Why Networks Defeat Hierarchies

I stumbled across an old 2006 commentary by Wilikeaks’s Julian Assange, from his defunct blog, courtesy of Internet Archive. It’s reproduced on the P2P Foundation’s Wiki: “Non Linear Effects of Leaks on Unjust Systems of Governance.”

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership …. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems.”

In other words, authoritarian hierarchies handicap themselves by suppressing the information they need to adapt to real-world conditions and remain viable.

Irving Janis, in a 1972 scholarly study of government decisionmaking processes, called it “GroupThink.”

I encountered it at work myself a few weeks ago. One of the night shift nursing supervisors stopped by our ward for a bit of conversation, and we got to talking about the administration’s utterly brilliant plan for shutting down the pediatric ward and mixing kids in with the general patient population on acute care wards. Yeah, you read it right — sorry I can’t adequately convey an eye-roll in a column. Of course we all laughed ourselves silly, although the hilarity was mitigated by slack-jawed disbelief. The marketing departments at the other regional hospitals are surely salivating at the opportunity to advertise: “We STILL have the specialized pediatric care your children need!”

The Super said, “Oh, sure, I know it won’t work.” My response: “What does it mean to say it ‘won’t work?’  No idea those people come up with EVER works. But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, because we’ve got an entire organization dedicated to telling naked emperors how great their clothing looks.”

As counter-culture philosopher Robert Anton Wilson pointed out in the Illuminatus! Trilogy: Nobody ever tells the truth to someone with a gun — or someone who can fire them. (“Right you are, C.J.!”). As organization theorist Kenneth Boulding notes, “there is a constant tendency for hierarchy to corrupt communications, and for necessary information to be filtered out before it reaches the top decision makers. The bigger the organization, the more likely are its top decision makers to be living in a wholly imaginary world.”

Hierarchies are extremely prone to maintaining a death grip on their subordinates even when it’s ultimately suicidal. A good example is the TSA approach to airline security. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that the volume of information concerning possible terrorist threats is simply too great for a single organization to process. So the Bush administration failed to stop the 9-11 hijackings, even though there was already sufficient information in its possession to indicate they were coming. There was just too much information to connect the dots. And their solution after 9-11 was to acquire new surveillance powers and cast the net even wider, gathering even more indigestible information. This information paralysis was why the underwear bomber was able to board a plane despite warnings that would have raised red flags if the system were at all capable of processing the information it took in.

TSA countermeasures, in every case, involve creating a new set of rules to prohibit what the terrorists tried the last time — even though the terrorists are smart and agile enough to change tactics every time. So we take off our shoes and throw away shampoo bottles, wasting billions of hours a year, to thwart tactics that will never be repeated.

Every failed attack since 9-11 has failed either because of the attacker’s incompetence, or thanks to the vigilance of people actually on the ground using their own initiative. And given the information paralysis at the center, this is the only solution: Decentralize the network and empower the “last-mile network.” But the TSA, in every case, responds by further restricting the initiative of passengers.

Even when hierarchies see the need for incorporating networked organization, their own machinery sabotages the process. There is an entire “Fourth Generation Warfare” school of thought in the military academies centered on emulating Al Qaeda’s networked organization style, and using networked communications technology to empower the “boots on the ground.” But attempts to implement this vision come up against the petty authority of mid-level commanders. Far from increasing the information and autonomy available to small units, the technology has been used to increase the number of sign-offs required from dozens of dotted-line superiors to do anything at all — by which time it’s too late for the action to matter. (And the front-line commanders have to submit their proposals in the correct PowerPoint format, as well!)

In the end, the state and its corporate symbiotes will be defeated by those of us who don’t need permission.

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