I recently read Athina Karatzogianni’s The Politics of Cyberconflict and met the author at the Politics 2.0 International Conference in London last month. This blog entry is a mini “review” of Athina’s book based on my dissertation research thus far. By review, I mean to provide several excerpts from the study and to comment on them. In particular, I address the role of technology in fostering new organizational structures.
New Social Movements are open, decentralized, non-hierarchical and ideal for internet communication. At the same time, uses of the internet may have important effects on organizational structures, both inside member organizations and in terms of overall network stability and capacity.
The information revolution is favoring and strengthening networked organizational designs, often at the expense of hierarchies. States need to wake up to the fact and realize that networks can be fought effectively only by flexible network-style responses.
Painting modern resistance movements as decentralized and states as hierarchical is increasingly fashionable. However, I know of no study that empirically supports (or denies) the validity of these broad caricatures. Such a study would certainly be feasible and especially interesting if it were to employ networks analysis. I suspect that one would find resistance movements resembling hybrid networks rather than strictly decentralized organizational forms.
In any event, a question oft overlooked vis-a-vis the information revolution’s influence on organizational structure is technology’s impact on authoritarian rule. If the thesis is that decentralized, distributed and mobile technologies “flattens” preexisting organizational structures, then is modern information communication technology likely to have a similar impact on repressive regimes over time? If a coercive, centralized state were to “wake up” and make more effective use of networked and peer-to-peer communication technologies, would this necessarily delegate and distribute power? My inclination, based on the theory of power in the nonviolence literature, is to say yes.
Information technology is constantly being modified, enhanced and overtaken by better ideas, leaving importing states to engage in an expensive and never-ending game of catch-up technologies which have been conducive to state power, even to coercive state power.
I see Athina’s point but at the same time would argue that a number of nondemocratic regimes have been effective in limiting the import and use of technologies that purport to threaten their “information blockade”. This is true of Burma, Cuba, Nigeria and North Korea amongst several others.
Patrick Philippe Meier
Athina Karatzogianni is Lecturer in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Hull. I recently read her very interesting book on The Politics of Cyberconflict: Security, Ethnoreligious and Sociopolitical conflicts. She gave a presentation on her book at the Politics 2.0 conference here in London. The topic of her book and presentation is closely aligned with my dissertation research. She focuses on the impact of the Internet on dissident and protest activity.
I very much agree with Dr. Karatzogianni’s comment that file-trading networks like Kazaa and Gnutella increasingly facilitate communication between dissidents since they have no central source and would be harder to turn off. Indeed, some scholars assert that the rise in peer-to-peer (P2P) communication networks threaten authoritarian rule. She also emphasizes the significance of “technologically enhanced tactics” which I find to be an important factor that may play in favor of social resistant groups. Because these groups are decentralized and mobile, their organizational structures may allow them to better capitalize on distributed and mobile ICTs.
Dr. Karatzogianni and I are also on the same page vis-a-vis the outcome of the Internet’s impact of state-society relations. As she argues, it remains to be seen whether it will develop into a powerful engine for democratization, or will fall under the pressure and regulation of authoritarian regimes. I recently blogged about this specific issue here.
Dr. Karatzogianni concluded her presentation with the interesting notion that the Internet may be leading states in the direction of more networked organizational structures while enabling dissidents to become more efficient in their capacity to organize. In other words, the two actors are becoming more similar in their organizational topologies. This is not an entirely new notion, however, as the same argument has been made in the netcentric warfare literature. In contrast, network theory suggests that as a hierarchical organization takes on a networked organization, the latter becomes more decentralized and the former more centralized.
During the Q & A session, I asked Dr. Karatzogianni whether two years on since writing her book she still feels that she has changed her mind about which side, state or society, will gain the upper hand thanks to the Internet. She replied yes, she’s more inclined to believe that as the periphery becomes increasingly connected, we may very well see “dissidents of the world unite” since the core will be less effective in providing ideologies of interest to the periphery in response to globalization’s increasing challenges and divides. This certainly echoes some of the research on the rise of fundamentalism such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. While I would like to think she is right, I think it still remains to be seen which side will make more effective use of ICTs, as I blogged about here.
I had coffee with Athina after the talk and had a great chat with her about our shared interests.
Patrick Philippe Meier