Tag Archives: Shirky

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.”

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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

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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.

On Synchrony, Technology and Revolutions: The Political Power of Synchronized Resistance

Synchronized action is a powerful form of resistance against repressive regimes. Even if the action itself is harmless, like walking, meditation or worship, the public synchrony of that action by a number of individuals can threaten an authoritarian state. To be sure, synchronized public action demonstrates independency which may undermine state propaganda, reverse information cascades and thus the shared perception that the regime is both in control and unchallenged.

This is especially true if the numbers participating in synchrony reaches a tipping point. As Karl Marx writes in Das Kapital, “Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” We call this “emergent behavior” or “phase transitions” in the field of complexity science. Take a simple example from the physical world: the heating of water. A one degree increase in temperature is a quantitative change. But keep adding one degree and you’ll soon reach the boiling point of water and surprise! A physical phase transition occurs: liquid turns into gas.

In social systems, information creates friction and heat. Moreover, today’s information and communication technologies (ICTs) are perhaps the most revolutionary synchronizing tools for “creating heat” because of their scalability. Indeed, ICTs today can synchronize communities in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. As one Egyptian activist proclaimed shortly before the fall of Mubarak, “We use Facebook to scheduled our protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” The heat is already on.

Synchrony requires that individuals be connected in order to synchronize. Well guess what? ICTs are mass, real-time connection technologies. There is conse-quently little doubt in my mind that “the advent and power of connection technologies—tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another—will make the twenty-first century all about surprises;” surprises that take the form of “social phase transitions” (Schmidt and Cohen 2011). Indeed, ICTs can  dramatically increase the number of synchronized participants while sharply reducing the time it takes to reach the social boiling point. Some refer to this as “punctuated equilibria” or “reversed information cascades” in various academic literatures. Moreover, this can all happen significantly faster than ever before, and as argued in this previous blog post on digital activism, faster is indeed different.

Clay Shirky argues that “this basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public [...].” But to understand the inherent power of synchrony and then leverage it, we must first recognized that synchrony is a fundamental force of nature that goes well beyond social systems.

In his TED Talk from 2004, American mathematician Steven Strogatz argues that synchrony may be one of the most pervasive drivers in all of nature, extending from the subatomic scale to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. In many ways, this deep tendency towards spontaneous order is what pushes back against the second law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as entropy. 

Strogatz shares example from nature and shows a beautiful ballet of hundreds of birds flocking in unison. He explains that this display of synchrony has to do with defense. “When you’re small and vulnerable [...] it helps to swarm to avoid and/or confuse predators.” When a predator strikes, however, all bets are off, and everyone disperses—but only temporarily. “The law of attraction,” says Strogatz, brings them right back together in synchrony within seconds. “There’s this constant splitting and reforming,” grouping and dispersion—swarming—which has several advantages. If you’re in a swarm, the odds of getting caught are far lower. There are also many eyes to spot the danger.

What’s spectacular about these ballets is how quickly they phase from one shape to another, dispersing and regrouping almost instantaneously even across vast distances. Individual changes in altitude, speed and direction are communicated and acted on across half-a-kilometer within just seconds. The same is true of fireflies in Borneo that synchronize their blinking across large distances along the river banks. Thousands and thousands of fireflies somehow overcoming the communication delay between the one firefly at one end of the bank and the other firefly at the furthest opposite end. How is this possible? The answer to this question may perhaps provide insights for social synchrony in the context of resistance against repressive regimes.

Strogatz and Duncan Watts eventually discovered the answer, which they published in their seminal paper entitled “Collective dynamics of small-world networks.” Published in the prestigious journal Nature,  the paper became the most highly cited article about networks for 10 years and the sixth most cited paper in all of physics. A small-world network is a type of network in which even though most nodes are not neighbors of one another, most can still be reached from other nodes by a small number of hops or steps. In the context of social systems, this type of network results in the “small world phenomenon of strangers being linked by a mutual acquaintance.”

These types of networks often arise out of preferential attachment, an inherently social dynamic. Indeed, small world networks pervade social systems. So what does this mean for synchrony as applied to civil resistance? Are smart-mobs synonymous with synchronized mobs? Do ICTs increase the prevalence of small world networks in social systems—thus increasing robustness and co-synchrony between social networks. Will meshed-communication technologies and features like check-in’s alter the topology of small world networks?

Examples of synchrony from nature clearly show that real-time communication and action across large distances don’t require mobile phones. Does that mean the same is possible in social systems? Is it possible to disseminate information instantaneously within a large crowd without using communication technologies? Is strategic synchrony possible in this sense? Can social networks engage in instantaneous dispersion and cohesion tactics to confuse the repressive regime and remain safe?

I recently spoke with a colleague who is one of the world’s leading experts on civil resistance, and was astonished when she mentioned (without my prompting) that many of the tactics around civil resistance have to do with synchronizing cohesion and dispersion. On a different note, some physicists argue that small world networks are more robust to perturbations than other network structures. Indeed, the small work structure may represent an evolutionary advantage.

But how are authoritarian networks structured? Are they too of the small world variety? If not, how do they compare in terms of robustness, flexibility and speed? In many ways, state repression is a form of synchrony itself—so is genocide. Synchrony is clearly not always a good thing. How is synchrony best interrupted or sabotaged? What kind of interference strategies are effective in this context?

The Political Power of Social Media

Clay Shirky just published a piece in Foreign Affairs on “The Political Power of Social Media.” I’m almost done with writing my literature review of digital activism in repressive states for my dissertation so this is a timely write-up by Clay who also sits on my dissertation committee. The points he makes echo a number of my blog posts and thus provides further support to some of the arguments articulated in my dissertation. I’ll use this space to provide excerpts and commentary on his 5,000+ word piece to include in my literature review.

“Less than two hours after the [Philippine Congress voted not to impeach President Joseph Estrada], thousands of Filipinos [...] converged on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads in Manila. The protest was arranged, in part, by forwarded text messages reading, ‘Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.’ The crowd quickly swelled, and in the next few days, over a million people arrived, choking traffic in downtown Manila.”

“The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response — close to seven million text messages were sent that week — so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. Estrada’s fate was sealed; by January 20, he was gone. The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader. Estrada himself blamed ‘the text-messaging generation’ for his downfall.”

“As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action. In the political arena [...] these increased freedoms can help loosely coordinated publics demand change.”

See this blog post on Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States.

“The Philippine strategy has been adopted many times since. In some cases, the protesters ultimately succeeded, as in Spain in 2004, when demonstrations organized by text messaging led to the quick ouster of Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had inaccurately blamed the Madrid transit bombings on Basque separatists. The Communist Party lost power in Moldova in 2009 when massive protests coordinated in part by text message, Facebook, and Twitter broke out after an obviously fraudulent election.”

“There are, however, many examples of the activists failing, as in Belarus in March 2006, when street protests (arranged in part by e-mail) against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s alleged vote rigging swelled, then faltered, leaving Lukashenko more determined than ever to control social media. During the June 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi but were ultimately brought to heel by a violent crackdown. The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010 followed a similar but quicker path: protesters savvy with social media occupied downtown Bangkok until the Thai government dispersed the protesters, killing dozens.”

“The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes.”

Clay picks up on some of my ongoing frustration with the “study” of digital activism. He borrows his dueling analogy from some of my earlier blog post of mine in which I chide the popular media for sensationalizing anecdotes. See for example:

“Empirical work on the subject is also hard to come by, in part because these tools are so new and in part because relevant examples are so rare. The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, Do digital tools enhance democracy? (such as those by Jacob Groshek and Philip Howard) is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run — and that they have the most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.”

Reading this made me realize that I need to get my own empirical results out in public in the coming weeks. As part of my dissertation research, I used econometric analysis to test whether an increase in access to mobile phones and the Internet serves as a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests. So I’ll add this to my to-do list of blog posts and will also share my literature review in full as soon as I’m done with that dissertation chapter.

In the meantime, have a look at the Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS) project that both Clay and I are involved in to spur more empirical research in this space.

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months. [We] should likewise assume that progress will be incremental and, unsurprisingly, slowest in the most authoritarian regimes.

I wrote up a blog post just a few weeks ago on “How to Evaluate Success in Digital Resistance: Look at Guerrilla Warfare,” which makes the same argument. Clay goes on to formulate two perspectives on the role of social media in non-permissive environments, the instrumentalist versus environmental schools of thought.

“The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong. It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.”

“According to [the environmental view], positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about Clay’s writings is his use of past examples from history to bolster his arguments.

“One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect.”

“Just as Luther adopted the newly practical printing press to protest against the Catholic Church, and the American revolutionaries synchronized their beliefs using the postal service that Benjamin Franklin had designed, today’s dissident movements will use any means possible to frame their views and coordinate their actions; it would be impossible to describe the Moldovan Communist Party’s loss of Parliament after the 2009 elections without discussing the use of cell phones and online tools by its opponents to mobilize. Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.”

Turning to the fall of communism, Clay juxtaposes the role of communication technologies with the inevitable structural macro-economic forces that lifted the Iron Curtain.

“Any discussion of political action in repressive regimes must take into account the astonishing fall of communism in 1989 in eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout the Cold War, the United States invested in a variety of communications tools, including broadcasting the Voice of America radio station, hosting an American pavilion in Moscow  [...], and smuggling Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain to aid the underground press, or samizdat.”

“Yet despite this emphasis on communications, the end of the Cold War was triggered not by a defiant uprising of Voice of America listeners but by economic change. As the price of oil fell while that of wheat spiked, the Soviet model of selling expensive oil to buy cheap wheat stopped working. As a result, the Kremlin was forced to secure loans from the West, loans that would have been put at risk had the government intervened militarily in the affairs of non-Russian states.”

“In 1989, one could argue, the ability of citizens to communicate, considered against the background of macroeconomic forces, was largely irrelevant. Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. [...]. For optimistic observers of public demonstrations, this is weak tea, but both the empirical and the theoretical work suggest that protests, when effective, are the end of a long process, rather than a replacement for it.”

Clay also emphasizes the political importance of conversation over the initial information dissemination effect:

“Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then get echoed by friends, family members, 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. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well — it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.”

How about the role of social media in organization and coordination?

“Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or govern-ments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control. As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations.”

I’m rather stunned by this argument: “Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination.” Seriously? If a group is unorganized and undisciplined, advocating that it use social media—particularly in a repressive environment—is highly inadvisable. Turning an unorganized and undisciplined mob into a flash mob thanks to social media tools does not make it a smart mob. Clay’s argument directly contradicts the  rich empirical research that exists on civil resistance in authoritarian states.

“For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls ‘shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks.”

Where I Disagree with Morozov vs Shirky on Digital Activism

Prospect Magazine just published the final back-and-forth between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky on digital activism. The debate followed Evgeny’s cover story in Prospect published last November, which I responded to (and disagreed with) at length here: Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?! And here: Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven.

I enjoyed reading the final exchange between Morozov and Shirky. Here’s where I agree and disagree with both authors.

Agree with Morozov

  • Growing Internet censorship in Iran is a logical reaction from a “rational-thinking” government concerned with possible revolution.
  • Only focusing on who controls communication networks may not be terribly helpful since Iran has other ways to control the internet. “One unfortunate consequence of limiting our analysis of internet control to censorship only is that it presents all authoritarian governments as technophobic and unable to capitalise on new technologies,” which is hardly the case.

Disagree with Morozov

  • Protests are not necessarily rare in repressive states. According to a study in 2006, “group protests in China have risen at a rate of at least 17% a year.” In 2005, there were an estimated 241 group protests per day. In Pakistan, local Field Monitors with Swisspeace coded 54 individual protests during 2007. Compare this with Reuters coverage of Pakistan, which only reported 7 protests that same year. If it’s not in the news does not mean it’s not happening.
  • The regime in Tehran may very well have the ability to turn off mobile phone coverage in public places where protests are organized but remember those things called land line telephones? Iran has 24.8 million of those (2008 est.) and is ranked 12th (above South Korea and Canada) in number of land line phones (ref). And besides, we’ve clearly seen that mobile phones are increasingly used for more than just communication. The tragic video footage of Neda (along with hundreds of other pictures) were all captured on mobile phones.
  • The fact that the Iranian regime has become more authoritarian following the post-elections  protests does not automatically imply the regime has become stronger. As I have written elsewhere, citing Brafman and Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider: “when attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.” A more centralized and paranoid regime, however, doesn’t mean a more powerful regime. Greater repression is a typical reaction by a threatened regime during a revolution and often before a change of power.
  • The increased repression can also backfire. As mentioned in this previous blog post, “Backfire occurs when an attack creates more support for or attention to what/who is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.” For further research on this issue, I recommend reading this piece on “Repression, Backfire and the Theory of Transformative Events,” by David Hess and Brian Martin.
  • One should also take into consideration the organizational topology of resistance movements. Brafman and Beckstrom argue that “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more decentralized.” This may make it more difficult for the regime to identify and crack down on the resistance movement in Iran.
  • I don’t think Burma serves as a valid comparison with Iran. In addition, the fact that there were no major democratic changes in Burma following the Saffron revolution in 2007 hardly means that the situation has been static since. I recently spoke with two colleagues who were in Burma a few months ago and was taken aback by some of the changes they observed.
  • Morozov asks what is to be gained if the ability to organize protests is matched or even overpowered by the ability to provoke, identify and arrest the protesters and possible future dissidents? A good question but one that seems to assumes a static and linear state of affairs. As I have argued elsewhere, tactical innovation, organizational learning and technological change means that this is unlikely.

Agree with Shirky

  • Just like the Protestant Reformation was shaped by the printing press, the Iranian protests were and is being shaped by social media, rather than simply Twitter. Perhaps “the real revolution was the use of mobile phones, which allowed the original protesters to broadcast their actions to other citizens and to the wider world with remarkable speed and immediacy.”
  • I’m including the following paragraphs in full as they are relevant to my dissertation research. For me the key words here are “synchronized public.”

“The basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronised public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public (the monarchies of Europe, in Habermas’s telling, become authoritarian governments within the contemporary scenario).

Put another way, even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens. As Evgeny notes, however, that hypothesis might be wrong. Or, if it is right, the ways in which it is right might be minor, or rare, or take decades to unfold.

  • Iran is unlikely to become a permanent Burma since “the kind of information shutdown required to keep all forms of public assembly from boiling over will be beyond the authorities in Iran.”

Disagree with Shirky

  • On the Habermas reference to the “synchronized public”, Shirky overlooks the fact that a centralized, command-and-control organization is likely to have the upper hand on synchronization. He also forgets that repressive regimes do not face the same collective action problem that resistance movements face (c.f. information cascades). Granted, the “public” may be quicker in adapting to relatively rapid and small-albeit-important changes in the political environment but this needs to be tested in more depth.
  • Shirky agrees with Evgeny regarding the possibility that Iran may move towards the Burmese model of steady control. Put this way, I also agree with the possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow. Neither Shirky, Morozov or myself are Iran specialists or have any inside information on the internal politics of the country. So best not to rely on any of us for expert political commentary on Iranian politics.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Prospects for Cyberocracy

David Ronfeldt at RAND just sent me his new (co-authored) piece on “The Prospects for Cyberacrocy” which I found particularly interesting given the contrast to his original paper of the same name in 1992. David’s timing is impeccable since I am co-teaching a course on Digital Democracy with my colleague Joshua Goldstein. The course is being offered this Spring semester as part of the interdisciplinary Media and Commincation Studies Program at Tufts University.

Since David’s paper is 70 pages long, what follows is a concise 5-page summary with  references to additional contemporary works (e.g., by Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Antony Loewenstein, etc.), and current examples written specifically for our Digital Democracy students.

In 1992, David Ronfeldt wrote that a “precise definition of cyberocracy was not possible at present.” In a general sense, then, he identified two ways in which cyberocracy may manifest itself:

  1. Narrowly, as a form of organization that supplants traditional forms of bureaucracy and technocracy;
  2. Broadly, as a form of government that may redefine relations between state and society, and between the public sector and the private sector.

Ronfeldt cautions that optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of it’s potential dark side. He contrasts term cyberocracy with aristocracy and theocracy—under which the high-born and high priests ruled respectively. The author argues that cyberocracy, a product of the information revolution, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how and why. That is, “information and its control will become a dominant source of power, as a natural next step in political evolution.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.   The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” However, “the mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.”

Citing earlier research, David suggests that consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-order and second-order effects. The first-order effect can be  framed as gains in efficiency. “The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects.”

The second-order effects bring about behavioral and organizational change which affect how people think and work together. New systems of thought are thus generated by second-order effects. “The major impact will probably be felt in terms of the organization and behavior of the modern bureaucratic state.” Take the printing press, for example, “it created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.”

In “Seeing Like a State,” James Scott explains why certain state-centered schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Scott writes that “no administrative system is capable of representing [or monitoring] every existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” David Ronfeldt provides additional insight: “the hierarchical structuring of bureaucracies into offices, departments, and lines of authority may confound the flow of information that may be needed to deal with complex issues in today’s increasingly interconnected world.”

Would a cyberocracy provide a more effective political template to improve the human condition? Ronfeldt might be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Clay Shirky [2008] and Yochai Benkler [2006] would not hesitate to reply with a resounding yes.

Ronfeldt writes that “bureaucracy depends on going through channels and keeping information in bounds; in contrast, cyberocracy may place a premium on gaining information from any source, public or private. Technocracy emphasizes ‘hard’ quantitative and econometric skills, like programming and budgeting methodologies; in contrast, a cyberocracy may bring a new emphasis on ‘soft’ symbolic, cultural, and psychological dimensions of policymaking and public opinion.”

As Clay Shirky notes, “if you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” This template is hardly likely to improve today’s interconnected challenges.

In “Wealth of Networks“, Benkler writes that the “actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national or social boundaries, across space and political division. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal-political association.”

Writing in the early 1990s, pioneer computer technologist Alan Kay anticipates the rise of blogs which are in effect new types of associations that stand outside of traditional boundaries (cited in Ronfeldt):  “The retrieval systems of the future are not going to retrieve facts but points of view.  The weakness of databases is that they let you retrieve facts, while the strength of our culture over the past several hundred years has been our ability to take on multiple points of view.”

However, authoritarian regimes (and some democratic ones according to Noam Chomsky), typically crack down on the ability of individuals to express multiple points of view. Writing in 1992, Ronfeldt states that “some of today’s trendier points—e.g., the information revolution empowers individuals, favors open societies, and portends a worldwide triumph for democracy—may not hold up as times change.”

Ronfeldt suggests that the information revolution will foster more open and closed systems; more decentralization and centralization; more inclusionary and exclusionary communities; more privacy and surveillance; more freedom and authority; more democracy and new forms of totalitarianism.

Ronfeldt provides a superb critque of those who maintain that decentralization and networks explain and ensure the success in the new business environment. However, “complex organizations depend on some kind of hierarchy.  Hierarchy does not end because work teams include people from different levels and branches.  The structure may be more open, the process more fluid, and the conventions redefined; but a hierarchy still exists.”

The consequence of the information revolution may thus mean “greater decentralization for highly centralized organizations, and greater centralization for decentralized ones.” On the other hand, if new technology does foster decentralization, “it may also provide greater ‘topsight‘—a central understanding of the big picture that enhances the management of complexity.” The pursuit of topsight is thus the pursuit to understand the big picture, “the most precious intellectual commodity known to man.”

A question of interest to me given my dissertation research is whether repressive regimes will/do have the ability to retain the upper hand in using new technology to maintain information supremacy within their borders. Ronfeldt touched on this question in 1992. “As cyberocracy develops, will governments become flatter, less hierarchical, more decentralized, with different kinds of middle-level officials and offices?  Some may, but many may not.  Governments [particularly repressive regimes] may not have the organizational flexibility and options that corporations have.”

Along these lines, former US Secretary of State George Shultz argued in 1985 that information and communication flows can be used as a powerful instrument for compelling closed societies to open up. At the time, Schulz wrote that communist states fear the information revolution perhaps more than they fear Western military strength. “The revolution in global communications thus forces all nations to reconsider traditional ways of thinking about national sovereignty.”

Ronfeldt summarizes Shulz’s take on the “dictator’s dilemma“: if the Soviet regime risked adopting new technologies, it’s leaders would have to liberalize the Soviet economic and political systems, which is arguably what happened. Ronfeldt thus writes that as “long as the aim in the West is the demise of communist and other traditional hard-line authoritarian systems, policymakers in the United States and Europe are well advised to expect that the diffusion of the new technologies will speed the collapse of closed societies and favor the spread of open ones.”

This is (still) the current US policy towards Cuba, for example. In his recent book, “The Blogging Revolution,” Antony Loewenstein notes that,

“Cuba’s official Communist organ Gramma International reported in June 2008 that a meeting in Washington in May discussed using USAID to ‘promote the clandestine dispatch of electronic materials to the island via European and Latin American intermediaries’.  The aim of the US$45 million was to distribute ‘propaganda pamphlets, cell phones and modern communications equipment’ and ‘train Cubans resident in third countries.’

George W Bush has publicly stated that he wanted to use the Internet to destabilize the Cuban Government. In May 2001, Bush gave a speech in which he advocated the Internet as just one tool to weaken Castro, and the 2006 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Report state that US$24 million was being spent on ‘efforts to break the Cuban government’s information blockade and expand access to independent information, including through the Internet’.”

As Ronfeldt noted in 1992, however, “the fact that the new technology can help sweep aside old types of closed regimes does not necessarily mean that it will also make democratic societies more democratic, or totalitarian ones impossible.” Indeed, “a longer view of history provides little assurance that the new technology favors democracy.”

As Ronfeldt wrote, “the printing press and later technologies, like the telephone and radio, did not prevent new and ever worse forms of autocracy from arising.” While these technologies undermined the power base of old monarchies, these same technologies were subsequently “turned into tools of propaganda, surveillance, and subjugation that enabled dictators to seize power and develop totalitarian regimes.”

Ronfeldt maintains that technology is not neutral or apolitical but it does “widen the range of possibilities within a particular context.” But as Clay Shirky notes, “arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject.”

In any case, the effect of technology depends on context. Ronfeldt cites Daniel Bell (1979) to explain that “the new revolution in communications makes possible both an intense degree of centralization of power, if the society decides to use it in that way, and large decentralization because of the multiplicity, diversity, and cheapness of the modes of communication.”

Ronfeldt adds that “the existence of democracy does not assure that the new technology will strengthen democratic tendencies and be used as a force for good rather than evil. The new technology may be a double-edged sword even in a democracy.” To this end, “far from favoring democracy or totalitarianism, cyberocracy may facilitate more advanced forms of both. It seems as likely to foster further divergence as convergence, and divergence has been as much the historical rule as convergence.”

Furthermore, Ronfeldt argues that while “in the past the divergence principle was most evident between countries,” a future possibility “is that the principle may increasingly apply within countries. The information revolution may enable hybrid systems to take form that do not fit standard distinctions between democracy and totalitarianism.  In these systems, part of the populace may be empowered to act more democratically than ever, but other parts may be subjected to new techniques of surveillance and control.”

A question that naturally follows is whether cyberocracy will spell the obsolescence and transformation of standard Marxist theses. While Marxism claimed that “capital accummulation” faciliated political exploitation, would Marx not focus instead on “information” if he were to reappear today? Ronfeldt suggests that information may very well come to “succeed capital as a central theoretical concept for political and social philosophy” in the post-industrial age.

According to Marxism, the capitalist accumulation of “surplus labor” and labor’s exploitation by “monopoly capital” account for a society’s structure and its ills and inclinations.  That structure is composed of socioeconomic “classes” that are defined by the “relation to the means of production of capital.”

But the post-industrial age may instead raise a new concern about “surplus information” or “monopoly information” that is concentrated, guarded, and exploited for privileged economic and political purposes.  Moreover, a society may become structured into new kinds of classes depending on one’s relation to the means of production of information.

The above summarizes Ronfeldt’s Cyberocracy paper from 1992. The following is a summary of his 2008 postscript co-authored with Danielle Varda.

Ronfeldt and Varda conclude that “influence in the information age is indeed proving to revolve around symbolic politics and media savvy — the ‘soft power’ aspects of influence.” Based on the evidence of the past 18 years, the authors also conclude that “the information revolution continues to enable both democratic and totalitarian tendencies. [...] The information age is indeed leading to new hybrid amalgams of democratic and authoritarian tendencies, often in the same country.” The authors also conclude that “governments are still straining to adapt.  Bureaucracy remains the rule, cyberocracy a speculation.”

In terms of next steps for further research, Ronfeldt and Varda outline four speculations about future trends:

  1. The advanced societies are developing new sensory apparatuses that people have barely begun to understand and use;
  2. A network-based social sector is emerging, distinct from the traditional public and private sectors.  Consisting largely of NGOs and NPOs, its rise is leading to a re-balancing of state, market, and civil-society forces;
  3. New modes of multiorganizational collaboration are taking shape, and progress toward networked governance is occurring;
  4. This may lead to the emergence of the nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.

The authors argue that people and organizations in “advanced societies” are “building vast new sensory apparatuses for watching what is happening in their own societies and around the world. Of all the uses to which the new technologies are being put, this may become one of the most important for the future of the state and its relationship to society.” The rise of citizen journalism is certainly a significant consequence of the information revolution.

Ronfeld and Varda point out that “many of the new apparatuses reflect the perception of perils.  Crime and terrorism are impelling new installations for watching cityscapes, monitoring communications, and mapping potential hotspots.  But sensor networks are also being deployed for early warning and rapid response regarding many other concerns — disease outbreaks, forest protection, [etc.].”

In addition, the authors argue that “environmental, human-rights, and other social activists continue to develop new media to keep watch and speed mobilization in case of a challenge or abuse somewhere [...].” Examples include DigiActive, Digital Democracy 2.0, Witness, Ushahidi, and Global Voices. Indeed, Ronfeldt and Varda suggest that citizens’ concerns about top-down surveillance may be countered by bottom-up “sousveillance” (or inverse surveillance), particularly if individuals wear personal devices for detecting and recording what is occurring in their vicinity.”

Ronfeldt and Vera maintain that new sensory apparatuses will accelerate the “rise of civil-society actors, by providing networked [actors] with new tools not only for checking on the behavior of government and corporate actors, but also for participating in collaborative governance schemes with them.  New mechanisms for attracting and combining diverse viewpoints under the rubric of ‘collective intelligence’ could help foster this. So could the continued advance of principles favoring freedom of information, the right to communicate, and open access.”

While networks are as old as hierarchies and markets, the authors argue that they are “only now coming into their own as a major societal organizing principle.  To function well on a large scale, multiorganizational networks require complex information and communications systems—even more than do hierarchies and markets—and those systems are finally afforded by the Internet and other new digital technologies.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree with this conclusion. He writes that “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.”

Ronfeld and Varda argue that civil society stands to gain the most from the rise of networks since “policy problems have become so complex and intractable, crossing so many jurisdictions and involving so many actors, that governments should evolve beyond the traditional bureaucratic model of the state.”

To this end, “a less hierarchical, more decentralized, pro-partnership model is needed, one that relies more on outsourced market measures and collaborative network designs.  Metaphorically, this means a state that is less about (vertical) stovepipes and silos, and more about (horizontal) webs, bridges, and pools—a state where issues are deliberated less in channels and more on platforms.”

Ronfeldt and Varda forsee that “the evolution of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies will attract government policymakers, business leaders, and civil-society actors to create myriad new mechanisms for communication, coordination, and collaboration spanning all levels of governance.  Aging contentions that ‘the government’ or ‘the market’ is the solution to particular public-policy issues will give way to inspired new ideas that, in some areas, ‘the network” [or, in my opinion, 'the ecosystem'] is the solution.'”

Returning to the question of hierarchies versus networks, Ronfeldt and Varda maintain that “states, not to mention societies as a whole, cannot endure without hierarchies. Familial tribes and clans were the first major form of organization to arise centuries ago; hierarchical institutions were second—and the state remains the home realm of this form. Information-age government may well undergo ‘reinventing’ and be made flatter, more networked, decentralized, etc.—but it will still have hierarchy at its core.”

In conclusion, Ronfeldt and Varda argue that the rise of the “Nexus-State” does not imply the weakening of the “traditional state.” To be sure, “the rise of the market system had those effects on the state, beginning a few centuries ago.  As the state relinquished the control of commercial activities to private companies, both the nation and the state became stronger.  Likewise, as the social sector expands and activities are transferred to it, the state should again emerge with a new kind of strength, even though it loses some scope in some areas.”

Only time will tell. I look forward to David’s update in 2020!

Patrick Philippe Meier