This week I'd like to point attention to an interesting article by one of the smartest guys in Santa Monica, California. David Ronfeldt works for the Rand Corporation, the original "think tank" which ponders many imponderables for the more far seeing (and currently beleaguered) parts of the federal government. It has been posted on Rand's website.
This paper--written in 2002 and now a chapter in a new book (Environmentalism and the Technologies of Tomorrow, Island Press, 2005) -- speculates about the future of the environmental movement as a function of its increasing use of network forms of organization and related strategies and technologies attuned to the information age. The paper does so by nesting the movement's potential in a theoretical framework about social evolution.
This framework holds that people have developed four major forms for organizing their societies: first tribes, then hierarchical institutions, then markets, and now networks. The emergence of a new, network-based realm augurs a major rebalancing in relations among government, market, and civil-society actors. In the near term (years), there will be continuing episodes of social conflict as some environmental groups press their case, often by using netwar and swarming strategies.
Over the long term (decades), new policymaking mechanisms will evolve for joint communication, coordination, and collaboration among government, business, and civil-society actors. Today, it is often said that "government" or "the market" is the solution. In time, it may well be said that "the network" is the solution.
You can all see how this fits into our overarching theme of "modernity and its enemies".
Ronfeldt's essential thesis is that civilizations seem capable of passing through four phases of development. Tribalism, hierarchical Institutionalism, competitive rule-based Markets, and self-aggregating Networks of interest.
At one level, this is reminiscent of other "phases of history" models that have appeared over the years. For example, Arnold Toynbee spent much of his life criticizing earlier, Spenglerian notions of cultural "life cycles", wherein each society passes through obligatory stages. Vigorous youth is replaced by thoughtful maturity, and so on, all the way to decadent senescence. (see: http://www.davidbrin.com/collapse.html)
Other such models range from that of Karl Marx to Douglas Adams's simplified version of Maslowe's Hierarchy of Needs, in which each social-development is typified by a core question. (Survival: "How can we eat?" -> Exploration: "Why do we eat?" -> decadence: "Where shall we go to have lunch?")
After seeing countless examples of such models, across 200 years, we may be forgiven a bit of jaded cynicism toward their one common theme - a thread of tendentiousness. Moreover, what most of these cyclical or trend models lacked was any attention paid to:
1* human predispositions inherited from a million years of hominid evolution,
2* additional drives that may have been reinforced by 4,000 of reproductive success by feudal lords,
3* the notion of emergent properties -- e.g. what appears to be competition at one level (a lion predating upon a gazelle) can be seen as cooperation at the next level of organization (the savannah ecosystem).
4* the notion of attractor states which will reliably pull groups of humans in, given certain kinds of circumstances.
5* the retention of earlier forms as later ones develop.
6* ways to test the theory with falsifiable experiments or pragmatic tools.
The Ronfeldt model starts out with several advantages over earlier Phase Theories. While offering at least a nod toward #1, it appears to incorporate thoughts consistent with 3,4,5 &6. Especially, there is a willingness to recognize that earlier forms of interaction are retained while new forms take hold.
Moreover, there is a core adherence to the pragmatist assumption that inherently underlies all enlightenment social philosophy.
The romantic Rousseau maintained that humans are naturally good and corrupted by society. The equally romantic Hobbes held that humans are naturally bad, needing social coercion in order to behave. These oversimplifications were rejected by the pragmatist Locke, who asked; "How can society maximize the additive effects of decent human behavior while empowering both social and individual actions that minimize or cancel the negative tendencies."
Ronfeldt speaks of societies that "...elevate the bright over the dark side of each" level or type of cultural interaction. In the long Enlightenment tradition, this has been the overall goal. To encourage the angels of our nature - fostering opportunities for positive interaction (cooperation or "fair" competition) - while discouraging the devils. Smith claimed that this happens in unfettered markets. Hayek added the importance of free information flows. I emphasize the role of "reciprocal accountability."
(Let's put aside any temptation to run with sci fi interpretations of the "light and dark side"....)
Ronfeldt makes a case that each of his four phases empowers society with new capabilities. His defense-oriented studies for Rand Corp have emphasized the dangers and advantages to be found in a new era of "NetWar" when self-organizing groups may "swarm" upon any given situation with speed and flexibility that were not possible under tribal, hierarchical, or market forms of organization.
Many aspects of network organization and their application to conflict were elucidated in two of Ronfeldt's books: NETWAR and IN ATHENA'S CAMP: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age. They are highly recommended.
B. Of course, any attempt to describe human civilization is inherently flawed by the fact that we are examining a vastly complex phenomenon with highly limited memic metaphors. It is like the legend of the blind men and the elephant. If you describe one aspect accurately, you are sure to create misconceptions somewhere else.
Let me give examples directly relevant to Ronfeldt's latest thesis.
B1. Feudalism appears to be an immensely strong attractor, since it erupted on all continents and in all places where humans developed both metallurgy & agriculture. Marx made a big deal out of this phase and the later ones that replaced it in his theoretical succession. Ronfeldt, in contrast, does not even mention it.
The reason seems clear. Marx dealt with accumulations of power by successive social classes. Ronfeldt's emphasis is on the DIRECTIONALITY of power relationships. (See below.) And since feudalism is a top-down authoritarian system, he lumps it together with other such systems like monarchy, oligarchic capitalism and even liberal democracy.
B2. Let me attempt to paraphrase his system, parsed by directionality of power relationships.
TRIBAL relations are largely lateral and interpersonal, though channeled by fiercely constraining traditions.
INSTITUTIONAL relations are largely hierarchical, with information and wealth flowing upward to narrow, empowered groups who exercise authority based on power or ideology/religion. At best, this takes place under implicit or explicit social contracts and a web of reciprocal obligations between the governing and the governed. At worst, the relationship is parasitical, run entirely for the self-interest of a ruling caste. (An immense range, except to the eyes of an anarchist!)
MARKET relations return to some degree of lateral exchange of value tokens through rule-based competition. I have generalized this process to include all four of what I call the great "accountability arenas"... including not only markets of commerce/production/services, but also courts, democracy and science. (See Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness for Society's Benefit) These arenas use open information flows plus the general methodology of "reciprocal accountability" to maximize the beneficial outcomes of human competitiveness while minimizing cheating and other bad outcomes.
NETWORK relations are largely lateral. Only unlike tribal interactions they are supposedly unconstrained and empowered to self-organize in a highly fluid and adaptable fashion.
Networks utilize many of the same methodologies as markets, only far more rapidly and without the need, seen in every accountability arena, for formal demarcations of authority.
Networked relations are also (I have tried to show) still extremely primitive. They currently lack sophisticated "arena" methodologies for maximizing good outcomes and minimizing bad.
Theoreticians speculate that unleashing vast numbers of well-informed and network-skilled participants will result in smart-mob benefits derived from reciprocal accountability (good network actors will catch and cancel bad actors) but this hope may only be achieved if it is fostered by institutional developments.
(To see a short story set in a future when this has happened, take a look at: The Smartest Mob, a chapter from Existence. The second half of this story is even better at illustrating smart mobs in action.)
B3. What I believe is an important aspect distinguishing Networks from Markets is the relative importance of professionalization. The 20th Century saw a monotonic increase in our reliance upon skilled - and often licensed - professionals to perform important functions that people used to do for themselves. This was classic specialization and division of labor, something that markets are very good at. But anyone can see that the trend simply cannot continue at former rates into the 21st Century. Demographically, it is impossible. We will run out of POTENTIAL professionals in very short order.
There are only a few possible outcomes to the end of the professionalization trend.
(a) Increase in scarcity market value of professionals until they become elites.
(b) Collapse of the system based upon professional services, when the need for expertise outstrips supply.
(c) Supplement or replace many professionalized functions with the enhanced capabilities of technologically empowered amateurs. (See: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?: specifically, a chapter on "the Age of Amateurs".)
Possibility #c is highly compatible with the Ronfeldt model, of course. It also makes clear that the move toward networked relations will face an inherent resistance from what Ronfeldt calls hierarchical Institutions... that I more generally call the Professional Castes.
(By this way of looking at things, however, one can evade any reference at all to the hoary 'left-right political axis'. Because the Professional Castes occupy niches all across that spectrum, ranging from liberal to conservative to neocon.)
Summing up. A very thought provoking article. One more useful insight as we grope a vastly complex elephant.