meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn't like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. [However] the meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship."

The current battle between managers and employees reminded me of Gilmore's law. At its core, it is a battle over the flow of information, with managers insisting that it flows in the time and place where they feel most comfortable.

Cities, labor markets, and companies are information networks. They are designed to enable information to flow in a way that optimizes collaboration and innovation. Once employees are connected via the internet, the shape of cities, labor markets, and companies change dramatically. Any effort to block or control the flow of information might be "interpreted as damage" and get routed around. Talented people will continue to collaborate, innovation will continue to happen, and the network will continue to expand. But the nodes that resist its evolution might be left out and fall behind.