Loosening the Tongue

In a previous post, Tormented by Ten Thousand Hells, I discussed the part that excessive bureaucracy has played in the failure to respond to emergency situations. No new ground is being plowed here; the meme is bouncing back and forth all through the blogosphere. For example, last week the Coyote Blog said,

     A few days ago I had thoughts on top-down vs. bottom-up approaches to hurricane relief. After watching the relief effort over the last couple of days, I am more convinced than ever that part of the problem (but certainly not all of it) with the relief effort is the technocratic top-down “stay-in-control” focus of its leadership… Technocrats value process over results, order and predictability over achievement. More important than having problems fixed is having an ordered process, having everything and everyone under control. In this context, you can imagine their revulsion at the thought of having private citizens running around on their own in the disaster area trying to help people. We don’t know where they are! We don’t know what they are doing! They are not part of our process! Its too chaotic! Its not under control!

And in the comments thread on a different Gates of Vienna post, commenter “who, me?” said,

     One angle on this that’s really important is that the first job of government in crisis is to LEAVE ROOM for self-organization of intelligent volunteers turning on a dime… How to structure the kind of 21st-Century Emergent Design demonstrated by these young men, while using the strength and wealth and power of government?

In this ongoing conversation, the most compelling topic concerns the possible emergence of an alternative to bureaucratic organization in political structures. The ideas are already in the air; our job is to give voice to them. Or, as Walt Whitman said,

     I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat,
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you,
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.)

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Walt WhitmanA bureaucracy is a specific example of a hierarchical information structure. These structures are widespread in natural systems, and confer advantage by collecting, channeling, and consolidating information up the the layers of hierarchy, and then distributing information and instructions downwards. A nervous system is an obvious example, with the sensory nerves collecting the raw information and the brain issuing instructions at the top of hierarchy.

Such a system can become larger within a given context than its non-hierarchical alternatives, which is why bureaucratic systems have supplanted their rivals in all existing human societies. But there are natural limits to the advantage of hierarchical enlargement. For example, the nervous system of the brontosaurus was too large to react effectively to stimuli throughout the gigantic animal, necessitating a subsidiary brain in the its hindquarters. When a political bureacracy becomes too swollen, it is ripe for overthrow; however, when it is overthrown it is usually supplanted by a more effective bureaucracy. The sack of Rome by non-bureaucratic barbarians is an exception; a more common model might be the Soviet takeover of Russia’s non-communist neighbors.

The paradigm of hierarchical organizations is the brain, processing information from the lower levels and issuing orders to its subordinates. Yet the brain itself is not hierarchically organized. Regions of the brain are associated with specific functions, but within these large areas information is stored and retrieved holographically. The memory of Aunt Gertrude’s birthday party cannot be excised from your cerebral cortex; there is no microscopically delimited area of your brain where it is stored. The information about it is distributed holographically, and damage to that part of your brain only degrades its quality, effectively reducing the image resolution. The color of the birthday cake becomes uniform, and the pattern on the decorative bunting is simplified, but the memory of that day will remain with you until the lights in your mind are extinguished.

Storage and retrieval of information in the brain are accomplished by association, so that multiple pathways of access are maintained. Cutting off a branch removes an entire section from a hierarchy, but the neurons of the brain simply find alternate pathways around damage, behaving like routers in a computer network. Repeated associations can even cause physical changes in the brain, with the neurons involved growing additional dendrites to increase their contact with one another.

The parallels with the internet are obvious: when a meme emerges in the blogosphere, it spreads rapidly through associated sites until many thousand versions of it exist simultaneously. People roused to action by the meme add links to their blogroll, thus extending new dendrites through the system. Removing a blogger or group of bloggers from the system does not significantly affect the evolution of the meme, since the holographic process depends only on the integral functioning of the entire system.

The blogosphere does have a BlogFather in Glenn Reynolds and a Boss Lizard in Charles Johnson, but it’s not as if we get up every morning and check our email for their instructions — though plenty of people on the loony left believe we do. Suppose that, on the day Rathergate broke, Charles Johnson had been down with West Nile Virus or the Power Line boys had failed to pay their bill and been cut off by their ISP — what would have happened? The National Guard Memo would still have been discredited, and Dan Rather would still have have been dethroned; the information would have flowed in different channels and different people would have played the decisive roles, but the same overall process would have formed.

The denouement to Rathergate is the best illustration of an emerging rival to hierarchical structures. The mainstream media provide a vivid example of a hierarchy, one that has become more swollen and top-heavy over the past 50 years with the elimination of their rivals by newspapers in major cities and the domination of television news by a few networks. News was what the New York Times and CBS said was news, and that was that. Anything else simply would never be allowed to come to the audience’s attention.

But, with the maturation of PC networks and other advanced methods of communication, an alternative to this legacy system has developed. A robust, rapidly-changing, flexible means of generating and distributing information has run rings around the old rigid hierarchical structures. For the first time since the Bronze Age there are ways of organizing information that can compete successfully against hierarchical systems.

Political hierarchies supplanted the old horizontally organized networks found in family, village, clan, and tribe. These archaic informal systems of obtaining and spreading information were faster and more effective on a small scale, but could not compete against the vast legions of soldiers and bureaucrats fielded by kings and emeperors. The blogosphere, however, is like a village writ large. For the first time in 6,000 years, an informal network can mobilize effectively across an entire continent, or even the planet.

An important note is that Al Qaeda is already using the internet effectively, fielding decentralized networks across the globe without a central command structure; Osama bin Laden is only its symbolic leader. The new forms will emerge without regard to morality, and can be used for good or evil.

The political implications of this development are profound, and are unprecendented in recorded history. What are the potential forms which non-hierarchical political structures might assume? What decisions might we ordinary bloggers make that would affect the shape of the emerging structure?

And what theoretical disciplines can be developed to support the emerging structures? I am old and my mind, alas, is no longer supple enough to attempt such tasks.

So I call on all you young folks out there (that is, people aged 35 or under). Mathematicians, Systems Analysts, Network Engineers, IT Professionals of all stripes: how to develop a rigorous theory to describe what is coming into being?

Because it is happening, you know. Whether we will it or not, everything is going to change, and you will be part of it. What will it look like?

To return to Mr. Whitman:

     I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

23 thoughts on “Loosening the Tongue

  1. The reason for the need for the
    “command and control” structure are linked to protection.

    The citizens who go into these situations are to be commended for their desire to help.

    But what happens when something goes wrong? Who will be held accountable? In our society, you can just BET that it will be the government/emergency responders. For example, what if those young men had been mugged/shot? The press wouldn’t be looking at how they managed to slip past, the headline would probably read something like “College Students Shot/Killed, FEMA Fails Again”.

    So if you’re going to be held accountable, you really don’t want a bunch of untrained people putting themselves at risk. Maybe even adding to the scope of the disaster.

    For example, Sean Penn and his boat. Do you really want to bunch of yahoos showing up with red plastic cups?

  2. The meme of decentralized networks has been around for a long while. See Leaderless Resistance

    Among the problems that hierarchies have is that they can be co-opted, corrupted, and infiltrated. The managers of an organization will over time operate, more and more, to the benefit of themselves rather than the official purposes of the organization.

    The emerging “network of networks” (the blogosphere, freerepublic.com, etc) will allow for information dissemination and action coordination that is not dependant on hierarchy.

  3. Bordergal — the idea of “holding someone accountable” is part of the old hierarchical thinking, and owes a lot to the ever-present hovering vultures known as lawyers, with their liability lawsuits waiting to be filed.

    If you look at small organizations with very little hierarchy, you get an idea of other ways of assigning accountability. When a mistake is made, someone is responsible and blame is laid, but it does not have to be done via a hierarchy.

    A legal system will probably always require some kind of hierarchical structure, but I’m not sure that all the other functions of government require it.

  4. Papa Bear — Absent an outside stimulus (such as competition, for businesses, or wars, for the military), no bureaucratic structure has any purpose other than to maintain itself and expand. All other stated purposes are obfuscatory.

  5. Last week I forgot my picture ID card when I went to work, so I was given one of those little paper things that only says EMPLOYEE. Thus I was the legendary nameless and faceless federal bureaucrat. While I generally agree with most of your points, I think you are also missing a few.

    I gather that you are in favor about the possible emergence of an alternative to bureaucratic organization in political structures. You define a beauraracy as a specific example of a hierarchical information structure. and illistrate it as a The paradigm of hierarchical organizations is the brain, processing information from the lower levels and issuing orders to its subordinates. Yet the brain itself is not hierarchically organized. and The parallels with the internet are obvious: when a meme emerges in the blogosphere, it spreads rapidly through associated sites until many thousand versions of it exist simultaneously. And provide the example The denouement to Rathergate is the best illustration of an emerging rival to hierarchical structures. But bureaucracy is about motivations not communications.

    Should one (and I am sure don’t) want to organize some sort of government agency there are three ways to set it up: mercenaries, a patronage system, and a bureaucracy. All three of these can use an overly hieratically organized structure, and at least the first and last are gradually coming to see the advantage of and horizontal structures as much more practical.

    The mercenary is there for the paycheck and disappears when the leveees break or least wants a major and expensive rewrite of the contract before they do anything. When the contract ends they are gone.

    The patronage system has a lot of people whose job is not what they are paid for but to keep the political leader in office. They disappear when ever there is trouble, after all that is not their job (in their mind anyway.)

    Bureaucrats are there to do the job. When the going gets tough they stay with it. When the hierarchical leadership is running off before the TV cameras and trying to shift blame it is the bureaucrats that do the job.

    What happened is that LA and NO is a swamp of patronage. Why did so much fall apart? Much of the staff was there not to insure the safety of the people but to serve the Democratic political machine. What went right in the LA and NO is that some of the personnel continued to do their job despite asinine political leadership before Katrina and despite the damage Katrina caused. Despite some muddle headiness at the top and in Homeland security, the FEMA staff, the bureaucrats, knew what had to be done and got it done.

    About a third of the NO PD stayed on thejob, they were the bureaucrats, the rest were just mercenaries and patronage workers. (I am tempted to call them dirtbags except that would slander perfectly good dirt.)

    In the agency I work for; the local people rode out the storm on site and would have been in operation in three hours after the storm passed except the broken levee. Even so they were in partial operation by the time our relief crews got there and had to be ordered to get some sleep, after 48 or so hours straight they were a safety hazard to themselves and others. Otherwise they would have kept working. That is what you do not get with mercenaries or patronage workers.

    I do not mean to disparage the excellent job of those who jumped in on their own to help. This kind of assistance catches the people who fall through the cracks of the most perfect plan. But in a mess like we had the first few days they really putting a band aid on an arterial hemorrhage.


    The Rathergate example you provided shows both the good side and the bad side of the web-based info net. Once Rather got out there with the forged documents, the information to show they were forged was produced quickly. But there is nothing in the internet structure to a make CBS News do an accurate job of reporting if they do not choose to do so.

    Once it was known the storm was going to hit and after the levees broke the web-based info net was a great help in making up for other problems and the unexpected – but it was still dedicated people who stuck to their job and repaired damage and rescued people.

    The web-based information nets will make it easer for those who do disaster planning to do their job, but it won’t do the job.


    Actually, I do agree with most of your points. Certainly the government is doing too much that should be done in the private sector or not at all. But the problem is not so much bureaucracy as politicians who find a big government is good for their political future but have little interest in legitimate government functions like disaster relief.

  6. Hank — the alternatives to hierarchical bureaucratic structures that you list (mercenaries and patronage) are the only alternatives that have existed up until now. But a new alternative is emerging. My main point is that we are entering an era without historical precedent. Absent modern communications technology, a co-ordinated communal effort spanning a continent could not exist except via a hierchical information system of some sort (a bureaucracy or an army, for example). But now, for the first time in history, an alternative is possible. In fact, since informal networked information systems are almost certain to out-compete bureaucracies, some form of what I describe is bound to prevail eventually.

    By the way, your two other examples — mercenaries and patronage — may not involve bureaucracies, but they are still hierarchical structures. That’s the thing — it’s very difficult for us to think outside of hierarchy, because it is all we have known since the dawn of civilization.

    Spend some time with network administrators and you get a feel for what the Brave New World is going to look like. One thing about those guys is that they tend to be really, really paranoid…

  7. Baron-

    Your fluid system will only function as well as it’s communication abilities (and in many cases the credentials of the responders), which are required in order to function effectively. If you can’t organize and there is no one with the “big picture” in a major emergency situation you often end up with a FUBAR (as I have observed from wildland fire experiences). Lives could be even more at risk under those conditions. Many of the deaths in the wildland firefighter community have been the result of an incorrect assessment of a dangerous situation DUE TO INEXPERIENCE OR FATIGUE, combined with a breakdown in communications. If I understand correctly, one of the big issues in the initial rescue operations was that the comm sites were down after the storm.

    These issues will arise even more frequently with volunteers. One of the reasons for the emergency response hierarchy is that those at the top of food chain are supposed to have the most experience and therefore the ability to organize and manage resources in the safest and most effective manner.

    That being said, I think a flexible network of local emergency support workers within a given area is an excellent idea. But I do believe that there should be discussion and training, not a totally off the cuff organization.

    That is why “first responders” train, train and train some more. To send people into situations for which they are unprepared is not a good idea.

  8. Bordergal — I’m not arguing in favor of removing all organization and structure, merely that organizations with less bureaucracy and hierarchy are now capable of being more effective than the alternative.

    Most of all, I’m being descriptive, not normative. That is, I think we’re witnessing the beginning of a vast change in how humans organize themselves. It could end Al Qaeda-style or Western Civ-style; who knows?

  9. Hank, an additional thought…

    My stepson has a successful business as a network & hardware consultant. One of the reasons he branched out on his own was because of his pernnial frustration at the stupidity, inflexibility, hardheadedness, and lack of foresight in the companies he had worked for. Now he gets to be innovative and effective without being in anybody’s hierarchy tree.

    I think his career may have subliminally contributed to my ideas here.

  10. For some excellent examples of how alternative social organizations might operate in parallel with weakened but still extant bureaucracies, see the works of Neal Stephenson Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. I think he’s one smart cookie, and has deeply thought about how this might develop.

    As a bonus, he’s a helluva writer.

  11. nellie —

    I agree that Snow Crash does a masterful (if light-hearted) job of working out the possible alternatives to our current political structures.

    At the risk of uttering heresy in the Church of Stephenson [sound of a mail shirt being donned and a helmet snapping shut] — His book and Neuromancer both suffered from the same failure: the lack of a credible economic base. Since Stephenson was being whimsical in his presentation, the failure wasn’t significant. But for Neuromancer, which took itself quite seriously, it was fatal.

    The idea that there could be elaborate concentrations of urban and suburban populations (engaged in complex activities not directly related to subsistence) without a visible connection to a system of economic production and distribution simply strains my credulity. In order for all that surplus population to be fed there would have to be a functioning banking system across the political boundaries, a way of enforcing contracts and protecting assets, and so on. The anarchic political structures depicted simply couldn’t have supported the complexity necessary for that to happen.

    This is not to detract from Stephenson’s work. He’s on the right track…

  12. Nellodee–heh! Took a look at your very thought-provoking blog.

    Baron–Point well taken. All the ‘cool stuff’ that people enjoyed in the books has to be based on high level banking/trading/capital markets, etc.

  13. Baron

    Just because I’m afraid everyone is out to get me doesn’t mean I’m paranoid. : -)

    There are things that one needs to be paranoid about when one runs a network; I try not to carry it elsewhere. Since I do not have to manage the firewalls against the WWW I have a lot less to be paranoid about than some.

    I am expecting to get out of the Net Admin role. Our administrative IM is gradually being rolled up into a large hierarchal organization and little subnets like mine are going away. We’ll still have more jobs than people so I will get a job that is not as worrisome. The irony of the thing is that for a good horizontal information network to exist for our customer base we need a relatively centralized top down IM operation. Our operations side has been working like that for a years, the users pretty much have all the info they need at hand, and make operational decision on their own. But the Computer side of that has a hierarchical configuration management (that properly) reminds one of the word constipated.

    Different kinds of systems are called for by different problems, the info revolution while bringing in some new concepts is most important for making the older ones work better. One size does not fit all.

  14. Hank —

    If it weren’t for the information revolution, I don’t know what I might be doing for a living. I’m eccentric, to say the least, and very impatient with repetitive tedium in my work. I have a knack for rapidly-created ad-hoc programming, and have a masters degree in jury-rigging. That’s why I ended up as a database programmer.

    But I’m in awe of the network guys. They generate 90% of the newly-minted jargon in the world; I don’t understand what they’re talking about most of the time.

  15. The idea that there could be elaborate concentrations of urban and suburban populations (engaged in complex activities not directly related to subsistence) without a visible connection to a system of economic production and distribution simply strains my credulity.
    oh, no, my dear baron–you forget the Matter Compiler–the ultimate analogy of dole dependency for the thetes in the leased territories. A “welfare machine”, if you will.
    You know what I think–that science fiction is the test vehicle for the outre frontier paradigms and shocking-scary advances of pure science.

  16. Nellodee–I’m on p. 757 of Quicksilver right now…a little behind the curve, obviously, but catching up. Moving to a new city, etc. is seriously cutting into my reading time; I read almost all of it so far on airplanes.

    You make a good point that a Matter Compiler or some such could mean the end of the “scarcity economy” and a whole new conception of wealth (Star Trek had the same idea). I’m guessing that there will be some hellacious resistence by certain interested parties to the loss of their priviledged positions.

    We certainly have some exciting developments top look forward to in the coming years!

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