Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Useful discussions at other blogs about TIMN matters

[UPDATE — April 15, 2009: I’ve retitled, enlarged, and revised the original version of this post. It now focuses solely on TIMN matters. I’ve removed a comment that was here about an STA matter — “Can the past become as uncertain as the future?” — and will reintroduce it some other time.]

Googling around has enabled me to spot extensive posts and discussions about TIMN at a couple of unusual (for me) blogs: In Communicado, and The Elusive Wapiti. I relate a few highlights below.

These two new discussions add to the earlier useful discussions at the P2P Foundation and Global Guerrillas blogs (see earlier posts here). I’m also grateful for the plugs that TIMN has received in the interim at the blogs of Mark Safranski, Clay Spinnuzi, Jay Taber, and Shlok Vaidya.

In addition, I found a post about primitive / tribal societies at the Culture and Cognition blog that recommends an interesting 1980 paper by Richard Posner. The blog also gave me a passing opportunity to make a comment about information revolutions and the four TIMN forms that I’ve been intending to present as a proposition here anyway.

One pattern that suffuses all the discussions at all these blogs is a concern about the nature and role of the tribal form, both its bright and dark sides. This pattern — or concern — is all the more interesting in that it is growing across all sorts of ideological and other spectrums. And everywhere I go, it is heightened by perceptions of its links to the rise of the network form.

TIMN theory aside, concerns about the dark aspects of tribalism keep mounting. Today, it’s Somali pirates, Taliban warriors, and Mexican gangsters — who / what / where is next? Thus my latest favorite quote is from John Robb: “If you find yourself alone and naked in a global gun fight — tribe up!”

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Extended discussion at In Communicado

The unusual blog In Communicado carried a good long post about TIMN this month (April), and we had a useful exchange that I’m reiterating here. I’m supposing that doing so will help continue clarifying aspects of the framework.

The blogger, Dhoa, ended the post with this thoughtful observation:
“At first, I am uncomfortable with the hierarchical implications of Ronfeldt’s framework, mainly due to the cited linear timeline on which the various forms emerged. The obvious fear in this is seeing tribal forms as primitive in light of networks, for example. And heavens above, are we tired of that!

. . . To me, the above screams Western ethnocentricity. Additionally, as one of the comments mentioned, tribal societies can keep a check on the anti-democratic nature of some of the other forms. A prime example of this is the international indigenous struggle, especially in light of the climate change issue.”
I appended a clarifying comment, as follows (with capitalizations fixed):
Googling enabled me to spot your long post about my TIMN work. I’m delighted. Since I’ve been slow lately to add new material about TIMN at my own blog, I thought I’d try to clarify a few matters here.

Yes, the TIMN framework treats tribes as the earliest major form of social organization. And that initially means primitive tribes, where the emphasis is on family kinship and related values. Even so, the tribal form remains essential and evolves in various ways throughout the entire TIMN progression. The importance of family and other kinship never goes away. But new expressions gain significance too. For example: As nation-states (hierarchical institutions) developed, the tribe form was -- and still is -- expressed in nationalism. Now that the development (or misdevelopment?) of markets has brought late capitalism, we see the tribe form expressed in brand loyalties and fashion trends. I’m still wondering what may be the tribal aspects of the rise of the new network form, but I don’t doubt that information-age expressions will arise. Issue loyalties among civil-society actors might be one.

I deal with some of this at greater length in a 2006 paper focused on the tribal form posted at:

As for being ethnocentric, I suppose I can be personally so at times [though let it be clear that the blogger was not calling me ethnocentric personally]. But the TIMN framework is another matter. It is not inherently ethnocentric; at least I am trying to make sure of that, and there is no reason for it to be so.

Analysts like Jay Taber and John Robb have been making good points about how the collapsing of hierarchies and markets may lead to a greater reliance on tribal and network forms of organization. That is consistent with the TIMN framework. My view differs somewhat from theirs (and theirs differ from each other’s too). But at least we are all reasoning in TIMN-related terms; that’s what I find helpful as I continue to try to develop (actually, more like discover) what this framework means.

Yes, the point is sound that tribal societies may sometimes help check anti-democratic tendencies stemming from the other forms. That is worth building on. But, I’m sorry to add, the tribal form does not always have such a bright character: there have been many instances, including in modern systems, where particular clans, aristocracies, old-boy networks, criminal gangs, etc. -- all tribal kinds of actors -- have had anti-democratic consequences. The TIMN framework is about the bright and dark sides of all the forms.
We did some additional chatting, but the above were the most substantive parts. I am grateful for the interest.

In the first version of this post, I had thought that was the end of it. But then Jay Taber and Mark Safranski (ZenPundit) jumped in and offered useful observations.

Mark made a good point that being tribal can be a source of strength that depends on its seeming primitiveness:
Tribalism endures because it is “primitive” — i.e. a simple, basic and highly *resilient* social structure. It weathers stress and deprivation by adapting where more complex and brittle social-political structures fail.
Jay added that tribes of all eras are tantamount, in a positive sense, to “ancient protector societies”:
As authentic political structures that served as the basis of organic democracy, tribes today have developed their own institutions and networks as shields against predatory markets. In this sense, the obligations of tribal membership in the modern world foster responsibilities that are pan-tribal, even cosmopolitan.
Dhoa then introduced a good point that size and scale matter. Which gave me an opening to reiterate that:
. . . it’s when migrants and other people from different tribes and clans start mingling in cities ages ago that state hierarchies start to be “needed” — at least, that’s one explanation. Laws start to be needed when so many people interact who are not kinfolk and thus can no longer rely just on customs.

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Discussion at The Elusive Wapiti

Meanwhile I found another good long discussion from March at the blog of The Elusive Wapiti, which appears to have a fairly conservative political tone. The discussion raised a number of thoughtful points, particularly about what was happening to / with each of the forms these days, particularly in our own American society.

My comment was mostly this:
I agree that what happens at the tribal (T) level remains crucial throughout a society’s evolution. And its expressions change a lot over time too, as do the ways it may affect and infuse the other forms. The various remarks here about criminal gangs and fascist tendencies capture some of my worries in this regard.

I also sense — and am pleased you detect — that many T-level aspects of our American society are currently out of balance, if not out of whack. In my view, most of what goes in the “culture war” category of issues reflects this.

I’m not really a conservative as I gather many of you are, but I also don’t regard myself as really a liberal. So the details of my assessment might differ from yours. But the TIMN framework is meant to be non-ideological, and I hope to be specific about that in future posts over at my blog and in other writings, including by laying out specific indicators and measures.
To my final remark, the blogger offered this (elusive?) clarification: “Many of us here would probably be classified as conservatives, but — speaking mostly for myself here — we consider ourselves Liberals of the classical type.”

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Meanwhile at the blog for Culture and Cognition

What caught my eye at the blog of the International Cognition and Culture Institute was a post regarding “What is a primitive society?” — a question posed and addressed in an article by Richard Posner that I’ve never heard of, but that deserves to be on standard readings lists about cultural anthropology and/or social evolution. Too bad, in my view, that he did not continue in this field. (His own blog, reflecting what he has ended up doing, famously, is here.)

Posner’s paper — “A Theory of Primitive Society, with Special Reference To Law,” Journal of Law and Economics, April 1980, pp. 1-53 — applies economic theory to understand primitive / archaic societies, especially their legal institutions. In Posner’s words,
It argues that many of the distinctive institutions of primitive society, including gift-giving and reciprocal exchange, customary prices, polygamy and brideprices, the size of kinship groups, and the value placed on certain personality traits, such as generosity and touchiness, can be explained as adaptations to uncertainty or high information costs. (p. 4)
Other adaptations he soon adds to the list include the denial of privacy, the obligation of sharing, and the importance of collective responsibility. His analysis focuses on information in part because “the costs of obtaining information are higher in primitive than in advanced societies” (p.5). The way people live in these societies — the adaptations he lists — reflect a constant quest for a kind of insurance. They are insurance mechanisms.

Thus, he concludes,
I have argued that these institutions are best understood as adaptations to the pervasive uncertainty and high information costs of primitive life, which create a demand for insurance that cannot be supplied through formal insurance markets and which in other ways directly and indirectly shape the values and institutions of primitive society. (p. 52)
The comment I left at the blog was this:
Posner’s explanation of “primitive” societies (what I call “tribes”) in terms of information is particularly interesting to me. What I would like to add is that, across the centuries, the rise of each major form of organization is associated with a different revolution in the information and communication technologies of the time.

The rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution: the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling and gossiping that is central to tribal cultures. The rise of the hierarchical institutional form — as in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the absolutist states, and their vast administrative structures — reflected a mechanical revolution: the development of formal writing and printing, first penned script and later the printing press. This was important not only for keeping records and issuing commands, but also for inscribing laws that chiefdoms and states could apply to growing populations who were not kinfolk and often not well-known to each other. Next, the rise of the market form and its far-flung business enterprises was sped by the electrical technologies of the 19th century: the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today’s spread of the decentralized, distributed network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are empowering civil-society associations around the world and across political spectrums.

This does not mean that tribes are solely ancient and primitive. There are numerous modern-day expressions of the tribal form that still exhibit the basic patterns that Posner and other analysts point out.
My comment, however pertinent as a proposition that spans all the TIMN forms, does not even begin to explore the richness and variety of Posner’s analysis of the tribal (T) form. Also, there is one curiousity I'd note about the main blog post: It reflected a sensitivity to Posner’s use of the term “primitive” — shades of the discussion at In Communicado.

Meanwhile — and to conclude this post almost where I began it — I’m wondering whether Posner’s kind of analysis can be applied to today’s tribalists. To what extent are those Somali pirates, Taliban warriors, and Mexican gangsters behaving like they do partly because of high information costs and high insurance needs? Or does the continuation of many of the classic adaptations have to be explained entirely differently now? Network dynamics again?


Jay Taber said...

Clarifying history in revolutionary ways doesn't have to be malicious, of course. I'm thinking of people like Thomas Flanagan, author of The Tenants of Time. As indigenous peoples gain a voice in modern media, their worldview will seem novel and foreign, but in time will contribute to comity and balance.

Jay Taber said...

Discovering one's own tribal history also tends to change one's perspective. Mine, nEoghan Ua Niall, is fortunately well-documented, and made my task easier. For the European diaspora, Josep Fontana's book, The Distorted Past, is worth a look.

Andrew Luetgers said...

I think you hit upon a most interesting question in your post.

"I’m still wondering what may be the tribal aspects of the rise of the new network form, but I don’t doubt that information-age expressions will arise."

I would love to hear more of your perspective on this topic. Personally I would think that the networks of developers that build much of the information technology and its applications would be a goood place to look. For example developers work in an ecology of technologies, forming tribes around their favorite stack. These tribes serve each other through an open source approach to and interlink with others on shared lower levels of the technology stack or on shared dogma of their profession. The closed source model has it proponents as well but they always seem to represent a more insular and usually corporately sponsored tribes.

Now my question; is this what you mean by "information-age expressions?"

Jay Taber said...

I'll add to my recommended reading The Primal Mind by Jamake Highwater, and A Writer's Reality by Mario Vargas Llosa.

For those interested in the indigenous peoples' perspective, I write for Fourth World Eye a journal of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, which also has an online library of papers and reports (since 1979) by indigenous scholars and tribal leaders.