Rise of the Superactors

by Scott Smith


CHEN GUANGCHEN made his daring escape from house arrest in late April and then appeared in Beijing at a most sensitive diplomatic moment in time, just prior to a major visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He had suddenly turned a glaring spotlight on what was one of a number of human rights sore points China had no intention of addressing during her visit. His personal plight lead to a global political crisis that couldn’t be ignored, delayed or swept under the rug. In just a few short hours, Chen went from relative obscurity to capturing the attention of global media, as the delicate political and economic negotiations between the world’s two largest powers were derailed—embarrassing both sides into courses of action they probably wouldn’t have otherwise taken.

With his choice of timing and clever delivery of a shock to the diplomatic system, Chen became the latest in an emerging and amorphous category of individuals I broadly call ‘superactors'. In another time and place, Chen could have ended up yet another opaque human rights case in search of dénouement. Instead, he chose his moment and stage. He went global, not only by surprising government officials in Beijing and Washington. He took it a step further  calling into a congressional hearing and speaking directly to power. Just a month after his breakout from a heavily guarded home in Dongshigu Village in Shandong Province, Chen now sits in New York City with his wife and two children, equipped with a valid US visa and preparing to study as a visiting scholar at New York University. Chen’s actions have nudged US-China relations and put human rights back in the spotlight.

Like a superhero without a cape or super powers – or maybe a figure from a minor mythology – a superactor emerges rapidly or unexpectedly to disrupt and redirect major events around himself, individually affecting change on a regional or global scale. Governments worldwide are beginning to recognize the potential impact of the superactor as they belatedly grasp the power of network-scale disruption within the interdependent systems whose benefits they have been relying on for stability for almost two decades. What they haven't yet understood is the numbers, the diversity of leverage, and the influence these superactors will have on these systems—as opponents, next-generation architects, or disruptive alternatives.

The idea of a superactor builds on Thomas Friedman’s thinking in his book
Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 2011.[1] Friedman wrote about ‘super-empowered individuals’, typified by Osama Bin Laden and his emergence on the world stage, as those who could ‘wage war’ against a single country. It was a natural evolution of the charismatic terrorist leaders of the 1970s. Around the same time, Thomas P.M. Barnett described super-empowered individuals as drivers of what he calls ‘system perturbations’ in his book The Pentagon's New Map - vertical shocks which set off horizontal waves growing in impact over time.[2] Like Friedman, Barnett points to globalization as a key enabler of perturbations, allowing shock waves to travel far and wide and experienced almost simultaneously by the globally networked among us.

The theme was picked up by theorist John Robb in his work on next-generation warfare, and also discussed by Adam Elkus and Crispin Burke in Small Wars Journal.[3] They describe the super-empowered individual as ‘possessing the knowledge and/or access to critical nodes in complex social systems and the power and willingness to leverage such, to either change the system’s rule set or at least make a strong challenge to it.’

Robb, Elkus, Burke, Mark Safranski of the ZenPundit blog, and others, look at super-empowerment as models of evolving warfare. What makes them interesting is that they almost exclusively focus on disruption as a type of security conflict, as a force multiplier for smaller parties to asymmetric struggle. Figures such as Bin Laden, Henry Okah of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and Julian Assange of Wikileaks are exemplars of super-empowered individual. All use high and low technology to attack perceived weaknesses in globalized systems—stock markets, diplomatic alliances or pipelines (or all three). The most common examples are disruptions of a destructive sort, seeking to bring down one system and replace it with another.

The exception is Friedman’s example of Jody Williams in Longitudes and Attitudes
.[4] Williams is the anti-landmine campaigner who, in conjunction with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Williams galvanized attention to landmines by bypassing normal channels and organizing her own anti-landmine conference, drawing in sympathetic diplomats and media, and effectively doing an end-run around an established but brittle diplomatic system. Though more of an acceleration than sudden strike, as in the case of Chen, Williams nonetheless substantially changed the tempo of the negotiation process herself, and even the framework in which they took place,

As power wanes amid global turmoil, with weakened states contracting as their economic powers shrink, as secrecy is strained because of the transparency that technology can bring, and policing is stretched beyond it’s limits, I expect we will see more superactors emerge—not just those attempting to knock wobbly systems off balance, but also to fill the vacuum where glaring miscalculations are already happening. A new generation of ‘philanthropreneurs’ is emerging, fueled by both technology and money. Some of these powerful individuals are stepping into areas ripe for disruption, including education funding, international relief, human rights (see Chen, whose game is clearly not yet played out), and scientific and medical research.

What makes a superactor? We don’t really know. Up to now, superactors have been human anomalies, and little has been done to understand how they differ from other business, military or humanitarian leaders. We live in an era when the tools of power can quickly become concentrated in one place in the hands of a single individual. We need to know more about superactors if we are to full appreciate how the next few decades might unfold. In my profession as a forecaster and analyst, we spend much of our time trying to understand external drivers – the possible impacts of events, disruptions caused by innovations, and how society will react and adapt to them. We spend far less time understanding how such elements are embodied in people, and how individuals can themselves become shaping forces.  


[1] Thomas Friedman, ‘Prologue: The Super-Story,’ Chapter in Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 2011 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002), 3-6. Excerpt available online at: http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/bookshelf/longitudes-and-attitudes/prologue

[2] Thomas P.M. Barnett, ‘Blast from my past: PNM's ‘New Rules for a New Crisis,’ GoBlogization (19 June 2010). URL: http://thomaspmbarnett.com/globlogization/2010/6/19/blast-from-my-past-pnms-new-rules-for-a-new-crisis.html

[3] Adam Elkus and Captain Crispin Burke, ‘WikiLeaks, Media, and Policy: A Question of Super-Empowerment,’ Small Wars Journal (29 September 2010). URL: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/a-question-of-super-empowerment

[4] Friedman, ‘Prologue: The Super-Story.’


About the author: Scott Smith is the author of Discontinuities, CI's monthly column on disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder and principal of Changeist, LLC, a foresight and strategic design consultancy advising organizations as they navigate complex futures.


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