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.


Jay Taber said...

The institutionalization of criminal enterprise in US governance and economics poses a stiff challenge for the pro-democracy networks. To describe the pending netwar over President Obama's capitulation to the credit cartel as assymetric hardly does it justice. Perhaps Phil Williams would like to weigh in on this.

Charles Cameron (hipbone) said...

There's detail on Pres. Obama's Social Innovation agenda on the Echoing Green blog, and I'm wondering whether the emphasis here on social entrepreneurship isn't exactly what you mean when you write of the need to "start to develop strategies that bring nonprofit and other social-sector and commons-oriented actors into the picture"?

If it is, then I'd like to invite you to keep an eye out for relevant conversations on SocialEdge events and the Public Innovators blog, where a recent conversation around this topic was held, and where further cross-blog conversations are likely to be emerging shortly

We're aiming to increase the likelihood of just this sort of approach to the current crisis.

Andrew Luetgers said...

If as they say "when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail" then isn't government by network like trying to pound a nail with a keyboard? Its the wrong problem to solve. Isn't the power of networks their ability to work around the impenetrable and slow-moving institutions. Thus i wouldn't expect to see the most interesting things happen there... and I'm reminded of the heightened power given to tribes in the institutional space as it is more specially oriented.

Andrew Luetgers said...

err... that's spatially oriented not specially. (i have only my opinion to cite for this theory)