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.)
A 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.