Where I Stand on Digital Activism

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.

Patrick Philippe Meier

29 responses to “Where I Stand on Digital Activism

  1. Further consideration of Org Theory 101, however, would also lead to the notion that the network structures you are describing—the so called scale-free or small-world network structures—have been shown to be extremely vulnerable to both targeted attack and monitoring.

    The most well published on this theoretical paradigm are two Chinese researchers: Jian-Wei Wang and Li-Li Rong.

    From the perspective of digital activism, this observation would seem to highly advantage the elites or repressive regimes, given that that they already maintain a huge asymmetric advantage on both monitoring and force.

    Just some food for thought…

    • Thanks for your comments, Drew. At no point have I made any claim that I’m talking about scale free or small world network structures! If you re-read my blog post carefully, you’ll note that I only talk about relatively decentralized structures. Scale-free networks are a very specific typology and it is a well-known fact that some can be vulnerable to exogenous shocks. So your conclusion, which I don’t agree with, is based on a premise I don’t make 🙂

      See you next week!

  2. Just to be clear, “relatively decentralized structures” is an abstract way of referring to both scale-free and small world structures, which exhibit the concrete characteristics of decentralization.

    • I very much beg to differ. Scale-free and small world structures are specified mathematically! Not all decentralized structures are scale-free and small world. The term “decentralized structures” in no way implies scale-free, absolutely not.

  3. “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.”

    So you believe these innovative methods and technologies are for the most part non-repressive? I mean evolution is only non-violent because, just like when a caterpillar morphs, we can’t hear the butterfly scream.

    “This means that government crackdowns against resistance movements tend to make the latter more decentralized and harder to track down.”

    Yes, until they become irrealivant. I think I am with Drew here, what is your point? Sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, to me. Repressive regimes are resource magnits, and decentralized systems come down to being mostly resources.

    • Thanks for your comments, Larry. I’m always intrigued to read how my posts get misinterpreted and skewed.

      “So you believe these innovative methods and technologies are for the most part non-repressive?”

      How exactly my blog post translates into my saying that technologies are for the most part non-repressive is a complete mystery to me, especially when I focus on organization in this post and not on technology. How could anyone make such a blanket statement about technology being mostly non-repressive and be able to defend that position? I’d love to know.

      “Yes, until they become irrealivant.”

      Until what becomes irrealivant (sic)?

      “Decentralized systems come down to being mostly resources”?

      What do you mean?

  4. “How exactly my blog post translates into my saying that technologies are for the most part non-repressive is a complete mystery to me”

    I think I see what you mean. I was confusing technology with organization.

    “Until what becomes [irrelevant] (sic)?”

    The people of the organization become irrelevant. The decentralized system that the organization functions in becomes one on whose logic (command and control) is “To he who hath it shall be given; from he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away”, Jesus of Nazareth. It begins as a decentralized organization and becomes an organization that is really about resources and if you don’t have any, then you become irrelevant, your resources are taken away.

    “Decentralized systems come down to being mostly resources”?
    “What do you mean?”

    I mean human resources. The decentralized organization will keep finding ways of using these resources or go out of business. I guess what I am really saying is that your, so-called, non-violent i-revolution is a sham. There is no such thing as a non-violent revolution. By decentralizing you are just making the violence seem less terrifying than if you were organized in a center-seeking movement. Perhaps that is enough, but I am not so sure.

    It looks like the Orange revolution just put into power the same old bunch of thugs, and much violence was experienced after the Cedar revolution, which is not settled yet. Is the Iranian i-revolution still going on?

    Perhaps the i-revolution, as you have written about is enough to build a career on, but as for having any use in the real world it just seems bogus.

    • Wow, that’s by far the most unpleasant comment I’ve received on this blog post. If you haven’t studied civil resistance or complexity science, that’s not my fault nor is it my responsibility to get you up to speed. Digital activism, crisis mapping, complexity science have no use in the real world? Seriously? And you write this having read my other blog posts? All I can say is wow.

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  6. “Wow, that’s by far the most unpleasant comment I’ve received on this blog post.”

    Ah, come on, it can’t be the most unpleasant you’ve received, and if it is you’re not doing too bad. I didn’t say your effort was without worth, only it doesn’t seem to be reality based. On the other hand reality doesn’t seem to be, at times, science based, so it is kind of a wash there.

    Seriously, if you lump digital activism, crisis mapping, complexity science loosely under social media, then it is all really local in nature. I don’t see any problem studying it as an academic endeavor, it just that all these decentralized areas are local and you will not get any answers that are not local, as some nicely packaged research paper would be.

    I haven’t really read your blog other than “about” and “bio”. As you can guess the topic is way over my head, but I do find it interesting at times. I think, on a decentralized scale, it would be better to think of economic resilient communities on the local level instead of the effects of some swarming tactics brought about by the use of cell phones or some twitter type community as more reality based. As I have not given your blog enough attention to know if you are referring to such swarming tactics as non-violent, I only give this as an example of my ignorance on the subject and not something you seem to care about.

    I am probably looking at the works of John Robb http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/resilient_community/ as more reality based. Although, I am sure, that in itself brings to question if my thinking is reality based.

    This blog about “where you stand” didn’t really answer that question for me, other than you don’t have a stand, because you are more about structure than how that structure is built. This is my take on structure, sorry my posting was a little rushed, http://wp.me/psqEa-lK .

    • Again: wow. Now I don’t have a stand at all? I’m calling attention to the issue of underlying organizational dynamics because I feel it’s been overlooked by many others in the study of digital activism. Anyone reading my blog post would clearly comprehend my stand: organizational theory 101 may have more of an influence on the cat-and-mouse game than technology. So how exactly do I not have a stand? And why in the world does my calling attention to structure make my focus automatically incompatible with how structure is built? Why would I call attention to that which I think is ultimately most influential in digital activism if I’m not going to then study how that changes? Especially given that I’m actively involved in this operational field. Do you understand why I keep on saying wow all the time? The blanket assumptions that folks like to make simply astounds me. It’s just absolutely amazing how readers come to sweeping conclusions like the one you’re making. If I’m not A, then I must be B. If I study A, then I’m most certainly not studying or interested in B. This incessant drive to label people in monolithic ways is unproductive.

      What is particularly amusing about all this, however, is that if you read my other blog posts here and at earlywarning.wordpress.com you’d find that we likely agree on almost everything related to community resilience, swarming, etc. So I’ll leave it at that and just want to say thank you for reading my post in the first place and for engaging with me on this topic.

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  8. I think you’re right to focus, in large part, on organizational structure. Here’s a quote that might be of interest:

    “The difference between these “old” and “new” conflicts is that the majority of conflict today is “asymmetric” in nature, meaning that one side is much stronger and better resourced than the other side. When a small/weak group of people take on a much stronger opposition, they have to find an organizational structure and strategy that will allow them to compete. It turns out that there are only a small number of possible solutions to this problem, and if an insurgent group does not adopt one of these solutions, they generally do not survive.”

    from: http://blog.ted.com/2009/12/ted_fellow_sean.php

  9. “Here’s a blog post I wrote up on Sean’s talk that may be of interest:”

    What was your reaction when you heard the slope went positive? Or is your PhD more decentralized and with few small world connections? What I mean by that is like all pacifists you have just given-up, I mean generationally, not figuratively.

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  17. Your thoughts make me think of Robert Heinlein’s proposed hyper-cell structure of a revolutionary cabal. Heinlein, writing in the ’60s, did not have the perspective gained from the digital age and he was postulating the unique situation of a colony controlled by a central authority far removed (220,000 miles removed). Bekstrom also was thinking of an organization, specifically terrorist groups.

    Whereas flash crowds and mobs in the digital world are new. These “popular uprisings” that caused regime change in Ukraine for instance, were not necessarily organized. They were the reaction of an informed populace to obvious infractions of democratic elections, just as in Iran. While the opposition in Iran attempts to leverage the mob they do not get credit for organizing a digital revolt.
    Outrage can be expressed in many ways: Throwing Molotov cocktails, joining crowds in the town square, writing a denunciation, nailing a position paper to the church doors, or taking down a web server.
    The real power of digital activism is the virtual equivalent of what penguins do to build up the courage to dive into a killer whale infested sea. They jostle and push until one member takes the dive. The expression of outrage via digital channels serves to build a perception of consensus which boils over into mass action.

    Digital activism, just like digital commerce, and digital crime, accelerate change. We are only at the beginning of this.

  18. On Al Queda

    From wikipedia: “Its management philosophy has been described as “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.”[11]”

    “Made, not born: why some soldiers are better than others”
    By Bruce Newsome
    some of it available at Google Books

    conclusions are interesting Pg 148+
    Special Forces (SF) combat personnel should be more self managed ie decentralised

    SF knowledge workers more centralised management
    ie Intelligence, medicals etc they can be more individualistic sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it. Implies the combat personnel are not.

    SF resources support a mix of management styles

    And German army has maintained this mix of management styles for its armed forces under monarchy, tyranny and democracy ie repressive regimes can do it too it is not unique to revolutionaries

    The USA doesn’t seem to mix the styles well at least in terms of armed forces in WW2 and SF in recent times.

    the digital activists with a Cause need a centralised team for the knowledge workers the politicians who will form the next government,

    a mix for the resources: maintaining websites etc
    web etc journalists who believe in the Cause

    and decentralised for the folk who text the atrocities on Ushahidi etc and the penguins who take the dive

    It’s a network with Spiders and Starfish.

    The starfish need a spider to remind them of their cause.

    If you can break the web between the spider and the starfish you can defeat them.

    Acivism has a huge redundancy to its tools, when the internet fails they will use manifestos nailed to the door. A good cause will win eventually…. the tools for Digital activism will change.

    See Chappe’s semaphore

    His first version failed because apparently they hadn’t invented electrical insulation yet

    ‘The second phase of experiments led to the invention of the Panel Telegraph in 1792. This wooden structure used five sliding panels to communicate with a sort of binary code with 32 combinations. Not long after the final invention, the mob destroyed it. They believed that the invention was not used for France’s benefit, but rather to work against it by communicating with France’s enemies. “

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