Sunday, November 4, 2012

Q’s & A’s about “TIMN in 20 minutes” (5th of 7): role of information technology

As explained in the introduction to the first post in this series, it logs comments on my video about TIMN. The introduction also explains how the posts are arranged, and how I’ve approached using commenters’ remarks. Readers should be mindful of the caveats I offered there about my presentation of those remarks and my replies.

This post logs comments about the association that TIMN posits between the rise of a new form and an attendant information technology revolution.  A few commenters took me to task about this TIMN theme — more than I expected and more than I encountered for any other post in this series.  So I’ve wondered whether what I said in the video was so sketchy that maybe it would help if I said a little more.

Accordingly, the proposition is that the rise and spread of each form is associated with a different information and communications technology revolution.  In brief, the rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution:  the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling 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 network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are especially empowering for civil-society associations around the world and across political spectrums.

I should add, as a corollary, that each successive information / communications technology revolution also modifies each of the older forms.  The video evidently did not make this clear. Besides, based on a quick search of my writings, I can’t find that I’ve written it up anywhere, even though I’ve long had this corollary in mind and have alluded to aspects of it (as noted in an appendix below).

Against that added background, let’s turn to the comments and my replies.

Information technology and the reinvigoration of tribes

An information-age strategist (indeed the same one who raised theoretical issues identified in my second post in this series) urged me to:
“Note that modern information technology has often given new life to older forms of social organization. Specifically, it has made tribes more viable. It is now more possible to organize successfully in a smaller scale, which is probably one reason why the trend we observed in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which smaller units merged or were conquered to form larger units under nationalism or colonialism, has been replaced in the 21st century by a trend for larger units to fragment. This would seem to be a significant part of the theory.”
I couldn’t reply at the time, but now I’d note that these are excellent points. The tribal form in particular has gone through many changes due to various information revolutions. Shifts from parochialism to nationalism comprise one such historical change, as he notes. And today a lot of fragmentation is indeed occurring. All sorts of narrow new tribes and clans have popped up via the Internet and other media.

But while I often read about examples of fragmentation, I wonder about less-noted contrary trends as well. For example, computers and cell phones are sometimes said to mean that family members may pull apart and proceed independently of each other more than ever. Yet, according to a recent survey (I’ve misplaced my source), many college students away from home now stay in touch with their parents more often than did past generations who had to rely on old hallway phones. Is this not an example — as I think — of the new technology aiding the persistence of familial (i.e., tribal) cohesion? Or should it be viewed — as the commenter later indicated — as an example of fragmentation, in that the new technology allows students to resist falling under the sway of a college’s institutional (I) paradigm, at a time in their live when they should supposedly make that transition?

In my own work, I’ve often looked for underlying patterns that confirm the enduring roles of the tribal (T) form. An example would be an essay about “Al Qaeda and Its Affiliates: A Global Tribe Waging Segmental Warfare” (here), in which I argued:
“Al Qaeda fits the tribal paradigm quite well. Thus, continuing to view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting-edge, post-modern phenomenon of the information age misses a crucial point: Al Qaeda and affiliates are using the information age to reiterate ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale. The war they are waging is more about virulent tribalism than religion. The tribal paradigm should be added to the network and other prevailing paradigms to help figure out the best policies and strategies for countering these violent actors.”
Actually, all sorts of tribalized actors are using myriad media — old and new — to express and strengthen their tribalness these days. At times I’ve alluded to aspects of how the new technologies may variously affect all the TIMN forms (see appendix below). But I’m disappointed to see that analysis about this is missing from my major essay on tribes as the first and forever form, even though that essay discusses transformations in how the tribal form is manifested across the ages. That’s something I should remedy in my expositions of TIMN — and it’s good that the commenter called for more attention.

As follow-up emails with the commenter showed, trying to test propositions in this area would be a challenge. Various notions have appeared, schools of thought taken hold, and debates arisen about how technologies affect societies. TIMN calls for a more specific focus: on how new information and communications technologies may affect the forms of organization that define societies. Questions might include why new info-comm tech may strengthen or weaken and otherwise alter one TIMN form more than another? And whether and why such effects may vary from culture to culture? Or from one stage of development to another? I think TIMN is up to such a task, but sorting it all out would require a major effort. For now, about all I can do is highlight points as they come along, as they have here with this commenter’s input, as well as with ones below.

The market form (+M) and information technology

A seasoned senior policy analyst — David Lyon — offered “One quibble on your presentation”:
You explain that markets emerged in large part because of telex, telephones, telegrams, etc. Well, surely markets existed long before that in barter economies, market places, and such. I especially remember reading once that a sophisticated credit system existed on the silk road. I could borrow money at one end to buy goods for shipment, haul them a 1000 miles, and be credited at the other end, pocketing my profit at the same time. I would simply tell my banker at the other end what I borrowed and he would trust me. Not only a market and transshipment model, but a credit system besides. PayPal?
In any event a very powerful framework you have, indeed, and much easier to understand than the earlier articles.
My reply: Oh yes, market activities existed long before the electrical information revolution. The market form, and its philosophical bases, began to take hold a century or two earlier. My basic TIMN line is that all four forms have existed, to one degree or another, since ancient times. But they have arisen and matured at different rates and in different eras. Requisite information revolutions are part of the explanation, but only a part. A deeper explanation would be that societies face and have to resolve different challenges as they develop. The identity (T) and administrative (I) problems normally come first. The video is evidently too sketchy about this, but I hope it’s clearer in some of the writings behind it.

Past movements that evolved from networks into institutions?

A commenter at the YouTube site — Bob Gerecke — questioned the ordering I’d given to TIMN:
It’s unclear whether Mr. Ronfeldt concludes that there is a one-way progression from T to I to M to N. Since he asserts that each is dependent on an information technology, and that those technologies have historically appeared in sequence, perhaps that’s his conclusion. If so, how does his theory accommodate the tendency of movements to evolve from networks into institutions? Two examples which come to mind are Christianity and Marxism.
My reply at the site was brief, due to size limits imposed by YouTube: TIMN implies a preferred progression, not one-way. It depends not just on technology but also [on] a society’s abilities to resolve different complexities as it advances. Some past movements evolved from networks into institutions, esp. if the network aspects were suborned by dominant hierarchies. Some network-like formations in Medieval eras were more like pan-clan formations than modern networks. They didn’t pose, philosophically or organizationally, the kind of sector that TIMN implies.

Here’s the long version I initially tried to post before being blocked by YouTube’s limits (and readers who’ve followed this series may spot that my reply repeats text I’ve used in other replies): You raise a challenging point. I’ve come across it before elsewhere, usually in regard to networks in Medieval eras. I remain uncertain as to how best to analyze in TIMN terms, which I’m still trying to figure out. But here are some tentative preliminary thoughts:
TIMN allows for all the forms to crop up at all times across history. I do not see that there is simply a one-way progression. But it sure looks like there is a preferred progression. And it depends not only on technology but also on a society’s abilities to resolve different kinds of problems and complexities as it advances. TIMN also identifies a pattern of regression; a society that enters into crises involving the later forms is likely to revert to emphasize the earlier forms.
Network-type formations are evidently more rife in Medieval eras than I once supposed. Yet I gather that many were more like pan-clan formations than modern network formations. Besides, rife though they may be, and much as they may enliven civil society, they still didn’t add up to the kind of sector that TIMN presumes will emerge. I’ve yet to see philosophic arguments from back then that argue for preferring the network form over the long term. Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” notion steps in the right direction, as may some other praises of civil-society associations back then. But so far, I tend to regard them as precursors to what may be evolving now.
I’m no expert on either Christianity or Marxism. But in my current view of TIMN, it fits that key parts of such past movements evolved from networks into institutions, not so much because of the movements’ network aspects, as because of the broader societal contexts in which they grew and attracted attention, leading ultimately to capture by hierarchical institutional forms.
By Christianity, I presume you refer mainly to Catholicism and the rise of the Papal hierarchy. Yet, different TIMN phases may be associated with different approaches to religion. There appear to be lots of examples of religions that remain deeply tribal in nature. The Catholic Church is a fine example of an institutional formation. Protestantism seems more in keeping with the market form. I’m still wondering about what may be the implications of the modern network form for religion.

Activist networks in Mexico

A former Pomona College classmate who shares an interest in Mexico — Juan Matute — was prompted by the video to note:
“One of the observable events of late, is the news on the student protests in Mexico. To me, this seems to validate your observation of the Network pillar of TIMN. Armed with social media and smart phones, a new generation of activists are able to blow past (or by) the old-guard Mexican press, and create its own observations, communication of values, and activism. The network is stronger than the militia and the police state, in the long run.”
Good points. Networked activism — social netwar — has been a  feature of political ferment in Mexico since the pro-Zapatista and pro-democracy movements of the mid 90s. In addition, a TIMN analysis I did back then (reprised here) argued that criminalization and a “stuck system” were likely for Mexico, and that various kinds of interlaced netwars remained likely. I’ve also argued (here) that Mexico would not fall apart nowadays — nor end up with a "failed state" — because obscure social and organizational networks keep forming to hold it together and limit instability.

What’s so terribly disturbing about Mexico now from a TIMN perspective is the descent into barbaric warlordism by clannishly tribal gangsters.  They need to be dealt with directly.  But from a broader TIMN perspective, rectifying these (T-level) problems may require cleaning up and reforming Mexico’s government (+I) and market (+M) systems as well, so that they work better for the broad masses of people.  Curiously, I read somewhere a year or so ago that, since Mexico’s economy was liberalized a few decades ago, it now has a much larger private sector, but this private sector is also less open, less competitive, and more monopolistic (I-like?) than before — not good for developing +M properly, even though Mexico’s economy is reportedly performing quite well these days.

Myriad historical exceptions?

A prominent blogger on security matters — Pundita — took me to task on numerous possible historical exceptions. I’m tempted to abridge her critique, but I also think it’s potentially useful for readers interested in TIMN to see in full the challenges it may face in this regard. Accordingly:
“David -- TIMN assigns writing and printing to hierarchical organizations (HO), and the chart you featured in your TIMN video lists the state, military and church as defining examples of HO. With regard to the state and in particular the military, you said in the video that writing and printing made it possible to issue written commands. The implication is that written commands were important in establishing and expanding armies as a key example of a hierarchical organization.
“If my understanding so far is correct, there are important examples that I think tend to skew your observations. Here are four, although a military historian might dredge up several more:
“1. The sophisticated hierarchical army that Temujin (Genghis Khan) developed was illiterate, so all commands were issued orally. And while Temujin’s most influential non-Mongol aide was literate (captured during the Mongol conquest of China) and was key in developing the governing structure of Mongol captured territory, he would have had to communicate his instructions orally to Mongol overseers who were illiterate.
“(The Mongols continued to resist literacy even for some time into the reign of Temujin’s immediate successor, until the captured aide put his foot down and insisted that Mongol children be taught to read and write.)
“2. Although the Mayans had writing, it’s unlikely that the army was literate:
““Religion permeated all phases of Mayan life. Law and taxation, for example, were interpreted as religious principles and religious offerings. Education was conducted mainly as training for priests, who made reading, writing, and learning caste specialties.” (source:
“The situation probably extended to the armies of other Mesoamerican civilizations. While I haven’t looked into this angle, I suspect the Mayan example could extend to other ancient civilizations that evolved sophisticated standing armies, such as the Egyptian -- and for pretty much the same reason that literacy was jealously guarded by the Mayan priestly caste.
“3. In Niall Ferguson’s “The West and the Rest,” which examines six factors that Niall believes allowed the West to eclipse powerful civilizations such as China’s and the Ottoman empire, Niall notes that the Ottomans adamantly refused to adopt the printing press until it was too late to catch up with the West. So while they were literate, they relied on script. The practice of manual writing was a big industry under the Ottomans (and surely under other Muslim rules); it supported thousands of scribes.
“The Ottoman example suggests one reason why even many literate societies (or literate elites) probably eschewed writing in favor of orally-issued commands in military affairs. It takes a lot of time to write out Arabic script -- and the quasi-sacred nature of many scripts meant that they had to be written with extreme care, and that sloppy efforts had to be rejected. Who had that kind of time during battle and while an army was on the move?
“4. The sophisticated army created by the Zulu conqueror-king Shaka was illiterate. Shaka was also adamantly against literacy:
““The expanding Zulu power inevitably clashed with European hegemony in the decades after Shaka’s death. In fact, European travellers to Shaka’s kingdom demonstrated advanced technology such as firearms and writing, but the Zulu monarch was less than convinced. There was no need to record messages, he held, since his messengers stood under penalty of death should they bear inaccurate tidings.” (source:
“Shaka’s remark could also throw light on why so many armies, while sophisticated in their organization and battle tactics, could operate just fine without written commands. People who aren’t literate might not have better memories than literates, but they do have much more practice than literates in committing long conversations and lengthy, complicated instructions to memory.
“So while all the above isn’t definitive, from the examples I’ve given, I’d question whether writing and printing, per se, were significant factors in the development of armies as hierarchical organizations.
“And from the example of the Mongol empire during Temujin’s life, I’m not certain how great a factor literacy played even in the establishment and maintenance of his state, which was one of history’s most powerful and far-flung.
“This doesn’t mean that writing and printing didn’t make contributions to the engineering, math and scientific fields which yielded the kind of advances in weaponry and communications technology that would have solidified the power of the HOs. But if there is indeed a significant ‘bridging’ factor(s) between the establishment of the military organization and writing/printing, you might want to make that distinction in your description of HO.
“I saw the TIMN video for the first time the other day. So I haven’t thought enough about the model up to this point to venture whether my observations, even if completely correct, would skew the HO segment of the TIMN model of social organization. But it seems to me that your model places great emphasis on the factor of progressive advances in communications in the development of human social organizations. Yet is it possible that distance communications -- those which cover distances that are too large to be handled in reasonable time by oral communications -- rather than communications per se, have been a key factor in any progression from tribal to networked forms of social organizations?”
My reply at the time: My preliminary impression is that, with caveats and qualifications about cases you mention, I can still stick with my general proposition that the rise of each form, in turn, depends in part on a new/next information revolution. I agree with your closing point that this has a lot to do with distance reach. I would add time reach as well; e.g., the rise of markets depends on expanding both spatial and temporal reach. In a way, this means there is a connection between my TIMN and STA [space-time-action framework] efforts — indeed, that’s the theme of the next post in this series.

Today I’d reiterate that this comment in particular, not to mention others above, shows what a challenge it’d be to do a thorough examination of the relationships between each of the TIMN forms and each information technology revolution. I’ve collected (but not yet read) a lot of scholarly books and articles about this topic over the last several decades, once intending to do a chapter on it. I’ve also kept an eye out for theorists who offer similar ideas and observations (e.g., Manuel Castells). But I’m quite sure that, at this point, I won’t be able to do much more on the topic.

* * * * * * * * * *


As the preceding comments indicate, my video on TIMN contained only about a paragraph claiming that each form’s rise is associated with a different information revolution. But at one time or another, I’ve tried to say more, particularly when I was first coming up with TIMN. The following text — evidently the longest, most scholarly few pages I’ve written about the claim — is excerpted from my old monograph on Institutions, Markets, and Networks: A Framework About the Evolution of Societies (RAND, DRU-590-FF, December 1993), pp. 45-49. This was the IMN precursor to TIMN, written just before I added tribes (T) to the framework. The excerpt indicates that I was already wondering about adding tribes. That may be one reason I never proceeded to publish the document formally at the time. In any case, I hope the inclusion of this out-dated appendix helps clarify some of my replies in this post, and shows that they're based on a little more research than the video indicates.

Importance of the New Information Technology [circa 1993]

“Each form of organization discussed here amounts to a different way of structuring, communicating, and dealing with information. All forms of organization depend on information and communications technology, and each of the forms in the IMN framework may be tied to the development of a particular information technology revolution. The rise of tribal and clan forms was associated with the development of language — including symbols and glyphs that expressed power and magic — and with early types of writing. The growth of the institutional form — as seen in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, and then the rise of the State and the institutions of liberal democracy — is tied to the development of writing and printing, first by hand and later through the invention of the printing press. The rise of the market form, and of the huge, far-flung enterprises it engendered, is associated with the development and spread of electric and electronic devices, notably the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today, the rise of the network form is drawing impetus from the computer, the fax, and other technologies of the latest information and communications revolution. [1]

“This is putting it baldly, and of course the relationship between organization and technology is more complicated. For example, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church became the most powerful institution spanning Europe, a fact expressed through its monopoly of manuscript writing and the dominance of the Latin language. The spread of the printing press loosened Rome’s grip on the communication media, facilitated the rise of Protestantism, and thus ended up weakening the Church’s control over many elements of society. Ergo, the printing press served to weaken hierarchy. Does this contradict what was said above? Not really, for while the printing press served to weaken the Church, it favored the development of a rival hierarchy: that of the absolutist nation-state. In France, Germany, and elsewhere across Europe, the new technology not only improved the state’s capacity for administrative record-keeping; it also enabled monarchies and other actors to start publishing in the local languages rather than in the Latin preferred by the Vatican — all of which proved a boon to the rise of national identities (Boorstin 1983: Chapt. 64).

“In addition, even though each new technology favored a particular organizational form, each in turn also strengthened the older form(s) of organization. Thus the telephone, the telegraph, and short-wave radio, which greatly benefited the spread of markets, also extended the reach of state bureaucracies and enabled the central command of armed forces. Today, computer network and satellite communications systems are helping make possible revolutionary advances in the revitalization of “global tribes” (Kotkin 1992), in inter-agency cooperation within and between governments, and in the growth of global companies and global financial markets (Wriston 1992). Markets are able to operate more like markets than ever before. But the important point remains this: the latest technology revolution is enabling a heretofore weak form of organization to come into its own.

“This latest revolution remains at an early stage. Computers, fax machines, and telephones are like Ferraris compared to the teletypes, typewriters, and telephones of a few decades ago. But they are Model-T Fords compared to what should exist in a decade or two. The advanced societies are on the cusp of a major shift: from what may be done on a stand-alone computer in an office, to what may be done by connecting a computer to communications networks, conferencing systems, databases, modeling and simulation systems, and other information utilities within and beyond the boundaries of an office or organization. Capacity and connectivity are growing exponentially. Out of sight of much public notice, all the interconnected electronic networks and interfaces — what is increasingly called “cyberspace” — is the fastest growing, newest domain of power and property in the world (Ronfeldt 1992).

“This revolution, like the earlier ones, has implications for all forms of organization — institutions, markets, and networks. Each has different requirements for, and imposes different structures on, the flow of information. Institutions generally depend on hierarchical command and control relationships where information stays in prescribed channels and bounds according to the lines of power and authority. Markets depend largely on price and exchange relationships where the marketplace exposes lots of actors to lots of information about supply, demand, terms of trade, etc. In contrast, multi-organizational networks (e.g., of NGOs) depend on constant communication, consultation, and coordination. To function efficiently and effectively across time and distance, multi-organizational networks may require more sophisticated information and communications flows than occurs with institutional and market systems. That is why the new technology is so important to this organizational form.

“Advanced information and communications capabilities can enhance the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of all forms of organization; thus computer systems, properly applied, should improve the performance of institutions and markets. This is occurring despite recent concerns about a “productivity paradox.” But improved efficiency is not the only effect. The new technology and related management innovations can also have a transforming effect. They disrupt old ways of doing things, provide the capability to do things differently, and suggest that some things may be done better if done differently.
“The consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-level, or efficiency, effects and second level, or social system, effects. The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects. Advances in networking technologies now make it possible to think of people, as well as databases and processors, as resources on a network.
“Many organizations today are installing electronic networks for first-level efficiency reasons. Executives now beginning to deploy electronic mail and other network applications can realize efficiency gains such as reduced elapsed time for transactions. If we look beyond efficiency at behavioral and organizational changes, we’ll see where the second-level leverage is likely to be. These technologies can change how people spend their time and what and who they know and care about. The full range of payoffs, and the dilemmas, will come from how the technologies affect how people can think and work together — the second-level effects. (Sproull and Kiesler 1991: 15-16)”
“In fact, today’s information revolution is making life difficult for many institutions. It disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which they are normally designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of what would otherwise be considered the weaker, smaller actors. It crosses borders, and redraws the boundaries of offices and responsibilities. It expands the spatial and temporal horizons that actors should take into account. It generally compels closed systems to open up.

“But while this may make life difficult especially for some large, bureaucratic, aging institutions, the institutional form per se is not becoming obsolete. Hierarchical institutions remain essential to the organization of society. The responsive, capable ones will adapt their structures and processes to the information age. Many will evolve from the traditional, hierarchical to new, flexible, network-like models of organization. Success may depend on learning to interlace hierarchical and network principles. [2]

“However, there is a more important message for this essay. The very changes that trouble institutions — the erosion of hierarchy, etc. — favor the rise of multi-organizational networks. In the past, these were difficult to build and maintain because they required such dense information and communications flows. The new technology increases the attractiveness of the network form by making it possible for diverse, dispersed actors to communicate, consult, coordinate, and act jointly across greater distances and on the basis of more and better information than ever before. (Indeed, the information revolution is strengthening the importance of all forms of networks — social networks, communications networks, etc.) [3]”

[1] The relationship between organizational form and information technology deserves more research than I can do for this project. Good sources on printing and other pre-industrial communication modes include Eisenstein (1968, 1979), Innis (1950), and Jean (1982). Sources on the effects of electricity, the telephone, and the telegraph include Beniger (1986), Marvin (1988), and D. Nye (1990). My thinking has benefited from comments posted by Elin Smith in various discussion topics on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (the WELL — a computer-based conferencing system located in Sausalito, California). Also, I am well advised by RAND Graduate School student Joel Pliskin to consider that the point here may be less about the advance of technology per se, than about the increasing “bandwidth” that each advance affords and that people are increasingly capable of receiving.
[2] The literature on these points is vast. Ronfeldt (1992) provides background and references, including to Bell (1980) and Toffler (1971). Recent additions include: Boyer (1991), Huber (1990), Malone & Rockart (1991), Sproull & Keisler (September 1991), Toffler (1990).
[3] Many of these points are repeated from Ronfeldt (1992).

Does this appendix help?  Written in 1993, it seems rather out-of-date to me now.  But at least it shows that the sketchy talking points in my 2012 video have bits and pieces of scholarship behind them.  Moreover, this 1993 statement about IMN reflects my main TIMN proposition and an aspect of the corollary I mentioned at the beginning of this post:
“All forms of organization depend on information and communications technology, and each of the forms in the IMN framework may be tied to the development of a particular information technology revolution. ...
“In addition, even though each new technology favored a particular organizational form, each in turn also strengthened the older form(s) of organization.”

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