Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New paper on “The Prospects for Cyberocracy (Revisited)”

I’ve posted online a new paper, with co-author Danielle Varda, that speculates about the future of government and governance in the information age. We finished it back in August, and I had hoped it would be formally published somewhere by now. Even though we have made a few useful edits since then, the paper has become subject to unclear delays and other dismays where I usually try to publish. So, before more months elapse while we continue to seek formal publication, I’ve loaded it onto the Social Science Research Network, where it can be accessed and downloaded here. Or paste the link directlly into your browser:

ABSTRACT: The deepening of the information age will alter the nature of the state so thoroughly that something new emerges: cyberocracy. While it is too early to say precisely what a cyberocracy will look like, the outcomes will include new kinds of democratic, totalitarian, and hybrid governments, along with new kinds of state-society relations. Thus, optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of its potential dark side. This paper reiterates the view of the cyberocracy concept as first stated in 1992, and then offers a postscript for 2008. It speculates that information-age societies will develop new sensory apparatuses, a network-based social sector, new modes of networked governance, and ultimately the cybercratic nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.

The paper represents, admittedly, an effort on my part to gain new/extra mileage out of the first paper I ever wrote about the information revolution, in 1991/1992. Doing that paper marked my transition out of Latin American research and into research on the information revolution. The paper received only a little notice at the time. But a couple years ago, in 2007, an email arrived from a student I’ve never met at Syracuse U. saying she had come across it and thought it was ahead of its time. This roused me to reread it, have it placed on Rand’s website for open access, and ask a few other people to look at it too. The main themes still looked pretty good, we all thought.

So I decided to generate this new version by trimming the original text and adding a postscript, for attempting a total revision and updating was out of the question at this point. I also went looking for a co-author who would be interested in the paper’s themes and be able to help with the trimming and updating. I especially wanted someone nearby who knew about networks. Fortuitous circumstances put me in contact with Danielle Varda (then at Rand, now at the University of Colorado Denver), and she agreed to work with me. The fact that I was on leave at the time (and now I’m retired) meant that we had to proceed on our own; no formal projects, budgets, or schedules were involved. And instead of a hoped-for six months, it took me over a year of sporadic reading and writing to do what I wanted to do.

The paper is a bit odd, in that the main part is from 1992, and the postscript from 2008. The paper is also quite long for a publishable article. But the themes are still hot, still forward-looking. And we rather like what we’ve done.

The paper reflects both my TIMN and STA concerns. The original paper started me thinking about hierarchies and/versus networks. But it would be another couple years before I realized the equivalent importance of tribes and markets as forms of organization. This paper makes a point, albeit briefly, of distinguishing among government (and governance) by tribe, by hierarchy, by market, and by network. Regarding STA, the postscript has only a couple sentences, but the older text retains a subsection about how the information revolution is restructuring people’s perceptions of social space and time.

There may be implications for the Obama administration. I'm hoping it will move away from the tribalism evident in the Bush administration, move away also from making policy choices sound as though "the government" or "the market" were the only options, and head toward strategies that bring nonprofit and other social-sector actors into the picture, so that "the network" becomes more of a solution. More on this some other time.

[UPDATE: Readers interested in this post should also take a look at a later post here about comments I received regarding the cyberocracy paper. I’d also note that the paper is available not only at the SSRN site mentioned above, but also here at the OpenSIUC site for papers about networks.]

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why I'm interested in space-time-action orientations

A powerful idea about how people think hit me like an epiphany during a pensive nap four decades ago in graduate school, after I had fretted for weeks at my inability to understand a professor’s impressive lectures about the nature of time and its roles in political philosophy. What struck me was that, for a person to function in society, the mind requires notions about space as well as time — and that space and time orientations alone are not sufficient. The mind also revolves around a sense of what people can and cannot affect in the world; and this sense is relatively separate from the space and time senses.

In short, how people think and behave depends on the kinds of social space-time-action orientations they have. A simple reduction, I thought, and quite compelling. I wasn’t sure whether it was a new idea (it wasn’t). And it arrived too late to help me with that professor’s class. But it gave me a conceptual grip on … well, on something.

At the time, I was interested in why people rebel — hey, it was the late 1960s — and I thought that analyzing space-time-action perceptions might be a revealing way to analyze this. It might even work better than a leading explanation, “relative deprivation,” which focused on future expectations, a time orientation. So I proposed to develop the idea through dissertation research on peasant unrest in Mexico. However, the peasants I interviewed for my case study did not like being asked structured questions about their space-time-action orientations. They just wanted to tell me their stories, without interruptions. Thus I had to put the idea aside, in favor of doing a more historical, much less theoretical dissertation.

Since then, I have kept up my hopes for the idea. I have persistently collected writings that bear on it. I made a few wayward efforts to field it in RAND research projects on terrorism. I wrote a few pages outlining it in a study about a dangerous mindset that exhibits a uniique set of space-time-action orientations: The Hubris-Nemesis Complex (Ronfeldt, 1994). And I occasionally made notes and drafted sections for an eventual full write-up. This posting and ensuing ones represent my first effort at a partial article-length write-up.

I make this effort with relief, but also trepidation, for a lot has happened around the idea these past four decades. No one has laid it out quite the way I saw it: as a trifold module. Yet space and time have become prominent concepts in parts of academia — not only for a new generation of postmodernists who seem to have their own odd idioms for analyzing spatiality and temporality, but also for seasoned social theorists who better reflect social-science traditions (such as Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells), and for cognitive scientists and linguists who examine how our minds work (such as Steven Pinker and George Lakoff). There are even journals and blogs now about Society and Space, Space and Culture, and Time & Society.

Moreover, globalization and the information revolution — above all, the spread of the Internet — have prompted endless commentary from business, government, military, media, and civil-society leaders about how people’s orientations to social time, space, and action are being altered. Terrorism in particular has jarred people’s space-time-action perceptions.

All this provides new grist for the idea. The literatures about it, and the audiences for it, have grown immensely. Yet, as a result of this burgeoning, some theorists may now regard it as ordinary, even belatedly trite, for someone like me to call for new attention to space-time-action orientations. Or they may have such strong stakes in their evolved viewpoints that, by now, my musings, if noticed, will encounter little more than resistance and criticism.

Nonetheless, I must persist, if only to release myself from the lingering spell of that long-ago nap. Besides, I believe my offering can add value, for it insists on the trifold nature of this module in the mind. Many theorists have focused on the social significance of people’s space or time concepts. Some have also emphasized their dual importance. But only a small number — beginning mainly with Immanuel Kant, and lately including Bruno Latour and Steven Pinker — have given the action (or some would say, causal) orientation an equivalent status.

I shall elaborate in future postings, in keeping with my efforts to produce a full draft paper.

Monday, January 5, 2009

We face a turmoil of tribalisms, not a clash of civilizations

[UPDATE: July 20, 2009 — Many thanks to Steven Pressfield and his blog on War & Reality in Afghanistan: “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” for showing an interest in my work in this area, not so much this particular post as the items cited at the end of it.]

This theme appears to be running its course. I haven’t seen anything for months suggesting that the clash-of-civilizations framework is still gaining ground among strategists and analysts who work on “the war of ideas.” They seem to be increasingly aware that tribalisms of all sorts are the real problem. Nonetheless, I’m putting these old remarks here to help urge further such awareness. Besides, they bear on understanding the T part of the TIMN framework.

* * * * *

Western strategists and policymakers should stop talking about a clash of civilizations and focus on the real problem: extreme tribalism. The West is not in a clash with Islam. Instead, Islam, which is a civilizing force, has fallen under the sway of Islamists who are a tribalizing force.

The tribalism theme has never been far out of reach; it just has difficulty gaining traction. After the end of the Cold War, many American strategists preferred the optimistic “end of history” idea that democracy would triumph around the world, advanced by Francis Fukuyama (1989). A contrary idea — regression to tribalism — made better sense to other strategists, particularly as ethnic warring unfolded in the Balkans. Thus Jacque Attali noted (in 1992) that, “Unless we take early action, I fear that Yugoslavia will be only a beginning. . . But the dominoes will fall this time not toward communism, not even toward nationalism, but rather toward tribalism.” This view foresaw that, where societies crumble, people revert to tribal and clan behaviors that repudiate liberal ideals. But, perhaps because “tribalism” sounds too anthropological, it did not take hold. Instead, American thinking shifted to revolve around a more high-minded concept that emerged at the same time: “the clash of civilizations” articulated by Samuel Huntington (1993).

But what troubles the world is far more a turmoil of tribalisms than a clash of civilizations. The major clashes are not between civilizations per se, but between antagonistic segments that are fighting across fringe border zones (like Christian Serbs vs. Muslim Kosovars), or feuding within the same civilization, such as Sunnis vs. Shiites in Iraq.

Most antagonists, no matter how high-mindedly and religiously they proclaim their ideals, are operating in terribly tribal and clannish ways. Some, such as al Qaeda terrorists, are extreme tribalists who dream of making the West start over at a razed, tribal level.

This tribulation is sure to persist, fueling terrorism, ethno-nationalism, religious strife, sectarian feuds, and clannish gang violence and crime. Thus, the cartoon protest riots of a few years ago posed an effort to mobilize an Islamic global tribe, not a civilization. Al Qaeda and its affiliates comprise an information age network, but they too operate like a global tribe: decentralized, segmental, lacking in central hierarchy, egalitarian toward kith and kin, ruthless toward others.

What are tribes like? The tribe was the first major form of social organization. The hierarchy, market, and network forms developed ages later. Classic tribes are ruled by kinship principles about blood and brotherhood that fix one’s sense of identity and belonging. Tribes are also egalitarian and segmental. Everyone is deemed equal and must share. Each part, such as a clan, is structured similarly, aiming for self-sufficiency. And there is no formal chief, though a ”big man” may arise. Democracy may appear in tribal councils, but it is not liberal, since it does not tolerate minority rights and dissident views once a consensus emerges.

What maintains order in a tribe is not hierarchy and law – it is too early a form for that – but kinship principles stressing mutual respect, dignity, pride and honor. Reciprocal gift giving is essential. Humiliating insults upset peace more than anything else, for an insult to one is seen as an insult to everyone of that lineage. And there are only two ways to restore honor: compensation or revenge. Finally, a tribe may view itself as a realm of virtue, but see outsiders as a different realm that may be treated differently, even brutally, especially if they are “different.”

Much of the world is still like this. Of particular concern to strategists, a dense arc of tribal and clan systems runs across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, up into the “stans” of Central Asia. Even modern societies still have tribal cores and impulses. It shows in their cultures, nationalisms, identity politics, kindred glues like sports clubs and social fads, and in cronyism, nepotism, and gang life. Tribalism, for good and ill, is alive everywhere, all the time. We just don’t think about it much, and use other terms to do so.

So let’s shift away from the civilization paradigm. The tribalism paradigm is better for illuminating the crucial problem: the tribalization of religion. The more that extremists create divisions between “us” and “them,” vainly claim sacredness solely for their own ends, demonize others, revel in codes of revenge, crave territorial and spiritual conquests and suppress moderates who disagree – all the while claiming to act on behalf of a deity – the more their religious orientation becomes utterly tribal and prone to wreaking violence of the darkest kind. They can only pretend to represent a civilization.

The “war of ideas” should be rethought. Western leaders keep pressing Muslim leaders to denounce terrorism as uncivilized. But this approach, plus counter-pressures from sectarian Islamists, has put moderate Muslims on the defensive, stymieing them from speaking out. An approach that focuses on questioning extreme tribalism may be more effective at freeing up dialogue and inviting a search for common, ecumenical ground.

Shifting to a travail-of-tribalisms perspective would have to be carefully thought out. The point is not to condemn all tribal ways. Many people around the world appreciate (indeed, prefer) this communal way of life and will defend it from insult. It is not always uncivilized to be tribal. The point is to strike at the awful effects that extreme tribalization can have – to oppose not a terrorist’s or insurgent’s’ religion, but the reduction of that religion to raw tribalist tenets.

[Updated/revised from 2005 drafts and from 2006 op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor. Reflective also of a 2004 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. For a longer discussion, see my paper on Al Qaeda as a global tribe, especially the 2006 postscript, written for an interesting but little-noticed 2008 book on information strategy edited by John Arquilla and Douglas Borer. For an extended analysis, see this occassional paper about social evolution and the rise and roles of the tribal form.]