Friday, February 27, 2009

Mexico plagued by myriad interlaced netwars — a TIMN analysis

[UPDATE — August 26, 2009: There has been a spate of informative articles lately on the millenarian “La Familia” and other criminal neworks in Mexico. See George Grayson on “La Familia Michoacána: A Deadly Mexican Cartel Revisited,” at Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes, August 2009; Samuel Logan and John Sullivan on “Mexico’s ‘Divine Justice’,” at ISN Security Watch, August 17, 2009; and Hakim Hazim, on “Mexico's Seeds of Radicalism: Micro Movements with Macro Implications,” at the GroupIntel blog, August 12, 2009. Meanwhile, Kelly Phillips’s opinion piece on “In Mexico: Outgunned and Underpaid,” New York Times, August 14, 2009, shows that Mexican army soldiers lead difficult lives, fraught with all manner of hardships. Alejandro Schtulmann’s assessment of “Mexico's Post-Election Outlook: The Broader Context,” at the RGEMonitor, offers some realistic reasons for avoiding alarmism about Mexico’s political prospects. Finally, I was going to add a list of blogs about conditions in Mexico, but the work has just been done for me by Sylvia Longmire at her Mexico’s Drug War blog, in this recent post about other blogs (also see what I added in a comment there).]

[UPDATE — March 1, 2009: John Sullivan, in a posting titled “Criminal Netwarriors in Mexico’s Drug Wars,” at the GroupIntel blog on December 22, 2008, speaks amply to the point that “Mexico is gripped by a set of inter-locking, networked criminal insurgencies.”]

To my surprise, I have something to say about the deterioration in Mexico from a TIMN perspective:
[T]he serious risk for Mexico is not an old-fashioned civil war or another revolution — that seems unlikely. The greater risk is a plethora of social, guerrilla, and criminal netwars. Mexico’s security in the information age may be increasingly a function of netwars of all varieties. . . .

There is a risk that Mexico will remain stable but, in the process, will succumb to the criminalization scenario or see its capacity for transformation become so confounded and constrained that the “stuck system” scenario prevails.


Alarm is spreading about violence and instability in Mexico, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. Dire scenarios are being contemplated, even concocted. Recent reports that have enlivened discussion include Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey’s “Latest Academic Mexico Trip Report,” published by his firm in December 2008, and the more nuanced, sensible article by Brian Michael Jenkins, “Could Mexico Fail?,” published in the journal Homeland Security Today in February 2009 (but easier to download from RAND’s website). In addition, the Los Angeles Times continues to produce an excellent series of investigative articles. And some blogs I like to check — notably Global Guerrillas, Small Wars Journal, Threats Watch, and Zen Pundit — keep sounding warnings and offering pointers to other sources.

Why raise this here? Partly because years ago I used to be a specialist on U.S.-Mexican security issues; and Mexico still attracts my interest, if only in passing. But mostly because I’ve long thought Mexico could provide a good case for TIMN analysis. On top of that, an old friend and former consultant who is an expert on border issues mentioned to me recently that all sorts of dark networks — e.g., drug-smuggling, weapons-smuggling, people-smuggling, kidnapping, and youth-gang networks, along with criminal/crony patronage networks inside the political system — were not only growing but also becoming more interlaced and mutually reinforcing in Mexico. He thought someone should write up an analysis that might reflect past work on netwar.

But I feel so removed from Mexico matters at this point that, in my blog post a few days ago about what I planned to do next regarding TIMN, I decided not to include Mexico. However, a fortuitous serendipity has changed my mind: Googling around the Web for something else, I spotted, to my astonishment, that I’d already written a fourteen-page TIMN analysis, titled “Rethinking Mexico’s Stability and Transformability,” and could find it buried, totally forgotten until now, as Appendix B in our 1998 RAND study on The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico.

My analysis there is dated and lacking in some respects (for example, it never mentions the PAN party). And I’ve already had a mixed experience with trying to revive my cyberocracy paper and get people to look at text in it that is more than a decade old. But what I see in this piece is too spot-on to leave buried. So here are some extracts.


After summarizing the TIMN framework, the piece identifies and discusses three kinds of instability: sporadic, systemic, and then the real point of the piece, evolutionary instability, “in which a society cannot make the change to a new system that has higher evolutionary potential, for example, by changing from an authoritarian statist regime to a market-oriented democratic regime. The society hardens around the existing stage, gets stuck in the transition process, or falls apart under the strain, perhaps resulting in a great social revolution.”

Against this background, the piece lays out four scenarios about Mexico’s future that still look appropriate:
  • Major instability — in which, because of massive violent unrest, elite infighting, or other reasons, the political and economic systems break down, with dire consequences. . . .
  • Criminalization — in which drug traffickers and other criminal mafias gain so much power and influence, including through the use of paramilitary and quasi-guerrilla forces, that a variant of “Colombianization” takes hold. In this scenario, powerful clannish, family-based mafias that are already embedded in Mexico’s system take advantage of all types of instability, and perhaps foment some, in order to strengthen their hold (and their holdings). Mexico is characterized by criminal mercantilism, and possibly strategic crime against the United States. . . .
  • A “stuck system” — in which Mexico’s leaders, operating in ever-shifting alliances, make halting advances with political and economic reforms, but traditional, deeply embedded nationalist and corporatist principles continue to be reasserted, prompting periodic slowdowns, reversals, and distortions in the reform process. Mexico’s decision to halt and revise its plans to privatize the petrochemical sector helps substantiate this scenario. Mexico does not quite cross the threshold to having a truly democratic, market-oriented system — and many elites are contented with that. In this scenario, to reiterate an old aphorism, the more the system changes, the more it remains the same — and keeps returning to remain the same. Evolutionary instability is a key issue here; but the scenario also implies continued levels of sporadic instability.
  • Successful transformation — in which Mexico’s leaders succeed in implementing a range of political, economic, and other reforms, and Mexico muddles through, or breaks through, to build a truly democratic, market-oriented system. In this scenario, sporadic instability may still occur, especially in provincial areas; but it helps spur Mexico’s rulers to implement needed reforms. Systemic instability becomes moot, and Mexico transcends the prospect of evolutionary instability.
There is nothing unusual about the two polar scenarios — the ones about major instability, and successful reform. Versions of them often appear in scenario layouts about the future of Mexico. One might even say they are tantamount to “vanilla” scenarios, in that versions of them appear in most layouts about most countries — there is little that is inherently and uniquely Mexican about them. What look more interesting are the other two scenarios — the ones about criminalization and the “stuck system.” They reflect historic and continuing realities in Mexico; they are genuinely Mexican scenarios.
These scenarios set the stage for offering a TIMN analysis, on grounds that this “helps explain the volatility of Mexico, which is moving haltingly to develop a T+I+M system at a time, on the eve of the 21st century, and in a neighborhood, North America, that is rife with the growth of +N forces and their spillover effects.”
Mexico has had a statist, largely undemocratic T+I system most of this century, and the forces that prefer to maintain it that way remain strong, even fierce, at national and local levels, especially among old guard elements of the PRI and PRD parties in central and southern Mexico. Although capitalism has made inroads for decades, this has not meant that an open market system was being developed. Mexico did not begin moving effectively to become a T+I+M system until the 1980s. It has not completed the transition, and the actors who want this advance in the complexity, versatility, and adaptability of the Mexican system still seem to be a minority. Even the recent privatization of many state enterprises, whose effectiveness is crucial for building a solid market system, has been conducted in a clannish manner involving favoritism.

For the Mexican system, then, the key evolutionary challenge at this stage is to adopt and adapt to the market system and integrate it into society as a whole. The reasons are cultural and political as much as economic. If Mexico cannot convert to a T+I+M society, then the open competitive principles that the market form ideally represents will not take root and spread throughout the social system — Mexico will remain a mostly T+I society that chronically exhibits the rhetoric but not the reality of democracy. For the +M transition to be fully realized, the government must continue distancing itself from the PRI, and the party system must become more openly and fairly competitive in the wake of the marketization of the economy.

Many trends and events that have recently [circa 1998] disturbed Mexico — such as the conflict in Chiapas, the apparent infighting between traditional and modernizing forces in PRI and government circles, the rising influence of drug traffickers, the periodic disarray in financial matters, the growing denunciations of neoliberalism, the uneasiness among investors, the growing disparities between the northern and southern regions, the rise of new civil-society actors — all reflect, directly or indirectly, (a) the difficulties Mexico is having accepting the market form and its principles of openness and competition, and (b) the unsettling feedback effects that this form’s rise has on the old, defensive clannish and hierarchical structures, as well as (c) the complexity of making the +M transition when +N forces are also gaining strength and having complex, ambivalent effects. Mexicans are gradually making room for the market form in Mexico’s overall design, but progress has been erratic, even among business elites, and it has aroused some strong, even violent resistance.

Tentative Implications for Stability and Reform

Thus, what will prevail is still up in the air: Continued progress toward a democratic T+I+M system (that also has +N elements)? Reversion to a neocorporatist T+I system? Or something else that may bring authoritarian solutions, and a new set of problems?

A complete reversion is surely beyond the pale. Many economic and political reforms since the 1980s seem irreversible. But a resurgence of negative opinions — e.g., that Mexico is not suited to marketization, that statist designs are better for Mexico, that national identity, dignity, and sovereignty are weakened by liberalization, that Mexico’s system cannot withstand more instability, and that the “colossus to the north” is interested only in exploitation — indicate that exponents of both the bright and dark sides of the T and I forms may yet keep the M from flowering. Thus, while a complete reversion to the old T+I system may not be possible, archaic forces could constrain the achievement of a positive +M combination and of a broadly democratic system. In other words, Mexico could get stuck.

The effort to make a transition from one evolutionary stage to the next is bound to generate social contradictions and conflicts, as all sectors try to adjust to new forces and new realities. Mexico’s halting transition from a T+I to a T+I+M system is, and will go on, causing all sorts of minor and some major disturbances. At times, this may mean labor union strikes, or electoral protests, or shootouts involving drug traffickers and other criminals, or protest demonstrations by students, environmental or human-rights activists, or creditors (as in the Barzón movement), etc. At times, the scene may be a major city; often it may be a provincial area where caciquismo is entrenched. Sometimes, a conflict will take the form of a netwar, but traditional forms of conflict will also arise and endure. The list of possibilities is long and diverse.

At the moment, Mexico’s governing institutions appear to be strong enough that such disturbances should prove manageable, challenging but not jeopardizing Mexico’s systemic stability. Indeed, the serious risk for Mexico is not an old-fashioned civil war or another revolution — that seems unlikely. The greater risk is a plethora of social, guerrilla, and criminal netwars. Mexico’s security in the information age may be increasingly a function of netwars of all varieties. Mexico already appears to be the scene of more types of divisive, stressful netwars than other societies at a similar level of development, in part because it is a neighbor of the United States.

At present, neither social (EZLN/Zapatista), guerrilla (EPR), or criminal (drug-trafficking) netwar actors seem likely to make Mexico ungovernable, or to create a situation that leads to a newly authoritarian regime. This might occur, if these netwars all got interlaced and reinforced each other, directly or indirectly, under conditions where an economic recession deepens, the federal government and the PRI (presumably still in power) [sic] lose legitimacy to an alarming degree, and infighting puts the elite “revolutionary family” and its political clans into chaos. All this seems quite unlikely, however, since in many respects Mexico seems in better shape now than in the early and middle 1980s, when many analysts argued that breakdown or collapse might be imminent. However, an eye should be kept on the period just before, during, and after the year 2000 elections. Could this provide a propitious time for an old guard Priista with criminal bearings to gain his party’s presidential nomination? For guerrilla groups like the EPR to take to the field? For a subtle interplay to be developed between gangster and guerrilla groups that allows for the imposition of a heavy-handed regime whose darker purposes include strategic crime and criminal mercantilism?

The challenge may not be so much safeguarding the governability of Mexico as coping with the netwars and other disturbances in ways that assure both the continued stability and transformability of the Mexican system. Both dynamics, stability and transformability, are at stake; and there is no easy relationship between them — sometimes stability can be enhanced by economic and political reforms, at other times it can be disturbed by such reforms. There is a risk that Mexico will remain stable but, in the process, will succumb to the criminalization scenario or see its capacity for transformation become so confounded and constrained that the “stuck system” scenario prevails.

Would updating this analysis lead to significantly different conclusions and implications? It looks to me as though TIMN analysis offers an unusually durable way to think about Mexico and its future.

UPDATE — March 12, 2009: I've been keeping an eye out for analytical sites that provide at least occasional coverage of Mexico from a non-alarmist perspective (even if they also report on alarmist perspectives). One I like so far is New World Global Outlook, which looks generally interesting as well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Overview of social evolution (past, present, and future) in TIMN terms

The four major forms of organization

According to my review of history and theory, four forms of organization — and evidently only four — lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages:
  • The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging — the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.
  • The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.
  • The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.
  • The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms.

The development of each form has a long history. Early versions of all four were present in ancient times. But as deliberate, formal systems with philosophical portent, each has gained strength at a different rate and matured in a different epoch over the past 10,000 years. Tribes developed first (in the Neolithic era), hierarchical institutions next (notably, with the Roman Empire and then the absolutist states of the 16th century), and competitive markets later (as in England and the United States in the 18th century). Now, collaborative networks are on the rise as the next great form. Its cutting edge currently lies among activist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) associated with civil society. See Slide 1.

The four forms compared

Each of the four forms, writ large, embodies a distinctive set of structures, processes, beliefs, and dynamics about how society should be organized — about who gets to achieve what, why, and how. Each involves different codes and standards about how people should treat each other. Each enables people to do something — to address some social problem — better than they could by using another form. Each attracts and energizes different kinds of actors and adherents. Each has different ideational and material bases. Each has both bright and dark sides, both strengths and weaknesses. And each can be gotten “right” or “wrong” in various ways, depending on circumstances.

Once a form is subscribed to by many actors, it becomes more than a mere form: It develops into a realm, even a system, of thought and behavior. Indeed, the rise of each form spells an ideational and structural revolution. Each is a generator of order, because each defines a set of interactions (or, transactions) that are attractive, powerful, and useful enough to create a distinct realm of activity, or at least its core. Each becomes the basis for a governance system that is self-regulating and, ultimately, self-limiting. And each tends to foster a different kind of worldview, for each orients people differently toward social space, time, and action. What is deemed rational — how a “rational actor” should behave — is different for each form; no single “utility function” suits them all.

Each form becomes associated with high ideals as well as new capabilities. Yet, all the forms are ethically neutral — as neutral as technologies — in that they have both bright and dark sides and can be used for good or ill. The tribal form, which should foster communal solidarity and mutual caring, may also breed a narrow, bitter clannishness that can justify anything from nepotism to murder in order to shield and strengthen a clan and its leaders. The hierarchical institutional form, which should lead to professional rule and regulation, may also be used to uphold corrupt, arbitrary dictators. The market form, which should bring free, fair, open exchanges, may also be distorted and rigged to allow unbridled piracy, speculation, and profiteering. And the network form, which can empower civil society actors to serve public interests, may also be used to strengthen “uncivil society” — say, by enabling terrorist groups and crime syndicates. So, it is not just the bright sides of each form that foster new values and actors; their dark sides may do so as well. See Slide 2.

Four types of societies representing four stages of social evolution

The main story is that societies advance by learning to use and combine all four forms, in a preferred progression. What ultimately matters is how the forms are added and how well they function together. They are not substitutes for each other; they are complements. Historically, a society’s progress depends on its ability to use all four forms and combine them (and their realms) into a coherent, well-balanced, well-functioning whole.

To put it notationally, over the ages monoform societies organized in tribal (T) terms — many of which still exist today — are eventually surpassed by societies that also develop institutional (I) systems to become biform T+I societies, normally with strong, professional states. In turn, these biform societies are superseded by triform societies that allow space for the market (M) form and become T+I+M societies, normally with a propensity for democracy. The network (N) form, which is now on the rise, appears to have civil society as its home realm, the realm that is being strengthened more than any other. But it is possible, even likely, that a new, yet-to-be-named realm will emerge from it. Thus, a new phase of social evolution is now dawning in which quadriform T+I+M+N societies will emerge to take the lead and a vast rebalancing of relations among state, market, and civil-society actors will occur around the world. To do well in the 21st century and beyond, an advanced, democratic, information-age society will have to incorporate all four forms and make them and their realms function well together, despite their inherent contradictions. See Slide 3.

There are many reasons for this long progression, partly because each form requires a different set of conditions in order to take hold, including a revolution in the information and communications technologies of the time. Yet, the progression occurs mainly because the attractiveness of each form lies in its capacity to enable people to address a core problem that a society is bound to face as it develops. In brief, the tribal form excelled — and continues to excel today — at addressing the early problem of social identity and belonging; the hierarchical institutional form, the problem of power and administration; and the market form, the problem of complex exchanges. The paradigmatic strength of the collaborative network form is still unclear; however, it seems best suited to addressing the still-far-from-resolved, ever-sharpening problem of social equity.

In historical terms, it is often difficult — and it may take decades or longer — for a society to adapt to a new form and relate it to those forms that have already taken root. Success is not inevitable. Every society, every culture, must move at its own pace and develop its own approach to each form and each combination of forms. There are many ways to get a form wrong, but there is no single way to get a form or combination right. What is “right” and “wrong” may vary from culture to culture.

Part of the difficulty is that each form has attributes that are contradictory to those of the other forms — for example, hierarchical institutions provide a different setting from atomized markets. Thus, people who prefer one form culturally or philosophically may not be comfortable with another form; they may have to learn how to accept and cope with the coexistence of various TIMN forms in their own society.

A society may get stuck, go astray, regress, or even be torn apart as it tries to adapt to a new form. Thus, the great social revolutions of the 20th century — in Mexico, Russia, China, and Cuba — occurred in mostly agrarian T+I societies in which old clannish and hierarchical structures came under enormous internal and external stresses that stemmed partly from inadequate or flawed infusions of capitalist market practices. Failing to make the +M transition, they reverted to hard-line T+I regimes that, except for Mexico, remolded absolutism into modern totalitarianism. Today, to varying degrees, these societies are trying anew to make the +M transition. Again except for Mexico, none is yet amenable to the presence of networked NGOs, which represent +N dynamics. Meanhile, the potential shift to a +N society explains some of the stressful turbulence that the United States has been experiencing at home and abroad.

The United States and Canada, along with countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia, long ago developed triform T+I+M societies and are now on the cutting edge for creating quadriform T+I+M+N societies. In the long term, +N dynamics should enable government, business, and civil-society leaders to create new mechanisms for mutual consultation, coordination, and cooperation spanning all levels of governance. Aging contentions that “the government” or “the market” is the solution to particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to new ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution.

Dynamics that attend every transition in the TIMN progression

Scholars usually explain social evolution by identifying causal factors, such as population increases, trade expansions, technological innovations, and wars. This approach can be take with the TIMN framework too. But I’ve spotted something that looks more interesting: Each time a new form arises, it generates a set of dynamics — and it’s the same set of dynamics each time. No society can escape the TIMN progression or these dynamics. See Slide 4 (though it hints at a couple points that I do not spell out in this posting).

At first, when a new form arises, it has subversive effects on the old order, before it has additive effects that lead to a new order. Bad actors may prove initially more adept than good actors at using a new form — e.g., ancient warlords, medieval pirates and smugglers, and today’s information-age terrorists being examples that correspond to the +I, +M, and +N transitions, respectively.

As each form takes hold, energizing a distinct set of values and norms for actors operating in that form, it generates a new realm of activity — for example, the state, the market. As a new realm gains legitimacy and expands the space it occupies within a social system, it puts new limits on the scope of existing realms. At the same time, through feedback and other interactions, the rise of a new form/realm also modifies the nature of the existing ones. An example is the evolution of European absolutist regimes into liberal democratic regimes, which occurred as old hierarchical state institutions gave up on mercantilism and were remolded by the rise of the market system and the collateral spread of marketlike electoral politics. If the addition of a new form occurs properly — including through the creation of new regulatory interfaces — the older forms and their realms end up being strengthened, not weakened, even as their scope is newly limited.

Societies that can elevate the bright over the dark side of each form and achieve a new combination become more powerful and capable of complex tasks than societies that do not. Societies that first succeed at making a new combination gain advantages over competitors and attain a paramount influence over the nature of international conflict and cooperation. If a major power finds itself stymied by the effort to achieve a new combination, it risks being superseded. Some society’s leaders may try to deny or skip a form, as have clannish ethnic groups that fail to form a real state or Marxist-Leninist regimes that opposed the market. But any seeming success at such skipping eventually proves temporary and limited.

Balanced combination is apparently imperative: Each form (and its realm) builds on its predecessor(s). In the progression from T through T+I+M+N, the rise of a new form depends on the successes (and failures) achieved through the earlier forms. For a society to progress optimally through the addition of new forms, no single form should be allowed to dominate any other, and none should be suppressed or eliminated. A society’s potential to function well at a given stage, and to evolve to a higher level of complexity, depends on its ability to integrate these inherently contradictory forms into a well-functioning whole. A society can constrain its prospects for evolutionary growth by elevating a single form to primacy — as appears to be a tendency at times in market-mad America.

A people’s adaptability to the rise of a new form appears to depend largely on the local nature of the tribal form. It may have profound effects on what happens as the later forms get added. For example, the tribal form has unfolded differently in China and in America. Whereas the former has long revolved around extended family ties, clans, and dynasties, the latter has relied on the nuclear family, heavy immigration, and a fabric of fraternal organizations that provide quasi-kinship ties (e.g., from the open Rotary Club to the closed Ku Klux Klan). These differences at the tribal level have given unique shapes to each nation’s institutional and market forms, to their ideas about progress, and, now, to their adaptability to the rise of networked NGOs.

Deeply tribal societies often have great difficulty advancing beyond their traditional ways. Indeed, many of the world’s current trouble spots — in the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans, the Caucuses, and Africa — are in societies so riven by embedded tribal and clan dynamics that the outlook remains bleak for them to build professional states and openly competitive businesses, much less democracies, that are unencumbered by tribal and clan dynamics. Some so-called failed states are really failed tribes.

These are not the only TIMN dynamics I’m finding out about. But they are most of the major ones. And they will be repeated as societies prove able or unable to add and adapt to the rise of the +N form.

Closing comment

I’ve been wondering for a while about generating a couple of posts: one that would compare the P2P and TIMN approaches to networks; another that would assess America’s current condition from a TIMN perspective. But the more I started to make notes for either post, the more I figured I’d better offer first a synopsis of the TIMN framework, as I currently understand it. Hence, this post. It’s prelude to what else I hope to elucidate before long. And it’s a bit more comprehensive than one or two other synopses I have in existing publications.

UPDATE (March 7, 2009): For a summation and considerable discussion of this post, see here at John Robb's blog on Global Guerrillas. Many thanks, John.

ADDENDUM (June 5, 2010): I’ve noticed that I never listed my sources for the ideas in this post. The key ones are:

Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks—A Framework about Societal Evolution (1996).

In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes – The First and Forever Form (2007)

ADDENDUM (January 23, 2012):  I see this post gets a fair amount of traffic.  If this post interested you, please include in your follow-up readings a subsequent post titled "Explaining social evolution: standard cause-and-effect vs. TIMN’s system dynamics".  It doesn't attract much traffic, but I regard it as important for thinking about TIMN.

Actually, here's a slide that sums up and expands slightly on this and the prior addendum, by specifying follow-up readings and links for locating them.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Considerations for possibly revising the cyberocracy paper

The paper has had some positive effects since I posted it a month ago at It has been favorably noted by various colleagues at various blogs dedicated to related topics. It became assigned reading in one or two courses. It led to an interesting exchange of views with bloggers at the P2P Foundation (see below), as well as at a few other spots. And even though 100+ downloads seems meager to me, I keep getting notices that it has made top-ten download lists at

But overall, I’d say the paper has generated relatively little interest and comment so far. Barely a peep about what I think is the best new notion in the paper: the nexus-state. So, I’m wondering what to do next: Let the draft sit as is, since I/we never intended for it to become a major endeavor? Or undertake advisable revisions to improve it for publication?

I have little feedback to go on, but here’s what I sense: The paper has style and structure problems. It’s too long for an article, too short for a book — in a “nether world,” says one interested publisher. And the split between 1992 and 2008 texts is off-putting for some readers, especially if bygone theorists do not hold their interest.

More interesting are the substance issues I’ve learned about. Some of the ideas in the postscript are too far out for some readers, but not far-out enough for others. Critiques from the latter interest me the most, for they concern future orientations about the significance of networks.

For one thing, a few readers have noted that the paper overlooks citing a few of the hottest new names in the network field. To write this paper, I focused on updating my readings about governance, especially networked governance — a lot of work. I put off dealing with a separate stack of recent books about networks by the hottest new names, planning to read them later when I start the network chapter for my TIMN effort. Besides, I have some familiarity with the latest ideas from various media I browse, even though I’ve not read those specific books. And from what I’ve seen, these latest ideas are not all that new — they’re mostly amped-up extrapolations about trends in connectivity. Which is why I wrote obliquely in the paper: “It is also curious how few truly new themes are in play today; many amount to respinnings and repackagings of points they [the early generations of theorists] made those decades ago.”

My mistake, evidently. Many readers interested in the future — and the paper is about the future — want the latest writings reflected. Perhaps all the more so, because America is now into its third and fourth generations of theorists and enthusiasts about the information revolution. I figure I belong in the second generation, and I drew on the first and second generations for my 1992 text. But for a few notable exceptions, these earlier writers are not key reference points for today’s young theorists, enthusiasts, and students; they’d like to see their own — third and fourth — generation’s pundits sourced better for the 2008 postscript.

Even so, that’s not the most significant issue for the paper. I’ve long been a proponent of network forms of organization — and still am. But not quite to the degree that I now see exists among a circuit of theorists committed to peer-to-peer (P2P) networking, clustered partly around the P2P Foundation, especially its blog. A few of them have directed the most interesting positive and critical remarks at the paper, particularly here, including in the long comments section. Related remarks also appear at the iRevolution blog's post on the paper.

In their views, the rise of P2P networks — what I have previously preferred to call all-channel networks — will multiply the power of particular kinds of individuals, groups, structures, and processes far more than the paper conveys. This will generate new kinds of economies based on open-source production and sharing, make collective public goods more significant, expand and redefine the commons, and enable new modes of democratic political participation and influence. And this will delimit capitalism, weaken the state (and the need for a state), and generally lead to a supplanting of hierarchical with network forms of governance all across society. In the end, a new kind of civilization will emerge, one that may embody the ideals of anarchism and socialism more than any other existing “ism.” (I hope that is a fair summary of P2P views.)

I’ve long known that this set of views existed, but from a distance. Now I’ve had direct contact with it, in increasing detail. It’s interesting — deeper and more diverse than I knew. And if I were to accept its critiques, I would make some revisions in the postscript’s four subsections, including to:
  • Forecast even more connectivity in the new sensory apparatuses, and place them more at the service of citizen-level individuals and groups.
  • Say less about the rise of a new NGO/NPO-based social sector, and much more about the rise of a new commons.
  • Diminish the role of hierarchy in future governance, and suffuse everything with P2P networks and hybrid forms of organization.
  • Reduce the future significance of the state.

However, much as I am seeing that P2P phenomena may have deeper, broader impacts in more areas than I’ve expected, and much as I am impressed by the theoretical and ideological potentials of P2P thinking, my TIMN-related view of networks remains tempered by a recognition of the enduring importance of tribes, hierarchies, and markets as other essential forms of organization. I have explained this a bit already in replies to the P2P bloggers, particularly here, and I will elaborate further in a future post here that will contrast P2P and TIMN approaches.

Even so, their critiques, plus other comments and materials that have recently come my way, are leading me to think that the postscript would benefit from revisions that: (1) Make the subsection on the new sensory apparatus forecast even higher levels of connectivity, collective intelligence, and collaborative decisionmaking. (2) Expand the subsection on the social sector, or add a new subsection, in order to spotlight the development of the new intellectual and electronic commons, which barely gets noted per se in the draft.

Meanwhile, a curious serendipity: I came across a paper at by a well-known economist about “polycentric systems as one approach for solving collective-action problems” — specifically with regard to managing public goods and common-pool resources. It caught my eye because it says that managing such matters requires something other than statist or market approaches: a polycentric approach — rather like P2P. Yet, the paper never refers to network designs or references the literature on networks. At about the same time, I also noticed that one or two of the leading new writers I’d missed about the new commons and its governance laud peer networks as an alternative to hierarchies and markets — but again without referencing well-known literature on hierarchies-markets-and-networks by sociologists. Which makes me wonder, what’s going on here? Why aren’t these experts more aware of each other? Is it because they are working in different fields? Should I mention this in revisions I may make? At least, the author of the polycentricity paper tells me that plans are already underway to examine network methodologies in future economic writings about managing physical commons.

Finally, if I/we do undertake revisions, I gather it would be advisable to add a coda that relates the paper’s ideas to the current policy context. I'd like to propose, from a TIMN perspective, that Washington move away from the tribalism so evident in conservative Republican circles, move away also from framing policy choices as though "the government" or "the market" were the key options, and instead start to develop strategies that bring nonprofit and other social-sector and commons-oriented actors into the picture so that "the network" becomes more of a solution too. Indeed, the paper proposes just that.

However, the presidential campaign and its aftermath have offered little evidence for these prospects. The growing economic recession makes them look even more unlikely. And the Obama admininstration appears to be so caught up in coping with government-vs.-market rhetoric that few in it are ready to break out of the mold yet. Besides, as shown in a C-SPAN2 rebroadcast last week of a 12/17/08 panel at Brookings with Donald Kettl and Elaine Kamarck, the U.S. Congress is not operating in ways suited to exercising oversight of what Kettl terms “the next government” and Kamarck calls “government by network.”

And on that sour note, I conclude this post, even though I see glimmerings for progress to be made toward networked governance and the nexus-state later in the Obama administration. If I/we do turn to revise the cyberocracy paper before long, I will hopefully see reasons to be more upbeat.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lite overview of space-time-action analysis

Imagine all kinds of people who have all kinds of beliefs. Next, imagine stripping away their high-level ideologies, values, and norms, until you get down to their most basic notions that still amount to thoughtful cognition about how the world looks and works. Stop there, before descending into a quivering mess of raw emotions, impulses, and instincts.

What's there, I contend, is a layer or module in the mind that consists of people's basic orientations — basic assumptions — about space, time, and action. Briefly, by space I refer to how people see their identity in relation to others, and how they perceive objects as being structured, arrayed, and linked. By time, I refer to how people discern past, present, and future. By action, I mean whether and how people think they can affect matters by means of action.

All three orientations — toward space, time, and action — are essential for the mind to work in ways that represent social consciousness. A module consisting of the three takes shape during childhood. It's permanently there from then on. No mind can work without this module, and most everything people think and do gets processed in it. It amounts to requisite cognitive knowledge, because space-time-action orientations lie at the core of much — all? — human awareness and deliberation.

Here is a bit more elaboration about each orientation. More points will be added in future elaborations.

Social Space Orientations

Again, this refers to basic beliefs about the identity and significance of actors and other objects in one’s environment, their size and distribution, and their connections and relations. Some spatial orientations, the earliest to form in a child, may concern what lies concentrically outward from the individual, near and far. This includes making distinctions about one’s self, one’s environment, what lies beyond that one can project into, all the way outward to what is recognized as the world at large. Other orientations may entail distinctions about zones, sectors, domains, and realms that different peoples and societies establish — e.g., between mine and yours, us and them, personal and collective, public and private, sacred and secular, state and market, local and global — and about the boundaries, barriers, paths, connections, flows, and influences that exist within and among them. Space orientations may also be about the structure of a system or organization. For example, social space may assume a different shape and significance in a tribal setting where kinship ties and patronage are of paramount concern, compared to an institutional setting where impersonal values and norms and a sense of hierarchy are supposed to prevail.

Social Time Orientations

This refers to basic assumptions and beliefs about the nature of time, especially relations among the past, the present, and the future. They too take shape in childhood, as one acquires a sense of how fast (the tempo) and how long (the duration) time seems to flow, and how to distinguish and relate past memories and future expectations. As people develop goals and visions, they express orientations about the past, present, and especially the future. How (even whether) people break time into past, present, and future; whether they live mainly in terms of the past, present, or future; and what they see as the horizons and connections, the continuities and discontinuities, among them — these are some basic questions about time orientations. Whether time’s flow seems cyclical, spelling an eternal return, or linear, allowing for open-ended change and progress, are ideas that have shaped entire eras and cultures. Extreme ideas that a new millennium will emerge if the present order is annihilated have defined the perspectives of apocalyptic groups. Also, views may develop that different spaces (e.g., sacred and secular, or home and office) entail different time orientations, not to mention different action orientations.

Social Action Orientations

Many studies of space and/or time orientations lead to implications for action. But the action orientation is not simply a consequence of the other two; it is an equal and separate dimension that, like the other two, emerges and takes its own course during childhood. It refers to the basic beliefs that people hold about whether and how they can affect and perhaps alter their (space-time) environment, what instruments and alternatives they have for doing so, and what are deemed proper actions — in short, this orientation reflects people's notions about cause-effect and ends-means relations. Perhaps, in particular situations, they cannot be fully abstracted from space and time orientations. Yet, this is a distinct realm of cognition about the abilities and prospects — the power, efficacy, free will, capacity for choice — that an actor thinks he or she has for affecting a situation, independently of one’s space and time orientations. For example, the action orientation may get at differences between two actors who share similar hopes about the future and critiques of the present, but differ over whether and how a system can be changed and their hopes attained, perhaps because they differ as to what actions are legitimate, or because one feels a sense of power and the other does not. Social action orientations are thus about a concern that often arises in philosophy and anthropology: whether people can master and guide their destiny, or whether they are subject to an inevitable, even preordained place and fate about which they can do little to nothing — indeed, whether one's life is the stuff of lawful or random forces.

Space-Time-Action As a Cognitive Triplex

Vast literatures exist on each orientation; there is nothing novel about urging inquiry into any one of them or into space and time together. My point is that all three are essential, indeed elemental. Together, they form a foundational bundle in the mind — a triad, trinity, or triplex. Consciousness and awareness do not function without cognition along all three. Deliberate, purposeful behavior requires the existence of explicit space-time-action orientations. That is how minds works. And the three should be analyzed together.

The three orientations exist separately, but they also coexist in some kind of balance and relation to each other. Many, varied combinations are possible, but there appear to be some general dynamics.

For example, minds that are orderly, and intent on being orderly, in one dimension may also tend to be orderly in the others. And such minds may focus on restoring such order if a cognitive disturbance occurs. Thus, a mind that prefers to focus far more on the future than on the past or present, or far more on the self than on the world at large, may prove difficult to shift away from that focus, even if something extraordinary occurs.

However, if orientations along one dimension do shift sharply, this may induce a shift in one or both of other dimensions. For example, a rising sense of powerlessness may have adverse effects on one's future aspirations. Or a sudden expansion of spatial horizons, as may occur when a teenager moves from a small-town high school to a big-city university, may wow one’s sense of possibilities along all three dimensions, inducing a kind of radicalization. Indeed, major shifts across all three may be required for conversion to an entirely new mindset or ideology. But this is not an everyday experience; many mindsets seem able to endure a sharp shift in one dimension — e.g., from optimism to pessimism about the future — without being fundamentally dislodged along the other two dimensions.

Calling It Mindframe Analysis

For lack of a better term, I shall call the analysis of this cognitive triplex “mindframe analysis” or “mindfield analysis.” I first used the former term in 1994, preferring it over latter. The latter is a sensible term too, but there are precedents for “mindframe analysis.”

It echoes the practice of referring to a person’s “frame of mind.” It harmonizes with Erving Goffman’s (1974) notion of “frame analysis” for looking into how people mentally organize their sense of experience (though his unclear notion says little about space-time-action orientations). And it resonates with the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) researchers sometimes speak about resolving “the frame problem” so that robots can acquire the “common sense” to sort one item from another, or one situation from another. (In my view, AIs cannot acquire consciousness unless space-time-action cognitions are embedded in them.)

Another alternative is the established term “mindset analysis” — but it has such broad usage that it seems less susceptible to being pinned down, methodologically. Analyses of people’s “cosmologies,” “worldviews,” and “operational codes” often have details about their space, time, and/or action orientations, but it’s usually in a partial kind of way mixed up with other attributes. So those terms are not quite appropriate either.

Thus, for purposes of abbreviation, I’ll refer to the analysis of space-time-action orientations as mindframe or mindfield analysis, and what I’m trying to build as the “STA framework.”

Mindframe analysis should aim both to dissect the trifold bundle and to assess the whole. By discerning what is going on in the bundle — its parts and as a whole — an analyst may better understand and anticipate what a person is likely to think and do. Analysts often use standard ideological or psychological approaches for this — e.g., by claiming that a subject corresponds ideologically to a liberal, conservative, anarchist, or fundamentalist, or psychologically to a narcissist, paranoiac, avenger, or thrill-seeker. A systematic effort at mindframe analysis should enable analysts to improve upon those standard approaches.

Beyond Individual Minds

The STA module is rarely analyzed as such. Yet it lies behind not only how individual minds think, but also how cultures work and historical eras differ. Some major ideas — like the epochal shift from believing in fate to believing in progress — owe to shifts in the underlying beliefs that end up in this module. Entire cultures and civilizations are defined in part by how they mold people’s minds in these three domains of cognitive knowledge.

To be continued …

"[N]o two cultures live conceptually in the same kind of time and space.... [E]ach culture believes that every other kind of space and time is an approximation to or perversion of the real space and time in which it lives." (Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1932)
"[Man's] image of the future is his propelling power … [T]he rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures." (Fred Polak, The Image of the Future, 1973 [1955])