The Network Revolution Versus the State and Its Allies

Fellow C4SS commentator Tom Knapp reported a few weeks ago on an activist at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh who was arrested for using Twitter, from a hotel room, to inform demonstrators of police movements.  Tom pointed out that next time the organizers, typical of all forms of networked resistance, will adapt their tactics accordingly by setting up their comm station on the other side of jurisdictional lines.  And of course activists of all sorts, across the whole spectrum of movements, will adopt the lessons for their own.

This is the kind of thing John Robb and Jeff Vail regularly blog on.  Resistance movements are governed by the same dynamic as the open-source software community, as described by Eric Raymond in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”  Innovations are developed rapidly by self-managed individuals, independently — stigmergically — and then those innovations that prove themselves useful are rapidly adopted by the entire network.  In hierarchies, the inefficiencies of organizations are multiples of all the individual inefficiencies of their members; in networks, they’re contained and bypassed as the innovations of the most efficient are adopted universally with zero transaction costs.  That’s what “Fourth Generation Warfare” is:  asymmetric warfare governed by the developmental ethos of Linux.

The same principle governs file-sharing and DRM.  According to Cory Doctorow, the music industry assumes its DRM only has to be good enough to thwart the average user, because the geeks capable of cracking it are too insignificant numerically to bother taking measures against.  But thanks to network culture, once the geeks crack it, anyone capable of using Google or going to a torrent download site can benefit from their expertise.

Networks enable widespread and rapid adoption of innovations developed by a few, much more efficiently than the formulation of “best practices” by enormous bureaucratic hierarchies.

The generals in the giant bureaucracies are always busy fighting the last war.  The TSA bureaucrats expend tens of thousands of committee man-hours to make sure nobody can ever hijack a plane again, or hide explosives in their shoes, or smuggle in explosives in shampoo bottles — stuff that Al Qaeda would never try twice anyway, because they turn on a dime to come up with the next thing the TSA bureaucrats haven’t thought of yet.

This is part of a much broader phenomenon.  David Ronfeldt, formerly a Rand analyst who wrote about Netwar back in the ’90s, uses a TIMN typology to classify forms of organization:  Tribes, Institutions (i.e. hierarchies), Markets, and Networks.  The central transistion of our time is from the dominance of Institutions to that of Networks (I would argue that it’s a transition from a limited toleration of markets within a bureaucratic/institutional framework, to the free coexistence of markets and networks).

We see hierarchical institutions challenged, and soundly beaten, on every side by the new network culture.

Cops are terrified not only that activists are Tweeting their movements at demos, but that — in a world of ubiquitous cell phone cameras — they’ll be on Candid Camera next time they pull a Rodney King.  Every time a surly drunken cop assaults a bartender, or cops publicly urinate during a Police Day parade, they wind up on YouTube.

Large organizations of all kinds are learning what the Streisand Effect is all about:  when institutions attempt to suppress embarrassing information on the Web, their very attempt to suppress it winds up attracting publicity beyond their worst nightmares.  Just to take a couple of recent examples, consider 1) Trafigura’s attempt to prevent The Guardian, by court injunction, from reporting a Member of Parliament’s question (!) about their dumping of toxic waste in Africa, and 2) Ralph Lauren’s attempted use of DMCA letters to suppress mockery of the freakishly photoshopped model in one of his ads.  In both cases, the lawyers found out what it must have been like for Pharaoh’s charioteers with the Red Sea crashing over them; they caved in a matter of hours.

In labor relations, corporations that have successfully fought off union drives for decades have found themselves in the public fishbowl, thanks to efforts like those of the Imolakee Workers and the Wal-Mart Workers Association. Corporations are terrified that disgruntled employees are not only networking on the Web, but leaking embarrassing documents to Wikileaks, setting up CompanyNameSucks.Com websites, and mass-emailing the company’s dirty laundry to suppliers, outlets, consumer groups, and investigative journalists.  Cultural monkey-wrenching is a classic asymmetric warfare tactic:  both devastating and virtually risk-free.

Professional journalists profess outrage at the lack of “fact-checking” among bloggers and Internet journalists.  But in fact it’s the Web journalists and bloggers who ARE the fact-checkers.  Now when a conventional journalist puts out copy regurgitating for the the ten thousandth time that (say) “Saddam kicked out the UN inspectors in December 1998,” it’ll usually be a blogger publicly drawing attention to the lie and correcting it, with a hyperlink to the truth.  The Web’s fact-checking function is done on the same adversarial model that governs Wikipedia.  The real reason conventional journalism is so hostile to the Internet is that it’s being held accountable by real fact-checkers for the first time.

Large, hierarchical organizations everywhere, for the first time since the rise of unidirectional broadcast culture, are just starting to learn that they’re living in a world where we can talk to each other —  and THEY CAN’T SHUT US UP.

Within such organizations, employees and subordinates who have grown up in the network culture view bureaucratic authoritarianism as damage to be routed around.

As I’ve written before, the 20th century was the era of the large organization; by the end of the 21st, there won’t be enough of them left to bury.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory