Hierarchies and Networks

6 May 2012


Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt just tweeted the following:

We see it again: hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/with-chen-guangcheng-news-on-twitter-chinas-censors-lost-control/2012/05/05/gIQAUctU4T_story.html?hpid=z3

The linked story from the Washington Post, With Chen Guangcheng news on Twitter, China’s censors lost control, discusses how the volume of micro-blogging and text messages outpaced the Chinese censors with the Chen Guangcheng story, as well as the Bo Xilai scandal and high speed rail disaster.

There are at least two related but distinct factors involved here: 1) the actual difficulty for the censors of deleting so many micro-blog posts so quickly as they are spreading virally, and 2) the difficulty of maintaining an unchallenged “official” position that departs too far from the facts on the ground given the rapid spread of information from non-official sources. While the Great Firewall of China can stifle much comment, the airing of honest opinions is becoming more and more a cat-and-mouse game. Although the cat catches lots of mice, a smart mouse can outwit a cat, and a sufficiently large number of mice can defy a cat.

Unless a nation-state is willing to completely sever its citizens from the internet, as in the case of North Korea, controlling information is difficult, and getting more difficult all the time. And even in the case of North Korea there are cracks in the facade of information control. The Globe and Mail recently published an interesting article, North Korea’s small pool of mobile phones pose a big political threat, about the increasing influence of cell phones in North Korea, despite regime attempts to limit their usefulness.

Foreign Minister Bildt’s clear and intuitive contrast between hierarchies and networks provides an excellent context in which to explore the game-changing effect of electronic communications technology. The centralized nation-state has embodied hierarchy, and initially made use of technologically-enabled mass communications technology (newspapers, radio, and television) in order to reinforce its hierarchical message. But as technology has increased and improved, electronic telecommunications have become increasingly democratized, enabling networks that have no connection to the nation-state hierarchy.

Can hierarchies control networks, or are networks intrinsically beyond the ability of hierarchies to control? At present, the answer to whether hierarchies can control networks is a qualified “yes.” Hierarchies can partially control networks, but they cannot completely control networks. If this is what Bildt means when he says that, “hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world,” he is right. It is a question of what you mean by “control.”

The Chinese authorities are able to control a surprising amount of expression, despite the size of the internet and its users within China. Even the most prominent writers and intellectuals like Han Han and Ai Weiwei have their blog posts regularly deleted. This is Chinese democracy: no one is above the law, or, at least, above the censors. So if you are an isolated individual trying to get your story out the world, you are still very much subject to controls on expression. However, if a story becomes sufficiently large and compelling, it outruns the ability of the censors to stop it.

The internet, for all its size and flexibility, which gives the advantage to asymmetrical strategies, is still a material artifact. It requires electricity, wires or cables or signals, a device to access it, and so forth. All of these things can be brought under the hierarchical control of a nation-state. But as these elements of electronic telecommunications and computing become universal forms of infrastructure they become democratized. As the Gaddafi regime in Libya was collapsing it shut down access to the internet to try to stop the tide of information reporting its collapse, but there are limits to this, and in the case of Libya it turned out to be a temporary and unsuccessful measure.

As the hierarchical functions of the nation-state become dependent upon the universal telecommunications and computing infrastructure, as is already essentially the case in all the advanced industrialized nation-states, it is no longer an option to pull the plug. Or, in other words, pulling the plug would do more harm than good. China is an interesting case in point, because at the present moment it is on the cusp of this development. It can partially shut down the internet, but it can’t really afford to completely shut down the internet, and as long as it cannot completely shut down the internet, it cannot completely control communications.

The ongoing development of industrial-technological civilization, which necessitates even the most hierarchical of nation-states to adopt a universal infrastructure of telecommunications and computing, suggests that it is only a matter of time before electronic telecommunications is democratized to the point that hierarchies cannot really control networks. We have not yet reached that point, but we can see that the day is coming.

It may be that, in the fullness of time, the emergence of networks based on electronic telecommunications may change the political structure of societies, and the networked nation-state will be the (first) successor institution to the hierarchical nation-state. What will come after the networked nation-state is anyone’s guess.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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