“Power does not reside in institutions, not even the state or large corporations. It is located in the networks that structure society.”
When we review history, we find that whenever a profound new media technology is born, there is a paradigm shift in political and social organization. For instance, European nations couldn’t expand their empires without writing and standardized codes of law. We couldn’t have had the modern democratic nation state until we had the printing press, which was necessary to distribute enough information about current events that people could vote. We now have a new form of media technology that is fully interactive and beckons forth a new political and social organization.
“Politics is too important to leave to politicians, economics is too important to leave to economists.”
Hierarchical organization has accompanied industrial era production where large aggregations of capital are needed in centralized locations. Beyond a certain size, hierarchies become grossly inefficient and slow moving. Information and power rests at the top which systematically suppresses negative feedback because information flows down the hierarchy far easier than it flows up. As a result, people with authority make less informed decisions because they are insulated and isolated from the work they’re interfering with. They also deny people a sense of agency, requiring instead that people fall in line with the groupthink. Steven Johnson describes in “The Myth of the Queen Ant” how humans have traditionally looked for “rulers” in ordered systems or “pacemakers” that are responsible for the maintenance of order. However complex adaptive systems like ant colonies and other social processes such as Occupy Wall Street don’t have real leaders, they are self-organizing networks of interactions and relationships and not the aggregation of individual subjects that neoclassical economic theory posits.
Networks are the fundamental organizing principle of life itself, from cells, to ecosystems, to society, technology and beyond. Networks are flexible and resilient, able to adjust to changing environments. They are scalable, have no centre and can operate in a wide range of configurations. With little exaggeration, the 21st century may be called the age of networks as they comprise the very nervous system of our society. The rise of networks implies profound changes for the realm of civil society as individuals and groups engage each other globally in ways they couldn’t do before, the locus of global governance shifts from centrally managed activities to distributed networks. The cumulative effect of the shift from pyramidal hierarchies to networked heterarchies comprised of overlapping spheres of authority and collective action is called panarchy. Panarchy resembles not so much a structure, but an ecosystem – an organic, fluid complex adaptive system. Whilst network topologies have existed throughout history, it is only now that they are gaining significant strength and maturity because communication technology lets scattered, autonomous groups consult, coordinate, and act jointly in real-time across great distances. This is also leading towards the emergence of a noospheric awareness where geographic boundaries do not confine our interactions because in our hyperconnected world what happens “over there” affects what happens here.
Information wants to be free and whether we like it or not, it will increasingly succeed in a networked information age. Since our political and economic systems are predicated on withholding information they risk being contravened and rendered obsolete unless they consciously seek to open themselves to the natural progression of information flows that liberate social progress. We’ve already seen in 2011 the power of social networks in overturning political regimes across the across the World. Whilst sites like Twitter and Facebook are great for getting people to join forces for a cause, they are not built to facilitate the next level of necessary reinvention and reconstruction of our democratic system. The inherent unpredictability of the information society demands new kinds of governance that focus on rapid network-coordinated response over centralized predictive planning. Every organization will soon be expected to present themselves through an interface that removes all of the frictions of the old paradigm. Public services for example are going to need to open themselves up to harness collective intelligence and respond to civic and environmental issues. There is no reason why governments shouldn’t be open so that we the people could participate continuously in the democratic process, through constant referendums, votes, educational campaigns, and public debate. If social sustainability is to triumph it will be the result of predominantly a bottom-up process of participation.
“They say we don’t know what we want, but here we are making our decisions without bankers or politicians intervening in our lives. This is what we want.”
– Anonymous Occupier