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.]


Spartacus O'Neal said...

New tools, same principles. Although, the invisible original political entities eclipsed by church, state and market now have a venue for exposing their grievances and ideas. Recent efforts by the US and UN to hide from world media the indigenous nations' delegates to the UN climate change talks in Poznan will ultimately fail. When the world indigenous peoples' movement emerges on stage in Copenhagen next December, it will be like the dawn of a new era.

Kevin Carson said...

QUOTE: "Thus, optimism about the information revolution should be
tempered by an anticipation of its potential dark side."

IMO the "dark side" will only be dark, for the most part, from the
perspective of existing institutions like the corporation and state.
Rhizome organization certainly makes asymmetric warfare a lot more
devastating against large organizations like the state and the large
corporation--but devil take them. Rhizome organization won't be very
effective in the target-poor environment of the successor society.
It's hard to imagine how a society made up of the kinds of small,
self-sufficient, and loosely networked "resilient communities"
described by Robb could be significantly threatened by the kinds of
disruptive methods used by today's networked resistance movements like
Al Qaeda. Such a decentralized economic and political model would
lack the characteristics that bring existing corporate and state
institutions onto the radar screen of networked resistance
movements--most importantly, the ability to exercise external power.
And they would lack any nodes sufficiently large to present valuable

What's more, with these networks of resilient communities themselves
possessing the advantages of redundant networks and lacking any
central nodes whose destruction can cripple them, and having the
advantage also of clear motivation in defending their home ground,
it's likely that any attempt at asymmetric warfare against such
networks would turn into a war of attrition that would exhaust and
destroy the attackers. Asymmetric warfare only works, by definition,
as long as the asymmetry persists.

In an America of ten thousand resilient local economies, with largely
localized industry centered on small industrial shops taking advantage
of the decentralizing potential of electrical machinery, a vigorous
household and informal economy using even smaller machinery (including
desktop machine tools), and the proliferation of low-overhead
microenterprises using spare capacity of ordinary household capital
equipment, what will be worth attacking? An Al Qaeda, with its
limited resources, must economize force by concentrating it against
single spectacular targets like the WTC; it lacks the resources to
destroy an entire networked society one tiny node at a time.

IMO the very existence of the hierarchical organizations has generated
the contradictions that will bring them down, and the disappearance of
hierarchy will bring those contradictions to an end.

QUOTE: "The first cyberocracies may appear as overlays on established
bureaucratic forms of organization and behavior, just as the new
post-industrial aspects of society overlay the still necessary
industrial and agricultural aspects. Yet such an overlay may well
begin to alter the structure and functioning of a system as a whole.
Just as we now speak of the information society as an aspect of
post-industrial society, we may someday speak of cyberocracy as an
aspect of the post-bureaucratic state."

Exactly. People like Bill Gates tend to treat networked organization
as something that can be harnessed within the bounds of existing
corporate organizations, when in fact it will likely destroy them.
Gates, Tom Peters, and the like write a lot about "flattening
hierarchies," "outsourcing everything," "dissolving corporate walls,"
etc., but their vision always in fact assumes the persistence of
corporate walls, in the sense of entities that retain control over
finance and marketing and "intellectual property." But IMO
"intellectual property," in an age of encryption and bittorrent, will
not survive the asymmetric warfare waged by the open-source movement.
Eventually those engaged in actual production, from Nike's sweatshop
workers to code writers, will perceive the corporate headquarters as
nothing but nodes to be bypassed.

And as states hit the wall of the fiscal crisis and input crises like
Peak Oil, they will find that their ability to perform their main
function (subsidizing the operating costs of large, centralized
corporate enterprise and externalizing it on taxpayers, and protecting
large corporations from market competition) will eliminate the main
necessary support to the corporate economy. As governments exhaust
their fiscal resources in an attempt to provide subsidized inputs as
fast as corporations gobble them up, they will retrench and devolve
real government functions to localities, with legislators and heads of
state increasingly relegated to symbolic figures to whom the
localities pay nominal allegiance.

In the end, I don't think there will be any cybercrats after the
transition, because their organizational base is unsustainable.

Kevin Carson said...

What follows is a comment from Michel Bauwens, posted at his request, because he had technical difficulties posting:

Dear David:

This is the introductory paragraph of a summary of your essay on our p2p foundation blog on the 17th:

David Ronfeldt has updated his seminal 1992 essay on cyberocracy, which offered at a time a pioneering and refreshing vision on the new influence of the networks, and predicted the rise of a cyberocracy, a new elite of the well-connected, but without versing in a prediction that it would be a 'new class'.

David, now retired, has co-written an update with Danielle Varda, which, in my opinion, is perceptive and worth reading but at the same time disappoints as it seems to totally overlook the specific emergence of peer production and peer governance. Their notions of networked governance and the nexus-state merely look at the new configuration of old actors, i.e. state, markets and nonprofits/NGO's, and they do not at all see the new forms of production and organization emerging outside the already existing formal civil society. In a note, they refer to the p2pfoundation as 'advocating panarchy', which may be correct though we use the variant concept of peer governance. However, we do not really advocate it, but rather describe its emergence, try to understand it and refer to the growing body of research that examines it. Peer production and peer governance can in no way be subsumed to NGO's and nonprofits being networked or networking themselves in new global structures with governments and market players. The new p2p field is fundamentally different, and of that, I see no trace in this update.

This is the crux of my critique, in the form of short phrases in between the following summary, see