Tag Archives: Scott

Resilience = Anarchism = Resilience?

Resilience is often defined as the capacity for self-organization, which in essence is cooperation without hierarchy. In turn, such cooperation implies mutuality; reciprocation, mutual dependence. This is what the French politician, philo-sopher, economist and socialist “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term ‘anarchism,’ namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule” (1).

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As renowned Yale Professor James Scott explains in his latest bookTwo Cheers for Anarchism, “Forms of informal cooperation, coordination, and action that embody mutuality without hierarchy are the quotidian experience of most people.” To be sure, “most villages and neighborhoods function precisely be-cause of the informal, transient networks of coordination that do not require formal organization, let alone hierarchy. In other words, the experience of anar-chistic mutuality is ubiquitous. The existence, power and reach of the nation-state over the centuries may have undermined the self-organizing capacity (and hence resilience) of individuals and small communities.” Indeed, “so many functions that were once accomplished by mutuality among equals and informal coordination are now state organized or state supervised.” In other words, “the state, arguably, destroys the natural initiative and responsibility that arise from voluntary cooperation.”

This is goes to the heart what James Scott argues in his new book, and he does so  in a very compelling manner. Says Scott: “I am suggesting that two centuries of a strong state and liberal economies may have socialized us so that we have largely lost the habits of mutuality and are in danger now of becoming precisely the dangerous predators that Hobbes thought populated the state of nature. Leviathan may have given birth to its own justification.” And yet, we also see a very different picture of reality, one in which solidarity thrives and mutual-aid remains the norm: we see this reality surface over & over during major disasters—a reality facilitated by mobile technology and social media networks.

Recall Jürgen Habermas’s treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increas-ingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.” One of the main instruments for synchronization is what the military refers to as “shared awareness.” As my colleague Clay Shirky notes in his excellent piece on The Political Power of Social Media, “shared awareness is the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also under-stand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks.” Moreover, while “Opinions are first transmitted by the media,” they are then “echoed by friends, family mem-bers, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference.”


In 1990, James Scott published Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, in which he distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public interactions that take place between dominators and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage” and which the power elites cannot decode. This hidden transcript is comprised of the second step described above, i.e., the social conversations that ultimately change political behavior. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, they become conscious of its common status. Borrowing from Habermas, the oppressed thereby become a public and more importantly a synchronized public. Social media is the metronome that can synchronize the collective publication of the hidden trans-cript, yielding greater shared awareness that feeds on itself, thereby threatening the balance of power between Leviathan and now-empowered and self-organized mutual-aid communities.

I have previously argued that social media and online social networks also can and do foster social capital, which increases capacity for self-organization and renders local communities more resilient & independent, thus sowing the seeds for future social movements. In other words, habits of mutuality are not all lost and the Leviathan may still face some surprisesAs Peter Kropotkin observed well over 100 years ago in his exhaustive study, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and their ability to survive. “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense… Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” 

Sociability is the tendency or property of being social, of interacting with others. Social media, meanwhile, has become the media for mass social interaction; enabling greater volumes of interactions than at any other time in human history. By definition, these mass social interactions radically increase the probability of mutuality and self-organization. And so, as James Scott puts it best, Two Cheers for Anarchism


Big Data for Development: From Information to Knowledge Societies?

Unlike analog information, “digital information inherently leaves a trace that can be analyzed (in real-time or later on).” But the “crux of the ‘Big Data’ paradigm is actually not the increasingly large amount of data itself, but its analysis for intelligent decision-making (in this sense, the term ‘Big Data Analysis’ would actually be more fitting than the term ‘Big Data’ by itself).” Martin Hilbert describes this as the “natural next step in the evolution from the ‘Information Age’ & ‘Information Societies’ to ‘Knowledge Societies’ [...].”

Hilbert has just published this study on the prospects of Big Data for inter-national development. “From a macro-perspective, it is expected that Big Data informed decision-making will have a similar positive effect on efficiency and productivity as ICT have had during the recent decade.” Hilbert references a 2011 study that concluded the following: “firms that adopted Big Data Analysis have output and productivity that is 5–6 % higher than what would be expected given their other investments and information technology usage.” Can these efficiency gains be brought to the unruly world of international development?

To answer this question, Hilbert introduces the above conceptual framework to “systematically review literature and empirical evidence related to the pre-requisites, opportunities and threats of Big Data Analysis for international development.” Words, Locations, Nature and Behavior are types of data that are becoming increasingly available in large volumes.

“Analyzing comments, searches or online posts [i.e., Words] can produce nearly the same results for statistical inference as household surveys and polls.” For example, “the simple number of Google searches for the word ‘unemployment’ in the U.S. correlates very closely with actual unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Hilbert argues that the tremendous volume of free textual data makes “the work and time-intensive need for statistical sampling seem almost obsolete.” But while the “large amount of data makes the sampling error irrelevant, this does not automatically make the sample representative.” 

The increasing availability of Location data (via GPS-enabled mobile phones or RFIDs) needs no further explanation. Nature refers to data on natural processes such as temperature and rainfall. Behavior denotes activities that can be captured through digital means, such as user-behavior in multiplayer online games or economic affairs, for example. But “studying digital traces might not automatically give us insights into offline dynamics. Besides these biases in the source, the data-cleaning process of unstructured Big Data frequently introduces additional subjectivity.”

The availability and analysis of Big Data is obviously limited in areas with scant access to tangible hardware infrastructure. This corresponds to the “Infra-structure” variable in Hilbert’s framework. “Generic Services” refers to the production, adoption and adaptation of software products, since these are a “key ingredient for a thriving Big Data environment.” In addition, the exploitation of Big Data also requires “data-savvy managers and analysts and deep analytical talent, as well as capabilities in machine learning and computer science.” This corresponds to “Capacities and Knowledge Skills” in the framework.

The third and final side of the framework represents the types of policies that are necessary to actualize the potential of Big Data for international develop-ment. These policies are divided into those that elicit a Positive Feedback Loops such as financial incentives and those that create regulations such as interoperability, that is, Negative Feedback Loops.

The added value of Big Data Analytics is also dependent on the availability of publicly accessible data, i.e., Open Data. Hilbert estimates that a quarter of US government data could be used for Big Data Analysis if it were made available to the public. There is a clear return on investment in opening up this data. On average, governments with “more than 500 publicly available databases on their open data online portals have 2.5 times the per capita income, and 1.5 times more perceived transparency than their counterparts with less than 500 public databases.” The direction of “causality” here is questionable, however.

Hilbert concludes with a warning. The Big Data paradigm “inevitably creates a new dimension of the digital divide: a divide in the capacity to place the analytic treatment of data at the forefront of informed decision-making. This divide does not only refer to the availability of information, but to intelligent decision-making and therefore to a divide in (data-based) knowledge.” While the advent of Big Data Analysis is certainly not a panacea,”in a world where we desperately need further insights into development dynamics, Big Data Analysis can be an important tool to contribute to our understanding of and improve our contributions to manifold development challenges.”

I am troubled by the study’s assumption that we live in a Newtonian world of decision-making in which for every action there is an automatic equal and opposite reaction. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of development policies and decisions are not based on empirical evidence. Indeed, rigorous evidence-based policy-making and interventions are still very much the exception rather than the rule in international development. Why? “Account-ability is often the unhappy byproduct rather than desirable outcome of innovative analytics. Greater accountability makes people nervous” (Harvard 2013). Moreover, response is always political. But Big Data Analysis runs the risk de-politicize a problem. As Alex de Waal noted over 15 years ago, “one universal tendency stands out: technical solutions are promoted at the expense of political ones.” I hinted at this concern when I first blogged about the UN Global Pulse back in 2009.

In sum, James Scott (one of my heroes) puts it best in his latest book:

“Applying scientific laws and quantitative measurement to most social problems would, modernists believed, eliminate the sterile debates once the ‘facts’ were known. [...] There are, on this account, facts (usually numerical) that require no interpretation. Reliance on such facts should reduce the destructive play of narratives, sentiment, prejudices, habits, hyperbole and emotion generally in public life. [...] Both the passions and the interests would be replaced by neutral, technical judgment. [...] This aspiration was seen as a new ‘civilizing project.’ The reformist, cerebral Progressives in early twentieth-century American and, oddly enough, Lenin as well believed that objective scientific knowledge would allow the ‘administration of things’ to largely replace politics. Their gospel of efficiency, technical training and engineering solutions implied a world directed by a trained, rational, and professional managerial elite. [...].”

“Beneath this appearance, of course, cost-benefit analysis is deeply political. Its politics are buried deep in the techniques [...] how to measure it, in what scale to use, [...] in how observations are translated into numerical values, and in how these numerical values are used in decision making. While fending off charges of bias or favoritism, such techniques [...] succeed brilliantly in entrenching a political agenda at the level of procedures and conventions of calculation that is doubly opaque and inaccessible. [...] Charged with bias, the official can claim, with some truth, that ‘I am just cranking the handle” of a nonpolitical decision-making machine.”

See also:

  • Big Data for Development: Challenges and Opportunities [Link]
  • Beware the Big Errors of Big Data (by Nassim Taleb) [Link]
  • How to Build Resilience Through Big Data [Link]

Theorizing Ushahidi: An Academic Treatise

[This is an excerpt taken from Chapter 1 of my dissertation]

Activists are not only turning to social media to document unfolding events, they are increasingly mapping these events for the world to bear witness. We’ve seen this happen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond. My colleague Alexey Sidorenko describes this new phenomenon as a “mapping reflex.” When student activists from Khartoum got in touch earlier this year, they specifically asked for a map, one that would display their pro-democracy protests and the government crackdown. Why? They wanted the world to see that the Arab Spring extended to the Sudan.

The Ushahidi platform is increasingly used to map information generated by crowds in near-real time like the picture depicted above. Why is this important? Because live public maps can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Jürgen Habermas. Recall Habermas’s treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.”

Sophisticated political maps have been around for hundreds of years. But the maps of yesteryear, like the books of old, were created and controlled by the few. While history used to be written by the victors, today, journalists like my colleague Anand Giridharadas from the New York Times are asking whether the triangulated crisis map will become the new first draft of history. In the field of geography and cartography, some refer to this new wave of democratized map-making as “neo-geography.” But this new type of geography is not only radically different from traditional approaches because it is user-generated and more par-ticipatory; the fact that today’s dynamic maps can also be updated and shared in near real-time opens up an entire new world of possibilities and responses.

Having a real time map is almost as good as having your own helicopter. A live map provides immediate situational awareness, a third dimension and additional perspective on events unfolding in time and space. Moreover, creating a map catalyzes conversations between activists, raises questions about geographic patterns or new incidents, and leads to more questions regarding the status quo in a repressive environment. To be sure, mass media alone does not change people’s minds.  Recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In addition, the collaboration that takes place when creating a live map can also reinforce weak and strong ties, both of which are important for civil resistance.

The Ushahidi platform enables a form of live-mapped “sousveillance,” which refers to the recording of an activity using portable personal technologies. In many respects, however, the use of Ushahidi goes beyond sousveillance in that it generates the possibility of “dataveillance” and a possible reversal of Bentham’s panopticon. “With postmodernity, the panopticon has been informationalized; what once was organized around hierarchical observation is now organized through decoding and recoding of information” (Lyon 2006). In Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues eloquently that this process of decoding and recoding was for centuries the sole privilege of the State. In contrast, the Ushahidi platform provides a participatory digital canvas for the public decoding, recoding of information and synchronization of said information. In other words, the platform serves to democratize dataveillance by crowdsourcing what was once the exclusive realm of the “security-informational complex.”

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts published in 1990, James Scott distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public interactions that take place between domina-tors and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage” and which the power elites cannot decode. This hidden transcript is comprised of the second step, social conversations, that Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) argue ultimately change political behavior. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, they become conscious of its common status. Borrowing from Habermas, the oppressed thereby become a public and more importantly a synchronized public. In many ways, the Ushahidi platform is a vehicle by which the hidden transcript is collectively published and used to create shared awareness—thereby threatening to alter the balance of power between the oppressors and oppressed.

The new dynamics that are enabled by “liberation technologies” like Ushahidi may enable a different form of democracy, one which arising from “the inability of electoral/representative politics to keep it promises [has thus] led to the development of indirect forms of democracy” (Rosanvallon 2008). More specifically, Rosanvallon indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable not just during elections but also between elections and independent of their results. “The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics  [cf. dataveillance] when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment” (Schmitter 2008, PDF).

These three phases correspond surprisingly well with the three waves of Ushahidi uses witnessed over the past three years. The first wave was reactive and documentary focused. The second was more pro-active and focused on action beyond documentation while the third seeks to capitalize on the first two to complete the rebalancing of power. Perhaps this final wave is the teleological purpose of the Ushahidi platform or What Technology Wants as per Kevin Kelly’s treatise. However, this third wave, the trend toward the “juridificaiton” of democracy bolstered by crowdsourced evidence that is live-mapped on a public Ushahidi platform, is today more a timid ripple than a tsunami of change reversing the all-seeing “panopticon”. A considerable amount of learning-by-doing remains to be done by those who wish to use the Ushahidi platform for impact beyond the first two phases of Rosanvallon’s democracy.

Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?

I recently had the distinct pleasure of participating in a fascination workshop on “Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?” The workshop was organized by the Frei Universität’s program on Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood and co-directed by Professors Gregor Walter-Drop and Steven Livingston. Update: the result of this meeting, and a follow up meeting in 2012 is a book on the topic to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

Throughout the workshop, I kept thinking back to one of my all time favorite books, James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.”  But while I’ve been fully immersed in the field of crisis mapping since the early days (2007), I haven’t really taken the time to think through the deeper implications of these new tools with respect to governance and especially statehood.

My colleague Gregory Asmolov made the link explicit during his excellent presentation on “Russian Wildfires and Alternative Modes of Governance: The Role of Crowdsourcing in Areas of Limited Statehood.” Here’s a summary:

“Because of it’s geographical size, high degree of corruption, and reliance on an extraction economy, governance by government in Russia is often weak and ineffective. Russian political expert Liliya Shevtzova goes so far as to claim that the current regime is an imitation of governance. The 2010 wildfires demonstrated the limited capacity of the state to provide effective emergency response. Information technologies, and crowdsourcing platforms in particular, fulfill the gap of the limited statehood. At the same time, however, the Russian government is also trying to use ICT to increase its claims to effective governance.”

Gregory and his colleagues in Moscow used the Ushahidi platform to create a “Help Map” during the forest fires. They also set up a call center to facilitate communication between those who needed help and those who were offering it. While I knew this had been one of the most stunning examples of citizen-based crowdsourcing initiatives in Russia, I hadn’t thought through the deeper political implications. Not only were citizens helping themselves because of Russia’s limited statehood, they were actually taking over functions of the state, which the map made very explicit. Gregory noted that some Russian citizens even went out to buy firefighting equipment with their own money to combat the fires themselves. Many official fire stations didn’t even have basic equipment needed to respond. In some ways, these efforts laid bare and indeed exposed the Russian regime as an “imitation of governance.”

The Russian government apparently responded by setting up webcams around the country to show that it was in control and still able to monitor the situation. But as this cartoon shows (from Gregory’s presentation), many in Russia were not buying the pretense. See also this article from Christian Science Monitor that Gregory shared: “Russia’s YouTube Democracy is a Sham.

As James Scott notes in his book Seeing Like a State, “the legibility of a society provides the capacity for larger-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.” By legibility, Scott means the ability of the state to index, search, understand and hence manipulate society. But unlike the past, and thanks to free mapping software and crowdsourcing, society is no longer as incapacitated as it used to be. Indeed, thanks to new free and open source mapping technologies, society is able to define it’s own legibility, the contours of which necessarily reveal the limits of statehood.

Moreover, as I have noted before, the resulting map is often not as profound as the social capital generated between the dozens, often hundreds, of people collaborating on a live crisis map. In turn, this social capital facilitates mass collective action. In other words, social capital is fungible. As Scott notes, “this transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map.” In many ways, therefore, the Ushahidi platform is a social-capital and collective-action generating technology.

For more on the Russia Fires projects, I recommend the following links:

The political context of the project: