Tag Archives: World

On Synchrony, Technology and Revolutions: The Political Power of Synchronized Resistance

Synchronized action is a powerful form of resistance against repressive regimes. Even if the action itself is harmless, like walking, meditation or worship, the public synchrony of that action by a number of individuals can threaten an authoritarian state. To be sure, synchronized public action demonstrates independency which may undermine state propaganda, reverse information cascades and thus the shared perception that the regime is both in control and unchallenged.

This is especially true if the numbers participating in synchrony reaches a tipping point. As Karl Marx writes in Das Kapital, “Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” We call this “emergent behavior” or “phase transitions” in the field of complexity science. Take a simple example from the physical world: the heating of water. A one degree increase in temperature is a quantitative change. But keep adding one degree and you’ll soon reach the boiling point of water and surprise! A physical phase transition occurs: liquid turns into gas.

In social systems, information creates friction and heat. Moreover, today’s information and communication technologies (ICTs) are perhaps the most revolutionary synchronizing tools for “creating heat” because of their scalability. Indeed, ICTs today can synchronize communities in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. As one Egyptian activist proclaimed shortly before the fall of Mubarak, “We use Facebook to scheduled our protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” The heat is already on.

Synchrony requires that individuals be connected in order to synchronize. Well guess what? ICTs are mass, real-time connection technologies. There is conse-quently little doubt in my mind that “the advent and power of connection technologies—tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another—will make the twenty-first century all about surprises;” surprises that take the form of “social phase transitions” (Schmidt and Cohen 2011). Indeed, ICTs can  dramatically increase the number of synchronized participants while sharply reducing the time it takes to reach the social boiling point. Some refer to this as “punctuated equilibria” or “reversed information cascades” in various academic literatures. Moreover, this can all happen significantly faster than ever before, and as argued in this previous blog post on digital activism, faster is indeed different.

Clay Shirky argues that “this basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public […].” But to understand the inherent power of synchrony and then leverage it, we must first recognized that synchrony is a fundamental force of nature that goes well beyond social systems.

In his TED Talk from 2004, American mathematician Steven Strogatz argues that synchrony may be one of the most pervasive drivers in all of nature, extending from the subatomic scale to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. In many ways, this deep tendency towards spontaneous order is what pushes back against the second law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as entropy. 

Strogatz shares example from nature and shows a beautiful ballet of hundreds of birds flocking in unison. He explains that this display of synchrony has to do with defense. “When you’re small and vulnerable […] it helps to swarm to avoid and/or confuse predators.” When a predator strikes, however, all bets are off, and everyone disperses—but only temporarily. “The law of attraction,” says Strogatz, brings them right back together in synchrony within seconds. “There’s this constant splitting and reforming,” grouping and dispersion—swarming—which has several advantages. If you’re in a swarm, the odds of getting caught are far lower. There are also many eyes to spot the danger.

What’s spectacular about these ballets is how quickly they phase from one shape to another, dispersing and regrouping almost instantaneously even across vast distances. Individual changes in altitude, speed and direction are communicated and acted on across half-a-kilometer within just seconds. The same is true of fireflies in Borneo that synchronize their blinking across large distances along the river banks. Thousands and thousands of fireflies somehow overcoming the communication delay between the one firefly at one end of the bank and the other firefly at the furthest opposite end. How is this possible? The answer to this question may perhaps provide insights for social synchrony in the context of resistance against repressive regimes.

Strogatz and Duncan Watts eventually discovered the answer, which they published in their seminal paper entitled “Collective dynamics of small-world networks.” Published in the prestigious journal Nature,  the paper became the most highly cited article about networks for 10 years and the sixth most cited paper in all of physics. A small-world network is a type of network in which even though most nodes are not neighbors of one another, most can still be reached from other nodes by a small number of hops or steps. In the context of social systems, this type of network results in the “small world phenomenon of strangers being linked by a mutual acquaintance.”

These types of networks often arise out of preferential attachment, an inherently social dynamic. Indeed, small world networks pervade social systems. So what does this mean for synchrony as applied to civil resistance? Are smart-mobs synonymous with synchronized mobs? Do ICTs increase the prevalence of small world networks in social systems—thus increasing robustness and co-synchrony between social networks. Will meshed-communication technologies and features like check-in’s alter the topology of small world networks?

Examples of synchrony from nature clearly show that real-time communication and action across large distances don’t require mobile phones. Does that mean the same is possible in social systems? Is it possible to disseminate information instantaneously within a large crowd without using communication technologies? Is strategic synchrony possible in this sense? Can social networks engage in instantaneous dispersion and cohesion tactics to confuse the repressive regime and remain safe?

I recently spoke with a colleague who is one of the world’s leading experts on civil resistance, and was astonished when she mentioned (without my prompting) that many of the tactics around civil resistance have to do with synchronizing cohesion and dispersion. On a different note, some physicists argue that small world networks are more robust to perturbations than other network structures. Indeed, the small work structure may represent an evolutionary advantage.

But how are authoritarian networks structured? Are they too of the small world variety? If not, how do they compare in terms of robustness, flexibility and speed? In many ways, state repression is a form of synchrony itself—so is genocide. Synchrony is clearly not always a good thing. How is synchrony best interrupted or sabotaged? What kind of interference strategies are effective in this context?

On Technology and Building Resilient Societies to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters

I recently caught up with a colleague at the World Bank and learned that “resilience” is set to be the new “buzz word” in the international development community. I think this is very good news. Yes, discourse does matter. A single word can alter the way we frame problems. They can lead to new conceptual frameworks that inform the design and implementation of development projects and disaster risk reduction strategies.

The term resilience is important because it focuses not on us, the development and disaster community, but rather on local at-risk communities. The terms “vulnerability” and “fragility” were used in past discourse but they focus on the negative and seem to invoke the need for external protection, overlooking the possibility that local coping mechanisms do exist. From the perspective of this top-down approach, international organizations are the rescuers and aid does not arrive until they arrive.

Resilience, in contrast, implies radical self-sufficiency, and self-sufficien-cy suggests a degree of autonomy; self-dependence rather than dependence on an external entity that may or may not arrive, that may or may not be effective, and that may or may not stay the course. In the field of ecology, the term resilience is defined as “the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.” There are thus at least two ways for “social ecosystems” to be resilient:

  1. Resist damage by absorbing and dampening the perturbation.
  2. Recover quickly by bouncing back.

So how does a society resist damage from a disaster? As noted in an earlier blog post, “Disaster Theory for Techies“, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster”. There are natural hazards and there are social systems. If social systems are not sufficiently resilient to absorb the impact of a natural hazard such as an earthquake, then disaster unfolds. In other words, hazards are exogenous while disasters are the result of endogenous political, economic, social and cultural processes. Indeed, “it is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith 2006).

So how do we take this understanding of disasters and apply it to building more resilient communities? Focusing on people-centered early warning systems is one way to do this. In 2006, the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) recognized that top-down early warning systems for disaster response were increasingly ineffective. They therefore called for a more bottom-up approach in the form of people-centered early warning systems. The UN ISDR’s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems (PDF), defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

“… to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

Information plays a central role here. Acting in sufficient time requires having timely information about (1) the hazard(s) and (2) how to respond. As some scholars have argued, a disaster is first of all “a crisis in communicating within a community—that is, a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). Improving ways for local communities to communicate internally is thus an important part of building more resilient societies. This is where information and communication technologies (ICTs) play an important role. Free and open source software like Ushahidi can also be used (the subject of a future blog post).

Open data is equally important. Local communities need to access data that will enable them to make more effective decisions on how to best minimize the impact of certain hazards on their livelihoods. This means accessing both internal community data in real time (the previous paragraph) and data external to the community that bears relevance to the decision-making calculus at the local level. This is why I’m particularly interested in the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) spearheaded by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Institutionalizing OpenDRI at the state level will no doubt be a challenge in and of itself, but I do hope the initiative will also be localized using a people-centered approach like the one described above.

The second way to grow more resilient societies is by enabling them to recover quickly following a disaster. As Manyena wrote in 2006, “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster.” So what factors accelerate recovery in ecosystems in general? “To recover itself, a forest ecosystem needs suitable interactions among climate conditions and bio-actions, and enough area.” In terms of social ecosystems, these interactions can take the form of information exchange.

Identifying needs following a disaster and matching them to available resources is an important part of the process. Accelerating the rate of (1) identification; (2) matching and, (3) allocation, is one way to speed up overall recovery. In ecological terms, how quickly the damaged part of an ecosystem can repair itself depends on how many feedback loops (network connections) it has to the non- (or less-) damaged parts of the ecosystem(s). Some call this an adaptive system. This is where crowdfeeding comes in, as I’ve blogged about here (The Crowd is Always There: A Marketplace for Crowdsourcing Crisis Response) and here (Why Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding May be the Answer to Crisis Response).

Internal connectivity and communication is important for crowdfeeding to work, as is preparedness. This is why ICTs are central to growing more resilient societies. They can accelerate the identification of needs, matching and allocation of resources. Free and open source platforms like Ushahidi can also play a role in this respect, as per my recent blog post entitled “Check-In’s With a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response.” But without sufficient focus on disaster preparedness, these technologies are more likely to facilitate spontaneous response rather than a planned and thus efficient response. As Louis Pas-teur famously noted, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Hence the rationale for the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping (SBTF), for example. Open data is also important in this respect. The OpenDRI initiative is thus important for both damage resistance and quick recovery.

I’m enjoying the process of thinking through these issues again. It’s been a while since I published and presented on the topic of resilience and adaptation. So I plan to read through some of my papers from a while back that addressed these issues in the context of violent conflict and climate change. What I need to do is update them based on what I’ve learned over the past four or five years.

If you’re curious and feel like jumping into some of these papers yourself, I recommend these two as a start:

  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “New Strategies for Effective Early Response: Insights from Complexity Science.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “Networking Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the Int’l Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago.  Available online.

More papers are available on my Publications page. This earlier blog post on “Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience” may also be of interest to some readers.