Journalists, activists, students, donors and most recently a millionaire investment banker have all recently asked me where I stand on Digital Activism. More precisely, the popular question is: Who is going to win? And by that, they refer to the cat-and-mouse dynamics that characterize the digital battle between repressive regimes and civil resistance movements.
My personal opinion (a.k.a. untested hunch) is that this cat-and-mouse game is bound to continue for some time. That said, I ultimately think that repressive regimes will eventually lag behind the adoption and application of innovative methods and technologies. I also think that resistance movements that employ digital technologies will continue to have a first-mover advantage, even if that advantage is short-lived.
Why? Because of Organizational Theory 101. It is well known in the study of complex systems and network dynamics that organizational typologies for command and control structures do not adapt very well to rapidly changing environments. On the other hand, relatively decentralized forms of organization are typically more nimble and adaptable. Decentralized networks are often first movers, which give them a temporary albeit important advantage. They have more feedback loops.
As I wrote in 2006 conference paper (citing Bazerman and Watkins 2004),
Feedback mechanisms enable an organization to manage the complexity of their internal and external environments in four important ways. They allow an organization to: (1) scan the environment and collect sufficient information; (2) integrate and analyze information from multiple sources; (3) respond in a timely manner and observe the results; and (4) reflect on what happened and incorporate lessons-learned into the “institutional memory” of the organization, in order to avoid repetition of past mistakes.
In contrast, hierarchical structures require the executive to rely on others to scan information. Excellent communication “between floors” is therefore critical. In the process of communication, however, “organizational members filter information as it rises through hierarchies” and “those at the top inevitably receive incomplete and distorted data [and] overload may prevent them from keeping up-to-date with incoming information.” This limits the organization’s ability to adapt and change, and “any organization that is not changing is a battlefield monument.”
Furthermore, as Brafman and Beckstrom have shown in The Starfish and the Spider, “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.” This means that government crackdowns against resistance movements tend to make the latter more decentralized and harder to track down.
I often use the cat-and-mouse game analogy but perhaps a better analogy is the spider and the starfish. Even if an arm of the starfish is cut off, it will regenerate. Not so with the spider, which has a centralized nervous system. As Brafman and Beckstrom write, “A starfish is a neural network–basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network.” Of course, resistance movements are not completely decentralized; they need only be more decentralized relatively to repressive regimes.
Notice that I have not referred to technology a single time in this blog post about Digital Activism. That’s because my take on the competition between the spider and starfish ultimately rests on organizational dynamics, not technology.
Organization is a formidable force in social systems and natural systems. The only difference between a water droplet and solid ice is organization—the way the molecules are organized. Asymmetric warfare is possible because of organizational differences. I highly recommend reading this book by my colleagues Shultz and Dew (2006): Insurgents, Territories, Militias: Warriors of Contemporary Combat to understand the power of organization.
So this is ultimately where I stand on Digital Activism and what I wrote over a year ago in my dissertation proposal. We can go on all we want with anecdotal acrobatics but I personally think that doing so is simply barking up the wrong tree and missing the forest for the trees.