Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt just tweeted the following:

We see it again: hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world.

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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Ica to Lima

24 January 2012


A sign pointing the way to Lima along the Panamericana.

Even a brief look at Peru reveals a society, which though burdened by a great disparity of rich and poor as is commonplace throughout Latin America, nevertheless shows clear signs of increasingly distributed prosperity — it would not be going too far to call this process of increasingly distributed prosperity economic democratization.

The day's drive began at the wonderful El Carmelo Hotel and Hacienda in Ica, a former pisco distillery.

The highways in Peru are my Exhibit “A” for economic democratization — the roads themselves are well maintained and well traveled, but more importantly there is the dependable police presence and the regular weigh stations along the Panamericana, which are signs of the kind of rule of law that touches on the ordinary business of life (in Marshall’s famous phrase), i.e., commerce. It must be emphasized that this manifestation of the rule of law is the antithesis of that sense of the law mordantly expressed by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The Peruvian desert as seen from the Panamericana -- a photograph cannot do it justice, nor communicate the surprise and passing a gray and barren dune and suddenly coming upon a green and fertile valley.

Rule of law can be an excuse for the powerful to exploit the powerless (thus exemplifying the infrastructure/superstructure dichotomy), as in the Anatole France quote, but rule of law at its best provides a level playing field in which all enjoy equality of opportunity, not equality of exploitation. Also regularly visible along the Panamericana are billboards advertising consumer goods of every familiar kind, which suggests that consumers have disposable income and a choice in how to spend it. It may sound perverse to praise the emergence of a consumerist economy as a virtue, but in comparison to the quasi-feudal economy that preceded it, this represents remarkable progress.

Panamericana: Pacific Ocean on the left, sand dunes of the desert on the right.

My Exhibit “B” for economic democratization in Peru is the city of Ica. Ica is not well known to tourists, and I did not see another tourist while I was there. If you stay on the Panamericana and breezed through Ica it might strike you as just another dusty town in the desert, and not much different from Nazca. But Nazca, which appears to live almost exclusively off the tourist trade, is quite small, and really appears to be a dusty desert town, whose streets are filled with watering holes for tourists. In Ica, on the other hand, where tourists are not in evidence, the downtown core (some distance from the unattractive aspect presented on the Panamericana) is busy and bustling with locals patronizing all manner of local businesses. While many of the historical buildings in Ica have not been repaired since the last severe earthquake, some traditional facades and arcades are filled with small businesses, attractively placing contemporary commerce in a traditional setting.

My anecdotal account of the Peruvian economy would be no surprise to those who follow statistics and know that Peru’s economy has been growing steadily for many years. When I was last in Peru, in 1994, it had not yet been long that “Presidente Gonzalo” (Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Reynoso) had been captured and Sendero Luminoso demoted from an existential threat to the state to being an occasionally deadly irritant. Fujimori was still in power at that time, but since then several popularly elected presidents have both served their terms in office and have then peacefully handed their power of that office to their successors. There were some worries in the business community when Ollanta Humala was elected, on account of things he said in the past and his political friendships with leftist leaders, but his term so far has brought no destabilizing changes or radical initiatives and the Financial Times has had good things to say about him.

All of this can be gotten from statistics and newspapers; what cannot be gotten from statistics and newspapers is the temper of the people and tone of life. Well, in Peruvian cities the tone of life is loud. Everyone in traffic honks all the time. If you go straight, people honk; if you go right, people honk; if you go left, people honk. Speed up, honk; slow down, honk; stop, honk. You get the idea. But beyond this nerve-wracking clamor, people were spontaneously helpful. Several times, without being asked and without expecting a tip, bystanders helped me to pull out of a tight spot, to maneuver in traffic, and get where I was going when I was not at all certain as to how to do this. There are many cities in the US where you would not encounter this.

In fact, not long ago (in What’s with the attitude?) I wrote about the increasing rudeness of traffic confrontations in Portland. Now, I cannot imagine Peruvian drivers lining up neatly as drivers sometimes do in Portland when there is an obvious traffic queue due to construction or an accident, but I certainly can imagine Peruvian drivers demonstrating spontaneous acts of generosity in the midst of a non-queue. Neither social custom is superior; each simply reveals a distinct manner of acknowledging the humanity of The Other, and this is necessary to a healthy society. Elsewhere I have called this Social Gift Exchange.

I almost forgot... there is an oasis very near Ica, set in the midst of towering dunes of sand.

Perhaps you think that I have gone on rather too long about in too great detail about roads and traffic, and that this reveals more about myself than about Peru. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. But I will defend my discussion on objective grounds. The model of development that prevails in the Western Hemisphere is predicated upon intermodal transport disproportionately relying on truck transport across highways. Trains are important, but trains will never have the tradition or the economic centrality that they have had in the Old World. In the New World, the truck and the highway are the economic ties that bind.

More than a little tired on the plane ride back to Oregon.

Elsewhere I have defined (what I call) a Stage 1 civilization as a civilization in which transportation has been globalized so that persons, goods, and services move throughout the world without respect to the geographical obstacles that defined the character of Stage 0 civilizations — when the human diaspora resulted in isolated pockets of civilization, each ignorant of the other. Today, a functioning transportation infrastructure is the price for participating fully — not merely peripherally — in global industrial-technological civilization.

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I had some great views of the inter-mountain west on the flight home.

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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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