Initially, I had no thought of writing about social evolution. My interest in the topic arose from a progression of happenstances that generated its own flow over the course of ten years. I have not reminisced about this before — I usually leap directly into laying TIMN out. But on this occasion I mean to recount this backstory, for it had unconventional effects on how I came to approach social evolution, for the better. If I had turned to focus directly on social evolution from the start, I would never have unearthed TIMN.
Cyberocracy Is Coming
A few years after starting to work at RAND in 1972 as a specialist on U.S.-Latin American security relations, I happened to read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) at a friend’s urging. This book, not to mention other matters — I received my first office computer in the late 1970s, began hearing in the hallways about the ARPANET (forerunner of the Internet), and kept coming across inspiring new speculations about the future, notably William Gibson’s science-fiction novel Neuromancer (1984) — pulled me into sensing that a world-changing information technology revolution would soon take hold.
Thus, literally staring at my office wall in 1978 (1979?) and wondering what I really wanted to be doing, I decided to start taking steps to move beyond Latin American matters and re- focus on worldwide political implications of the dawning information revolution. In particular, I decided to focus on prospects for cyberocracy, the term I coined at the time for speculating about likely political effects and implications. It then took me ten years of off-and-on efforts to re-educate myself and make the transition, but I finally produced results: an informal paper about “Cyberocracy, Cyberspace, and Cyberology: Political Effects of the Information Revolution” (1991), plus an iteration for journal publication, “Cyberocracy Is Coming” (1992).
My work in this phase was entirely future-oriented; I still did not sense that I might end up analyzing past, present, and future aspects of social evolution. Indeed, the word “evolution” appears only once in my first paper thirty years ago:
“What new ‘ism’ or ‘ocracy’ may arise? The purpose or this paper is to suggest that cyberocracy is coming. This term, from the roots ‘cyber-‘ and ‘-ocracy,’ signifies rule by way of information. As it develops, information and its control will become a dominant source of power as a natural next step in man's political evolution. In the past, under aristocracy, the high-born ruled; under theocracy, the high priests ruled. In modern times, democracy and bureaucracy have enabled new kinds of people to participate. In turn, cyberocracy, by arising from the current revolution in information and communications technologies, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how, and why.” (Ronfeldt, 1991, p. 2)
However, this work did lead me to conclude that the information revolution would increasingly favor and strengthen the rise of new network forms of organization:
“It may turn out that knowledge is to the study of information what wealth has been to the study of economics, and power to the study of politics. (It also may turn out that networks are to the study of information what markets have been to the study of economics, and institutions to the study of politics.)” (Ronfeldt, 1991, p. 4)
“Global Interconnection: Networks Versus Nations. We are moving out of an era of global interdependence and into an era of global interconnection. The attention-getting trend today is the rise of global markets (e.g., for goods, ideas). Yet the spread of transnational and global networks (not only communications, but also social and organizational networks) among corporations, governments, advocacy groups and other nongovernment organizations, international and multilateral agencies, transnational elites, and so on, may have equally profound effects on the nature of the new order.
“As these organizational networks build, cutting across public and private sectors and national borders and interests, influential new sub- and supranational actors may increasingly compete for influence with national actors. As political and economic interests grow in protecting and expanding networks, the networks themselves may increasingly take precedence over nation-states as the driving factor in domestic and foreign affairs. The government that gains the lead in building and shaping these organizational networks should gain enormous comparative advantage to influence the direction the world goes in economically, politically, and socially.” (Ronfeldt, 1991, pp. 77-78)
More to the point, I added to the 1992 iteration a new section — From Hierarchies to Networks — to insist that “The information revolution appears to be making ‘networks’ relatively more important, and interesting, than ‘hierarchies’ as a form of organization” (Ronfeldt, 1992, p. 274). This proposition became central to my work on most all matters from then on.
Networks To Rule The Future
Given the significance I saw for information-age networks, I then wondered whether to start educating myself about (a) how to analyze social and organizational networks in technical detail, or (b) what other forms of organization besides networks were analytically significant and why. I knew I could not do both (too much reading, since these were new fields for me). I also figured it was a choice that could affect my interests and abilities for years to come. I chose the latter.
So, while I was still not intent on learning about social evolution per se, I headed into reading about the major forms of organization that people used, and how they compared to each other. It was easy to identify the iconic two forms — hierarchies and markets — for sociologists and economists had written about them for decades. In contrast, few scholars studied networks prior to 1990. But there were inspiring exceptions, notably about social movements becoming “segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated networks” (Gerlach and Hine, 1970). And by 1991, after getting ahold of “Neither Market Nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization” (Powell, 1990), I had enough materials to feel confident that hierarchies, markets, and networks were the cardinal forms of organization that all societies depended on (see Ronfeldt, 1993, 1996, for details and citations.)
For comparative reasons, I then wondered about hierarchies and markets the way I had about networks: If networks were the form of the future, enabled by a radical new information revolution, what about hierarchies and markets? Clearly, hierarchies, in the form of states, armies, and other large institutions, took hold centuries before markets gained sway. Moreover, I learned, the rise of hierarchical institutions depended on the development of writing and printing technologies; whereas the rise of markets depended on telegraphy, telephony, and other electrical technologies in the 19th century. In sum, the rise of each older form — first hierarchies, then markets — had required the rise of a new and different information-technology revolution, in one case for writing and printing, in the next for electrical communication and storage. That fit just fine with my argument that networks would be next. I had found a progression.
Next, IMN Evolves Into TIMN
With that observation, I realized I had scoped out not only a future-oriented framework for comparative organizational analysis, but potentially even a framework about long-range social evolution. It would have at its core the phased emergence and maturation of three forms of organization: first hierarchies, then markets, and now networks. For arguable reasons, I decided to use “institutions” (meaning hierarchical institutions) in place of “hierarchies” in my formulation — hence the acronym IMN for I/institutions + M/markets + N/networks to denote my first effort to lay out a framework about social organization and evolution (Ronfeldt, 1993).
Yet, after further mulling as well as road-testing a couple talks about IMN in 1992, this formulation felt incomplete. Social organization and evolution did not start with states; surely there is a fundamental form of organization that preceded states and other hierarchical institutions.
So, I undertook another round of readings — mostly classic anthropology texts about early forms of social organization, long before states arose. These impressive writings illuminated the centrality of kinship forms of organization — families, bands, clans, tribes, etc. — and their normally acephalous, segmentary, egalitarian nature (for details, see Ronfeldt, 2007). Moreover, I learned that an economist had proposed adding “clans” to the categorizations used by economists (Ouchi, 1980)— further confirmation I was stepping in sensible directions. Which was still further confirmed as I finally began reading about theories of social evolution (notably, Sanderson, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2001).
While I came across several naming options I settled on regarding this early form as the tribal form, added T/tribes to the framework, and renamed it TIMN (Ronfeldt, 1996). Finally I felt certain that I was in the presence of a potentially full-fledged forward-looking framework about social organization and evolution across the ages, with implications for the future. Along the way, it immediately proved useful, first for forecasting new modes of conflict we named cyberwar and netwar (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1993, 1996), and later for heralding new modes of cooperation among activist NGOs (non-governmental organizations) associated with civil society (Ronfeldt, 2005).
Coda: A Fortunate And Promising Find
And that’s how and why I ended up with TIMN — obliquely and circuitously. If, back in the late, I had been drawn to focus on social evolution rather than the information revolution, and if I had then pursued the topic directly, concentrate on learning about existing theories of social evolution from the start, I would surely never have sensed the rising importance of network forms of organization in the 1980s, much less come up with TIMN in the 1990s.
To my knowledge, no other scholarly approach to social evolution, then or since, has emphasized the rise of network forms of organization, nor held that quadriform societies may someday supersede today’s triform societies. Other frameworks do identify major stages of evolution that overlap with TIMN; but none do so in terms of a progression of forms of organization that emerge, interact, and combine to define those stages (phases). Moreover, while other frameworks observe that social evolution may exhibit historical cycles, spirals, or waves of one kind or another, only TIMN has served to identify recurrent system dynamics that attend the rise of every new form of organization. Furthermore, TIMN has implications for policy and strategy that other frameworks lack, as I discuss later. These unique aspects make TIMN worth pursuing, do they not?.
All the while, I have never regarded TIMN as a framework that I am trying to build. Instead, it has always felt like an ancient archeological artifact that I inadvertently stumbled across and am still trying to unearth, open up, and see inside. O Fortuna.
Yet I am also finding it no slam-dunk to tell other theorists and strategists about TIMN, especially if they are already committed to established streams of analysis. But then again, I have repeatedly flagged and faltered in trying to write it up in full. Maybe I can do better this time.
Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt,
"Cyberwar is Coming!" Comparative Strategy, Vol. 12, No. 2,
Summer 1993, pp. 141-165. Online at:
Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt, The
Advent Of Netwar, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, MR-789-OSD, 1996. Online at:
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Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York: Ace Books, 1984.
Ouchi, William G., “Markets, Bureaucracies, and Clans,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, March 1980, pp. 129–141.
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