Sunday, June 12, 2005

Networks and Netwar

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.

978-1-59726-755-7-frontcoverThis 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:

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.

in-athenas-camp-david-f-ronfeldt-paperback-cover-artMany 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!)

DisputationArenasArrowCoverMARKET 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.


Anonymous said...

Silly question, but where can I read the second half of "2020 Vision"?

David Brin said...

Here's a snippet - the next one - of part II of "2020 Vision"...


Washington was like a geezer -- overweight and sagging, but with attitude. Most of its gutty heft lay below the beltway, in waistlands that had been downwind on Awfulday.
Downwind, but not out.
When droves of upperclass child-bearers fled the invisible plumes enveloping Fairfax and Alexandria, those briefly-empty ghost towns quickly refilled with immigrants -- the latest mass of teemers, yearning to be free and willing to endure a little radiation in exchange for a pleasant five bedroom that could be subdivided into nearly as many apartments. Spacious living rooms began a second life as store fronts. Workshops took over four-car garages and lawns turned into produce gardens. Swimming pools made excellent refuse bins -- until government recovered enough to start cracking down.
Passing overhead, Tor could track signs of suburban renewal from her first class seat aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista. Take those swimming pools. A majority of the kidney-shaped ponds now gleamed with clear liquid -- mostly water (as testified by the spectral scanning feature of her TruVu spectacles) -- welcoming throngs of children who splashed under summertime heat, sufficiently dark skinned to bear the bare sun unflinching.
So much for the notion that dirty bombs automatically make a place unfit for breeders, she thought. Let yuppies abandon perfectly good mansions because of a little strontium dust. People from Java and Celebes were happy to insource.
Wasn’t this America? Call it resolution -- or obstinacy-- but after three rebuilds, the Statue of Liberty still beckoned.
The latest immigrants, those who filled Washington’s waistland vacuum, weren't ignorant. They could read warning labels and health stats, posted on every lamp post and VR level. So? More people died in Jakarta from traffic or stray bullets. Anyway, mutation rates quickly dropped to levels no worse than Kiev, a few years after Awfulday. And Washington had more civic amenities.


Hm... so Brin HAS been writing at least a little bit of fiction...

... Now will he actually post the rest in bits online?

Naw, sorry. Too laborious. But you can read it all in ALL STAR ZEPELLIN STORIES!

Seriously. No kidding...

Anonymous said...

David Brin said:
"We will run out of POTENTIAL professionals in very short order."

What exactly do you mean by that ? How can such a thing happen ?

Anonymous said...

"What exactly do you mean by that ? How can such a thing happen ? "

I would guess it means that if we keep adding new licensed specialties while maintaining licensing requirements in old specialties, we'll run out of people to hold all the licenses and do the work.

The problem is the licensing. Old specialties should become easy, then automatic as technology advances. Having licensing requirements brings that process to a halt - people come up with ways to do a job with less skilled people or with automation because it allows that job to be done cheaper, which leads to profits for the people who facilitate the transformation. Put a law in place that the job must be done by licensed professionals, and no one can make a profit figuring out how to do it cheaper without licensed professionals, and eventually, people will think it can't be done without those licensed professionals.

In short - licensing is part of the problem, and should be ditched with all due haste.

Mark said...

Ken said "In short - licensing is part of the problem, and should be ditched with all due haste."

I get your point, but how many professionals require a license? The teaching and medical professions require it, but any others worth noting? Perhaps I'm just not thinking hard enough, but the certainly don't exist in the software industry other than "certified Java professional" and other ad-hock stuff like that.

Seems to me none of the new professions require licensing and most of the growth in new areas that never existed in the past, so I doubt this is a huge problem. Also, while I'm willing to give up licensed teachers, I'll need much more convincing to give up my licensed nurses and doctors.

I'm also curious what David Brin meant by a limit to potential professionals. First I assumed the reference was to IQ, the bell curve and those sorts of considerations -- claiming only a certain percentage of people have the potential to become a professional. Now I'm not so sure.

Anonymous said...

i strongly disagree with everything that i haven't read.

Anonymous said...

I'm a security guard. Any idiot can be a security guard or at least pass the security guard exam, but we have to be licensed.
Oh, and as for feudalism being a top down structure, that is sooo wrong.
You were a lord if you showed up for the battle with a hundred guys who took your orders. The king would enoble you on the spot by addressing you as 'lord whozis'. That's how it works. You got an alliance of guys together to recognise you as the boss. Whoever had the best (usually the biggest) network of followers and their subfollowers was the king.
After the development of gunpowder and the resulting centralized states, nobility were no longer required to render military service in person and feudalism declined to be replace by nations.

Anonymous said...

My parents have recently come to realize why there are such a thing as licensed contractors.

They have had several bad experiences with local "guys" and friends-of-friends hired to do repair work. Things didn't get done, or done incorrectly, or only partially. Additional charges were added. ("Well, that was _my_ fee. I had to hire Jake and Cletus. You can't ask a man to work for nothing, can you?")

With a licensed contractor, you have some recourse. You can ask for a contract without feeling like a putz. The contractor may have put up a bond.

(I imagine this is why security guards have to be licensed: Accountability. If you do something awful, you can lose your license and have a hard time finding work.)

reason said...

you don't need formal licensing for credentialling to be a problem. Look at all the informal licenses (especially in IT) that are proliferating - there must be a demand for them. The problem is information economics. It is expensive to find out in a complex world who can do what proficiently. So whether official or market driven there will be a demand for someone to say so-and-so is competent in this-or-that. Unfortunately, the same forces that make this valuable, inevitably devalue the certification and provide a vested interest against change.

I think though David is bit off in his thinking on this one. We do have periodic crises of lack of qualified personell, but the problem is the combination of rapid technological change, demographics and I think a severe institutional problem in education. I think we need to take another look at some of Ivan Illich's radical ideas. We need it to be accepted for instance that testing and teaching MUST BE PERFORMED SEPARATELY by different groups of people. We need to work out processes for lifetime education. And we need to consider that in a period of rapid technological change the cult of the expert is a dangerous thing. It is both culturally valuable and personally risky to specialise and this conflict will need resolution.

David Brin said...

Hey that was a great poem!

As for the professionalization curve, I don't see what's so hard to understand. Licensing is not the key element. It is the degree to which civilization subdivides work into highly skilled pockets.

Every previous generation that needed to expand the number of skilled workers had a number of options:

1. train more from the clades currently allowed professional status.

2. expand the number of clades allowed that status.

3. import them.

The post WWII GI Bill expanded #1. Civil rights and feminism rooted out inefficiencies and waste of human talent, allowing #2. We've been doing #3 like mad for generations, by allowing the world's best and brightest to come to our grad schools and then skimming off the best of the best to be given citizenship...

Um, we are already sending to university just about all the people inside the US who CAN attend university. Dig it?

And the Left is reduced to turning over rocks to find oppressed groups to liberate.

And the Chinese and others who come to our grad schools now have better business opportunities back home, where the professionalization rocket is just taking off.

If you cannot see this trend and the demographic wall that it is about to hit, you simply do not see the degree to which we've been doubling the number of "experts" ... and categories for them to be expert in... every generation. You eat strawberries in winter because skilled pilots fly them to you from New Zealand so cheaply that they only cost 2x summer prices. Wake up!

That's a 20th century way to make progress. And it's worked great. And 9/11 was one of many proofs that it is not a good idea to heap all our hope upon the skill of the professional castes.

Get The Transparent Society and look up "The Age of Amateurs..." (plug

Anonymous said...

There's always #4, which is to automate current professionals out of a job and free them up for new professional-level work.

That's happening in IT to some degree with the advent of Visual Basic. It could happen in aviation and medicine if not for licensing requirements - technological changes to make those jobs easy enough for average people to do aren't impossible, they're just not profitable under current law.

But we've gone the other way. Lots of jobs that could be done with a high school diploma now require college degrees - thanks in part to the proliferation of college degrees driven by subsidies of same. Surely you can see that this is a step backwards in the cause of increasing the number of skilled and trained people available to do new work.

David Brin said...

I agree that technological empowerment of people is the solution. If the 20th Century was the age of Professionalization of Nearly Everything, the 21st has to be one in which highly educated, agile and independent citizens use that tech-empowerments to create an Age of Amateurs.

See my article about how this was illustrate on 9/11:
But you will never hear this side of things from the Professional Protective Castes, who keep insisting that we are in more danger now than we were when the USSR had 10,000 hydrogen bombs aimed at us under hair trigger rules.

Oh... more on the never-mentioned scandal of the decline of the US Armed Forces and national readiness.

Today announced. The service academies have seen
a plummet in applications of unprecedented
proportions. ranging from 12% (west point) to 22%
(air force academy.) All services are plummeting in
recruitment as our military readiness and morale
plunge. But the service academies are a litmus. They
reflect the other side of this. The administration's
recent all-out political purge of the US Officer

Leftists won't even notice these issues because of
their "patriotism is stupid" reflex.

Anonymous said...

DB: "Networked relations...currently lack sophisticated "arena" methodologies for maximizing good outcomes and minimizing bad."

Wikipedia has some good measures in place. They aren't very mature yet, but they're developing pretty quickly.

Ken: "[De-professionalization] could happen in...medicine if not for licensing requirements..."

RNs are replacing MDs. LVNs are replacing RNs. True, we may be in the "buggy and horse" days as far as information flow, but that's changing, too. The average 50-year-old RN will tell you that standards of expertise in medical care are falling like meteors.

Maybe it's because we can't import enough Irish, Filipino, and Caribbean nurses to replace the tide of American nurses who now refuse to do scut work.

I blame the increasing popularity of psychotherapy. ;)

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I'm not sure that we will run out of potential professionals, ever - except in that every group is trying to redefine itself as professionals. Indeed, given the evaporation of manufacturing & service jobs into outsourcing, I wonder whether this will even emerge as a slight problem.

I must look up this book as well, but - to pass from the sublime to the gorblimey - Ronfeldt's Netwars concept sounds like it's lifted directly from Gordie Dickson's Dorsai soldiers (OK, so passing from comparisons to Brunner to this is a bit, umm, cruel, I'll admit).