Network Age

2006-03-21

While perusing some comments recently at John Robb's blog, I chanced upon a fascinating paper by David Ronfeldt entitled Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution (Rand Corporation, 1996). Ronfeldt's ambition is no less than to formulate a model of past, present, and future societal evolution. He does so by differentiating four different forms of societal interaction:

  1. Tribes or clans (the family sector and other societal realms characterized by kinship ties)
  2. Institutions such as the state (the public sector and other societal realms characterized by organizational hierarchies)
  3. Markets (the private sector and societal realms characterized by competitive, atomistic trading relationships)
  4. Networks such as NGOs (the social sector of civil society and other societal realms characterized by cooperative individual and organizational interconnections)

In general Ronfeldt argues that each of these forms or realms is additive: the earliest human societies were based on kinship ties at the tribal level (he calls these T societies); during the transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural existence, certain societies added the institutional level of interaction, resulting in the increased societal complexity of what he calls T+I societies; during the long-running Industrial Revolution and its precursors, certain societies (especially, he notes, England) added free markets to the mix, resulting in the even greater complexity of T+I+M societies; and in the last 40 years, the shift to an information-driven society has witnessed the beginnings of T+I+M+N societies with strong multi-organizational networks, prominent NGOs, and stronger civil societies, especially in the U.S. and Canada.

A key point of Ronfeldt's essay is that societal evolution (from T to T+I, from T+I to T+I+M, from T+I+M to T+I+M+N) not only increases complexity but also increases robustness. There are very few pure T societies left in the world because they were absorbed or superseded by T+I societies. Similarly, T+I societies (the classic authoritarian or absolutist states) have been pushed to the margins by T+I+M societies such as England (Pax Brittanica) and America (Pax Americana) -- though we still have far too many T+I nations in the world, they have been superseded in power and influence. Finallly, Ronfeldt argues that the societies that master the +N transition will set the terms for the next stage of societal evolution and international affairs.

Ronfeldt also emphasizes that each societal form and realm takes advantage of the most modern communications technology of the time. The power of kinship arose with spoken language, institutional hierarchies fed off written language, markets gained their greatest influence with the emergence of electronic communications (I would tie markets more closely to the printed word than he would), and networks are coming into their own with recent information innovations such as the Web, email, IM, blogs, wikis, and the like.

Will the rise of the network lead to the death of the state? Not likely, Ronfeldt says. Part of what happens during the emergence of a new form and realm is that the old forms and realms lose influence in some areas as organizations and individuals defect, but gain strength in their areas of core societal competency. Thus in +M societies the state no longer engaged in banking or trading or production, but the wealth generated by the market led perhaps paradoxically to a stronger state, not a weaker state. Similarly, +N societies will see some realms such as health, welfare, education, and perhaps media dominated by the social sector, but that may only make the public and private sectors stronger in their smaller but more focused realms. If true, these insights provide a challenge to libertarians and classical liberals.

Part of that challenge may be to cease fighting the state on behalf of the market and instead to work toward strengthening civil society. Although Ronfeldt notes that the social sector has to date been exploited best by progressive movements such as environmentalists, there is no reason to think that progressive libertarians cannot get involved in efforts to build productive alternatives to state action in the areas of health, education, media, and even the environment.

Further, Ronfeldt notes several times that the nations of the Anglosphere have been especially effective at combining societal forms into a strong web of interaction (partly, we know, because Anglospheric cultures are characterized by high levels of trust and reciprocity, as well as an openness to forming new relationships). One implication is that cooperating NGOs and other organizational networks have found it easiest to use Anglosphere nations such as the U.K. and the United States as a base. Interestingly, in large measure such NGOs are (perhaps unwittingly) yet another platform from which Western and especially Anglosphere cultures project their power and presence in the world. This model can be extended to build some of the sinews of a network commonwealth within the Anglosphere.

Ronfeldt's paper highlights some of the challenges facing information-rich societies (including the possibility of even greater social stratification and the potential power of "uncivil society" factions such as criminal gangs and terrorists), but also the promise of networked organizations and individuals to tackle complex problems that cannot be easily addressed within the context of existing state and market structures. Societies that master the +N transition will gain a greater ability to cooperate and coordinate with their allies and "sphere-mates" around the world, though at the cost of a greater blurring between domestic and foreign affairs. Although Ronfeldt doesn't quite come out and say "Anglosphere" or "network commonwealth" (after all, his paper quite predates The Anglosphere Challenge), the concepts are in large measure implicit in his analysis, which for that reason is well worth close attention.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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