Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Past writings about swarming and the future of conflict (plus a closing comment about the bombing in Boston)

To my knowledge, John Arquilla and I were the first to identify swarming as an emerging mode of information-age conflict, in the late 1990s. Yet, while our work is well known in some circles, it has spread slowly (even unclearly) into other circles. Several times a year I’m contacted by someone, usually in the military, who has just come across one of our past writings about swarming and wants to know more. Or else I learn about someone, usually a social activist or academic scholar, who says something about swarming in a blog post or an article, and I want to make sure that he or she knows about our past work.

Part of my response is to send a list of bibliographic references. And I usually have to go digging around to find and list them once again, often tailoring the list to whether the interest is mainly in military or social swarming. This has happened enough times now that I might as well put it all mostly in one spot — this blog post — so that I can easily mention just one URL in a short email or blog comment, rather than lots in a long one.

List of past writings

So, for the sake of easing future reference, here’s a list of our key writings. All the RAND writings are available as free .pdf downloads at RAND’s website, though Amazon may offer them as well.

Our fullest statement is Swarming and the Future of Conflict (2000), available at
We expanded, especially on non-military swarming, in our volume on Networks & Netwars: The Future of Crime, Terror, and Militancy (2001), esp. in the last chapter, available at
The best short military-oriented article we did was “Swarming — The Next Face of Battle,” in Aviation Week & Space Technology (September 29, 2003), available at
Before that, our first writing to make barely passing reference to swarming, without yet realizing its potency as a concept, was The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico (1998), available at
The first time we deliberately wrote a section about swarming, after coming up with the term/concept, was in “Preparing for information-age conflict: Part 2 doctrinal and strategic dimensions,” in the journal Information, Communication & Society (1998), available at
RAND colleague Sean Edwards did two parallel historical reports on military aspects when he was at RAND as a student. His first, for one of John’s and my projects, was Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future (2000), available at
Sean later published his RAND Ph.D. dissertation on Swarming and the Future of Warfare (2005), available at
[UPDATE — September 26, 2013: As an analyst with the U.S. military, Sean has done several briefings about swarming. An early one (2003) is located here, in Section C, pp. 1-11, in a large conference proceedings that also contains other interesting takes on swarming: ]
Since our RAND work, John elaborated more in his book Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), available at
John also wrote, among other items, an op-ed on “The Coming Swarm” in the New York Times (February 15, 2009), and an article on “The New Rules of War” in Foreign Policy (March / April 2010), available respectively at
More recently, John’s posts for his column “Rational Security” at Foreign Policy deal with swarming occasionally, available via
[UPDATE: An especially notable column is on “Killer Swarms” (November 2012), available via ]
[UPDATE: John has published a new article about network-building that also makes points about swarming, past and present. The article — “To build a network,” PRISM, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 23-33 — can be downloaded here.]

[UPDATE: John’s short piece titled “Countering and Exploiting Swarms” (April 2015?) at a U.S. Navy website about innovation offers some additional new observations.]

Since retiring, I have occasionally briefly discussed swarming and provided pointers (mostly just to writings listed above) somewhere in posts at my blog and in scattered comments at other receptive blogs when I spot relevant posts, e.g.,
That’s what I have for a basic list of our writings. But, long as I’m doing this post, I might as well include a few more points.

Additional background about our concept of swarming

Our key definition of swarming — the excerpt most quoted and cited by others — continues to stand the test of time:
“Swarming is a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, co-ordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. This notion of “force and/or fire” may be literal in the case of military or police operations, but metaphorical in the case of NGO activists, who may, for example, be blocking city intersections or emitting volleys of emails and faxes. Swarming will work best — perhaps it will only work — if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad, small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing — swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to re-combine for a new pulse.” (2000, p. 12)
Our concept arose entirely from wondering how networked actors would form up and fight in the information-age. In a view we have elaborated before, the history of military and, to a lesser extent, social conflict is largely a history of the progressive development of four basic forms of engagement: the melee, massing, maneuver, and swarming. Briefly, conflict has evolved from chaotic melees in which every man fought on his own, to the design of massed but often rigidly-shaped formations, and then to the adoption of maneuver. Swarming has appeared at times in this history, but its major advances as a doctrine will occur in the coming decades. What our past write-ups do not show, except in a passing footnote, is that this formulation derives from a view of social evolution — a theory I term TIMN — which holds that, across the ages, societies have come up with only four major forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks. Thus, early tribes are associated with melees, hierarchical institutions with the rise of massed formations, market-oriented societies with the turn to maneuver doctrines, and now the new age of networks with swarming.

Two rival views of swarming remain deficient in our view: One emerged around observations about “swarm intelligence” in nature (e.g., birds, bees, ants, fish, as in Eric Bonabeau's early writings). It’s interesting, but it is more about decentralized flocking without any central command and control, rather than coordinated swarming as we understand it. Another view has grown around the notion of “network-centric warfare” (not to be confused with our notion of netwar). This view has moved swarming in a high-tech command-and-control direction having mainly to do with UAVs/drones, leading to lots of corporate interest. Drones are important, but we'd rather see advances at the soldiers’ operational and tactical levels. In any case, these two other schools of thought about swarming keep evolving in our direction.

Most interested parties have viewed swarming as (and often only as) tactics. But I continue to think that something much more than tactics is emerging.

A few personal points and pointers

Because I’m retired and for other reasons, I refrain from commenting on military swarming. I leave that to John, since he remains actively concerned with it and its potentials. But I’m still interested in it. My main interest is in non-military swarming by civil- and uncivil-society actors — for example, as it arose at times in the context of Occupy! movements here in the United States, and in police responses to them.

This post is about John’s and my writings, but whoever is interested in swarming should also search around for others’ writings. By now, I see, my holdings on the topic have grown quite large and diverse. This is not the place to list them extensively, but I would point to two sites that have carried lots of posts about swarming, including our work: from a social activist perspective, the blog and other pages at The P2P Foundation (; and from a policing perspective, the blog at Law Enforcement and Security Consulting ( [UPDATE — January 7, 2015: And from a military perspective, keep an eye on the War on the Rocks blog (]

In addition, new books on swarming have started to appear. I’m particularly curious to see two forthcoming books: Richard Falkvinge’s Swarmwise — The Tactical Manual to Changing the World (in 2013), and Marcia Stepanek’s Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment (in 2013). Judging from their preliminary blog posts, neither recognizes our work. But both will surely serve to expand attention to all variants of the swarming concept.
[UPDATE — February 16, 2014:  Falkvinge's book is available online here, and some review comments are here.]
[UPDATE — October 30, 2014: The new book by Molly Sauter, The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet (2014) relates to swarming and looks expertly written. But from what I can see so far, the term appears only in the title. See discussion here.]
[UPDATE — January 7, 2015: While I’ve refrained from listing military resources in this post, a must-mention now is Paul Scharre’s Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm (2014), available for download at CNAS here.]

Closing comment: apropos Boston

The two-man bombing attack in Boston, by itself, was not a case of swarming. It might be considered such only if it can be viewed as a step in a vast slow-motion global strategy by militant jihadists. (See Arquilla’s remarks about al-Suri here.)

However, the quick response to the bombing embodied two kinds of swarming: One was the multi-agency police response — indeed, swarming has long been a standard response mode for police, particularly in their deployment patterns. The other is a new kind of cyber-swarming (others would call it smart-mobbing or crowd-sourcing, using “big data”) whereby photographic data was collected from myriad sources and then processed and distributed in ways the led to the identification of the perpetrators. All quite impressive and yet to be fully reported and assessed. I just hope that aspects of such a response do not end up meaning America is headed for a kind of future cyberocracy that will be far less democratic than I’d like to see, as occasionally discussed elsewhere at this blog.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Further points about “tribes” (T) — plus a new proposition about TIMN as a whole

A recent post by Clay Spinuzzi focused on Morton Fried’s classic anthropology text The Notion of Tribe (1975), in which Fried makes a case that tribes were not the earliest form of social organization. Rather, tribes arose only after states intruded into outlying areas for imperial, colonial, or other purposes. In some areas, this drove the local inhabitants to resist by coalescing into tribes for the first time; in other areas, the intruding state organized the locals into tribes, the better to rule over them. Prior to that, says Fried, the locals lived together in loose, open, often kin-centric social formations that did not really qualify as tribes.

Thus, according to Fried,
“Although we are accustomed to think about the most ancient forms of human society in terms of tribes, firmly defined and bounded units of this sort actually grew out of the manipulation of relatively unstructured populations by more complexly organized societies. The invention of the state, a tight, class-structured political and economic organization, began a process whereby vaguely defined and grossly overlapping populations were provided with the minimal organization required for their manipulation, even though they had little or no internal organization of their own other than that based on conceptions of kinship. The resultant form was that of the tribe. (Preface, unnumbered page; h/t Spinuzzi).”
Fried’s argument, which is still widely accepted among anthropologists and occasionally tossed at me and my TIMN efforts, does pose something of a challenge for TIMN. One implication is that “tribes” is not a sound concept — the term should be abandoned. A second implication is that where they do turn up, tribes (T) did not precede states (the exemplary I) — making hierarchical institutions seem to be the first major form of social organization.

Clay’s post reminded me of the enduring hold of Fried’s argument (even though Clay did not endorse it himself). I’ve tried to deal with it before, so I initially figured I’d let it slide by this time — after all, I have other posts I should be focusing on finishing. But then I saw a new way to reconcile my view and Fried’s, and even to adapt his view to suit TIMN in a way that looks far beyond just tribes (T) and might benefit TIMN as a whole.

The next section reviews my past efforts to deal with Fried’s argument. The second section looks beyond it, by fielding a proposition about TIMN’s dynamics that involves all four forms.

Contra Fried: Clarifying TIMN’s view of tribes

Places where I’ve tried to deal with definitional issues raised by Fried and others include the following two publications, especially the second one, and the subsequent four posts at this blog, especially the last one, listed in chronological order:
  • Al Qaeda and Its Affiliates: A Global Tribe Waging Segmental Warfare (2005/2007)
  • In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes – The First and Forever Form (2007)
  • We face a turmoil of tribalisms, not a clash of civilizations (here)
  • TIMN table details: learning that tribes are about “club goods” — and rethinking “collective goods” (here)
  • Difficulties clarifying the differences between tribes and networks — a continuing challenge for TIMN (here)
  • Incidentals (1st of 5): apropos definitions of “tribes” (and TIMN) (here)
They do not amount to a solid rebuttal of Fried’s view, but they make my key points, notably where I once discussed definitional debates affecting each of the TIMN forms, as follows:
“Some definitional issues should be noted, because each of the terms that are used to characterize a form can lead to long discussions. Two or three of the terms are subject to controversies. Also, alternative terms exist that some readers may prefer.
“The term tribe is widely used, but it is not in favor among all anthropologists (see Carneiro, 2003, pp. 137–139). Some prefer ethnic group or clan — or, from a different organizational angle, hamlet or village (Johnson and Earle, 1987). There is even an argument that tribes rarely preceded states in ancient eras (Fried, 1967, 1975). In this view, primitive, weakly united ethnic groups organized first into agricultural villages, and, perhaps later, evolved into chiefdoms and states, without ever truly being tribes (Otterbein, 2004). Or else these ethnic groups and their villages hardened into boundary-sensitive tribes — they “tribalized”—only after predatory states intruded into their territories (Ferguson and Whitehead, 1992). But these critics still acknowledge that kinship remained a defining principle and that early societies were uncentralized and nonhierarchical, which is in keeping with standard definitions of what tribes were like. ... Terms such as kinships or kindreds, although rarely used, might be alternatives to tribes. Clans is too narrow. A band is too small to qualify as a full-scale society.” (2007, p. 22)
Since then, during the years I’ve engaged in blogging, I saw the notion of “tribes” repeatedly come up for discussion in debates about Afghanistan and Iraq, with some anthropologists (but not all) claiming that other terms were preferable. The alternatives I saw included community, communal group, solidarity group, patronage network, ethnicity, "qwam" (an Afghan word), or just plain locals. At the same time, the proponents of such terms tended to use narrow, even idealized definitions of tribe — perhaps the better to diminish the term and dispute that a U.S.-led “tribal strategy” might be worth fashioning. Yet all along they kept referring to what are easy to regard as tribal/clan kinds of patterns and dynamics: e.g., kinship bonds, codes of honor, ancient narratives, ties to the land, respect for elders, collective identities, informal modes of governance, fusion and fission, etc.

Thus, even as they rejected the term and recommended others, their analyses kept showing that classic tribal dynamics, even tribalism, were enfolded into their analyses. Besides, the alternative terms they suggested fit well, for the most part, under my notion of the tribal form. Fortunately, there continue to be notable scholars who use the term in ways that make sense for TIMN: e.g., Thomas Barfield — esp. his Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (2012) and The Dictionary of Anthropology (1998) — and Thomas Ruttig (esp. his 2010 monograph on How Tribal Are the Taleban). A new book by Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), also appears to resonate well with my TIMN views. [UPDATE: Also looking relevant is a new book by Mark Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom (2013).]

That still leaves up in the air whether ancient pre-state peoples amounted to tribes. I gather that many archeologists have doubts, much along the lines of Fried and other anthropologists noted above. Yet, the write-ups that I’ve seen keep deducing ancient organizational patterns and dynamics that, in my view, were quite tribe-like, even though local peoples may have been only loosely organized around kinship patterns back then. Moreover, archeologists also find that tribe-like tendencies may well have hardened — people got tribalized — if/when wars occurred in those pre-state eras.

So I’m persisting with “tribes” as the initial form in the TIMN progression, even if someday I decide to further soften my qualified view of its definition. No other term seems as well suited to what I am trying to do.

Beyond Fried: toward a new proposition about TIMN’s system dynamics

Thus I continue to disagree with the view that “tribe” does not deserve to be a key concept in anthropology, and that states preceded tribes as a major form of organization. Yet, Fried and others are surely correct about a key point: that the intrusive presence of states can lead to a hardening of local people into boundary-sensitive tribes.

I have no reason to contest that point; there’s evidence for it all around the world and across history. Moreover, I now see that this point leads to a way to reconcile Fried’s view and mine — indeed, a way to adapt his view to suit TIMN, such that the two views reinforce rather than contradict each other.

TIMN rests on a set of system dynamics. Accordingly, what happens to a form when a later form arises will be repeated again, in a new cycle, as the next form arises. I observed this in my first paper about TIMN (1993), and I’ve blogged about it here, mainly in a post titled “Explaining social evolution: standard cause-and-effect vs. TIMN’s system dynamics” (2009). Here’s what that post observes:
“By “system dynamics” — I don’t know what else to call them (and I’m open to suggestions) — I refer to patterned interactions among the TIMN forms that apply no matter which TIMN form is rising or settling, expanding or receding, influencing or being influenced. They reflect the ratcheting, spiraling coevolution of the four forms, rather than the specific causes and effects of each one. What is interesting about these dynamics is that they repeat whenever a form arises, irrespective of which form or transition it is. That is how and why this compact framework generates complex patterns.”
According to one of the propositions about TIMN’s system dynamics, the progression from monoform (T-only) to quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies is such that, with the rise of each new/next form,
Combination restructures and strengthens the overall system: As a form gains sway, combinatorial dynamics take hold vis à vis the established forms and their realms. The new form’s realm begins to separate from the older realms. The new realm cuts into parts of the older, takes some actors and activities away from them, and narrows and places new limits on their scope. The new form and its realm also have feedback effects that modify the design of the older forms/realms; they go through generational changes, which include taking on some attributes of the new form and its realm, perhaps partly to adapt to its growing strength. Yet, if all goes well, the addition of a new form and its realm ultimately strengthens the older ones; they emerge stronger — their capabilities grow within their scope of activity, even though that scope is newly circumscribed. Thus each new combination proves stronger than the old — e.g., a T+I+M society is generally stronger and more versatile than a T+I society.” (source)
That proposition was/is about new TIMN combinations arising progressively within a particular society as it develops — not really the kind of encounter between states and tribes that Fried wrote about. But the proposition does include noticing that the rise of a later form has effects that “narrow” / “limit” / “circumscribe” the scope of an older form, in ways that end up making it stronger within that scope. What I read into Fried’s view is that the intrusive presence of actors representing a newer form — in his case, the state — leads to a hardening, a tightening up, a heightened concern about boundaries, among adherents of an older form — in his case, tribes. And I’m sensing that this reading can be generalized across all the TIMN forms.

From a TIMN perspective, the rise of hierarchical institutions (+I) — and particularly their exemplary entity, the state — began thousands of years ago. And for thousands of years those statist entities were mostly empires, kingdoms, principalities, and other such entities that butted into each other in some cases, faced vague frontiers in other cases, and almost always lacked well-defined boundaries and jurisdictions. These entities were also governed through personal rule, not professional institutions.

States did not become well-defined entities with definite boundaries and citizenries until they began evolving into sovereign nation-states — eventually constitutional republics, notably in Europe. That began to occur particularly during the 17th century, after countless wars and other conflicts. What confirmed and consolidated this evolution of sovereign nation-states was the “Peace of Westphalia” — a set of peace treaties signed in Europe during 1648 that has turned out to symbolize the establishment of the nation-state system.

What seems relevant here from a TIMN perspective is that this 17th-century evolution of newly sovereign states occurs during the early centuries of the rise of the market form (+M) and its major expression, capitalism. This means that we see a curious reiteration of what Fried was talking about, albeit in a different era and with different TIMN forms at stake: Just as the rise of intrusive states (+I) induced some loosely-organized people to harden into boundary-sensitive tribes (T), so centuries later did the rise of intrusive market practices (+M) induce other people to harden into boundary-tightened nation-states (a later type of +I).

I know little about the history of this period, and can’t be sure right now that my intuition has a lot of validity. In order to be sure, I’d have to do new reading about economic factors that may explain political change in those centuries. That may well prove worth doing — suggestions, anyone? — but for now all I’m trying to do is field a possibly interesting proposition, not verify it in detail.

In this light, let’s take another look at the above quotation from Fried, while editing it so that wherever he mentions “tribe” we substitute “state” or “nation-state”, and for “state” we use “market” or “capitalism”:
“Although we are accustomed to think about the most ancient forms of human society in terms of tribes STATES, firmly defined and bounded units of this sort actually grew out of the manipulation of relatively unstructured populations by more complexly organized societies. The invention of the state MARKET CAPITALISM, a tight, class-structured political and economic organization, began a process whereby vaguely defined and grossly overlapping populations were provided with the minimal organization required for their manipulation, even though they had little or no internal organization of their own other than that based on conceptions of kinship [NATIONALISM]. The resultant form was that of the tribe NATION-STATE.”
It almost reads sensibly, and with a bit more editing, it might read pretty well — particularly if one is a Marxist (which Fried was) and regards capitalism as the great shaper of nation-states. In any case, I hope my little play on words helps make my case.

If this extension of TIMN is valid, then a new round lies ahead: the rise of networks (+N) will induce a hardening of people into boundary-sensitive markets. Markets (+M) are next in this extrapolation of Fried’s challenging proposition — new limits and boundaries will be placed around them. I don't have an exact, nor even a good, sense of what this may mean or how it may come about (a reversal for globalization? a new emphasis on regionalism? a separation of government and market? perhaps a few decades from now?). But it looks like a potentially interesting TIMN proposition — one worth keeping in mind and further exploring and refining as we go along.