Anarchism & Social Technology: Contextualising the (non?)-field? – Full conference paper

I blogged a couple of months ago about hosting and facilitating a conference stream at the Anarchist Studies Network’s conference, Making Connections, about the relationship between anarchism and social technology. We had two presenters come along and discuss their research which focused on and explored some novel theoretical approaches to social media and technology from a distinctly anarchist or libertarian communist perspective.

Aaron Peters spoke about the network society, public-private spheres and Paolo Virno‘s ‘Soviets of the Multitude‘ in relation to the networked social movements we’ve seen emerge around the globe post-economic collapse. While Thomas Swann discussed the potential for cybernetic theory to be brought into play to account for the decentralised organising seen during last year’s riots and what this might mean for a conceptual model of anarchist organising. You can get download Aaron’s paper via Scribd here and Thomas’ paper here.

Aside from facilitating, I presented a short paper that aimed to contextualise what Gordon (2008) has described as the “ambivalent relationship” between anarchism and technology. This ambivalence as one of the reasons we proposed the stream originally as despite the conference organisers citing the #Occupy and Arab Spring movements as powerful, contemporary anti-authoritarian social media-enabled forces rising from the grass-roots, there were few attempts to engage with and analyse technology directly within the conference’s extensive agenda. My paper attempts to understand why this is and suggest what might might be done:

Ultimately, the paper – and the wider conference stream – aimed to kick-start a debate about the role technology plays (and the potential it possesses) in political resistance and social struggles as well as to stimulate renewed theoretical as well as practical engagements with the topic. What this might look like, I’m not entirely sure yet – although I’m fairly soundly convinced it will need to include a greater level of scholarly and activist reflection and praxis – but I’d love to hear any suggestions.

Anarchism and social technology: conference panel

I’m going to be facilitating a panel on anarchism and social technology at this year’s Anarchist Studies Network conference in Loughborough next week. You can read the abstracts below.

There are a couple of really interesting papers up for presentation that seek to account for the social changes we’re witnessing around the globe. Both papers draw on some really interesting and novel theoretical approaches to social media and technology that – in the true ethos of the internet – hack existing theories to account for contemporary radical projects or event. For example, Aaron Peters takes Paolo Virno‘s ‘Soviets of the Multitude‘ – an extremely far-sighted perspective that appropriates Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’ and uses it to account for the decentralised and autonomous techno-social productivity that we’re witnessing with the social web. Thomas Swann, meanwhile, draws on (the often maligned) cybernetic theory to account for the decentralised organising seen during last year’s riots.

Aside from facilitating, I want to use my time to give a short overview of what has been described as the “ambivalent relationship” between anarchism (and anarchists) (Gordon, 2008). This relationship appeared to be manifest when trying to generate interest in this conference panel. Despite the organisers citing the #Occupy and Arab Spring movements as powerful, contemporary anti-authoritarian forces rising from the grass-roots it has not been easy to identify researchers or practitioners to take part.

I plan to address this issue and hopefully put it into some context before attempting to briefly point a way out of the ambivalence!

Maybe see you there :)

Managing organisational complexity

My recent post on the #Occupy movement and how it can help organisations become more social prompted me to dig out and (re)read some of the great work written by the late and great anarchist thinker and writer, Colin Ward.

One short essay in particular, Harmony Through Complexity, started me thinking again about non-hierarchical and self-organising systems and how today’s ‘networked enterprises’ – to use McKinsey’s terminology – should embrace Ward’s clear and forward-thinking work to become better at managing the organisational complexity necessary to survive in the contemporary networked reality.

Originally published in 1978, Harmony Through Complexity is well ahead its time, drawing as it does on anthropological studies of tribal societies, linking this with the (then) still emerging field of cybernetics and distilling this complexity into a clear argument for the benefits of leaderless organisation.

Ward’s fundamental argument is that tribal societies, organised around informal and largely leaderless practices are far from simple or primitive as sociological or scientific “experts” in the civilised West believed. They are, rather, held together by vastly complex social arrangements that rely on customs, cooperation and collaboration to evolve and survive.

Such “socially-calibrated” practices are not, Ward suggests, representative of “society’s simplicity and lack of organisation, but of its complexity and multiplicity of social organisations.”

In fact, Ward argues, civil society institutions from Government through to NGOs and businesses can – and should – learn a lot from these social, self-organising arrangements.

Putting these anthropological insights into an organisational framework Ward fascinatingly makes the connection between these complex, tribal organisational forms and cybernetic management theory – still a relatively new idea in 1978 – which offers a novel way of approaching the management of “complex, self-organising systems”.

Without delving too deep into cybernetics or systems theory (See Joanna Beltowska and Amy Rae great presentation below for a handy overview of systems thinking) Ward draws on the work of British cybernetician William Ross Ashby to highlight the ‘Principle of Requisite Variety’.

This organisational theory demands that the variety of practices within a controlling system must be at least as varied as the system it controls. Or to put it another way, while we have traditionally attempted to ‘simplify’ organisational structures by creating discrete, siloed departments managed hierarchically, the reality is that effective organisational co-ordination and management can only come from an approach that is as social and complex as the organisation itself.

The full problem organisations face is brought to life by another British cybernetics pioneer and mathematician, John D. McEwan, who observed:

“First we have the model current among management theorists in industry. This is the model of a rigid pyramidical hier­archy, with lines of ‘communication and command’ running from the top to the bottom. There is fIxed delineation of responsibility, each element has a specified role, and the procedures to be followed at any level are determined within fairly narrow limits, and may only be changed by decisions of elements higher in the hierarchy. The role of the top group of the hierarchy is sometimes supposed to be comparable to the ‘brain’ of the system.

The other model is from the cybernetics of evolving self-organising systems. Here we have a system of large variety, sufficient to cope with a complex, unpredictable environment. Its characteristics are changing structure, modifying itself under continual feedback from the environ­ment, exhibiting ‘redundancy of potential command’, and involving complex interlocking control structures. Learning and decision-making are distributed throughout the system, denser perhaps in some areas than in others.”

So far, so good. But what can we learn from this? The top-down model is widely adopted and ingrained in current industrial and social practice. It’s the dominant model for government, schools, businesses, NGOs and most other institutions conceived and established in the industrial era. It’s how we used to operating so why should we change?

One reason we need to think about helping organisations to embrace complexity and become more social is that failing to do so impacts signficantly on their viability and sustainability.

Research by the Deloitte consultant and ‘edge’ guru, John Hagel, shows that the efficacy and performance of US firms has fallen significantly with return-on-assets down 75% from 1965. Not only that, but the current life-expectancy of businesses in Standard & Poor’s 500 has fallen from 75 years in 1937 to just 15 years today.

Significantly Hagel traces the cause of these downward trends to the mid-20th century when companies began to consolidate their structure and operations, rather than seek continual institutional innovation and adapt to the growing complexity of the social environment.

The significance of this institutional innovation is highlighted by Dave Grey from XPlane who, drawing on the work of Shell’s Head of Strategic Planning, Arie de Geus, argues that sustainable and successful organisations all feature three common traits:

  • Ecosystems: Long-lived companies were decentralized. They tolerated “eccentric activities at the margins.” They were very active in partnerships and joint ventures. The boundaries of the company were less clearly delineated, and local groups had more autonomy over their decisions, than you would expect in the typical global corporation.
  • Strong identity: Although the organization was loosely controlled, long-lived companies were connected by a strong, shared culture. Everyone in the company understood the company’s values. These companies tended to promote from within in order to keep that culture strong.
  • Active listening: Long-lived companies had their eyes and ears focused on the world around them and were constantly seeking opportunities. Because of their decentralized nature and strong shared culture, it was easier for them to spot opportunities in the changing world and act, proactively and decisively, to capitalize on them.

It’s interesting to see how a lot of this thinking is being converted to action in the more cerebral social agencies out there.

For example, you can quite nicely boil down de Geus’  active listening to ongoing research conducted across an organisation’s internal culture and its external social landscape; followed by a strategy stage where research insights identify organisational identity in shared-values or define the social capital that binds internal and external networks together; next this strategic vision is is used to shape an organisational‘ecosystem that enables networked communication – both internally and externally. Finally, all agencies should be creating evaluation frameworks for their clients to ensure they are continually measuring and improving the performance of their strategies in a complex organisational environment.

Escalate Collective: a critique of a critique

The Escalate Collective has recently published its latest essay/communique/article/post about events on the 26th March demo which is definitely worth reading.

Escalate, a collective of writers and activists from within the University of London, seems to be the closest we have to Tiqqun here in the UK and at this particular time. For that they should be commended.

On reflection I think I prefer their first essay but in both communiques they unpick key issues unfolding within current events by charting a path direct through centre of the problem. And by that, I don't mean they adopt a middle ground as position for analysis. Rather, they split issues down the middle; break them open; expose the vacuity… I'll end the metaphor there. It's late and you get the idea.

What gets a big thumbs up from me is the inclusion of 'social media' in their list of targets for critique. Their analysis isn't always spot on but crucial contributions include the following:

Escalate challenge the misrepresentation of "social media as panacea". While this is a crucial criticism that addresses and undermines both pro- and anti-technology camp's arguments the collective also over-state the case somewhat. Let's unpack their critique.

Firstly, technology – and in particular Twitter and Facebook – are critiqued for being glorified as radical tools for emancipation. The collective writes:

"The praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means."

It's their belief that this myth hides the reality that social media – incorporating their broader definition, "web-based media" – is of course a commodity. A commodity that young people consume and of course which is as radical as tie-dye t-shirts were for the Soixante Huitardes: "the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods."

In fact, it gets worse than this. Not only is social media a de-radicalised consumer commodity but it's a commodity whose consumption is undertaken as part of what Jodi Dean has termed 'communicative capitalism' – that is (perhaps stating it too strongly): "Web 2.0 is a political trap that disempowers political action" by grounding it in endless discussion, debate and content circulation.

Grounding this emergent concept in more classical Marxist terms, Escalate point out that: 

"Software corporations and PR agencies have entire departments devoted to astro-turfing and the countering of malevolent online publicity. Professional journalists and salaried unionists have the advantage of time and often resources to invest in their Twitterfeeds and Facebook friends."

The initial criticism is arguably wide of the mark – although I utterly understand where the writers are coming from here. For instance, why pick out software corporations? Odd choice – software corps aren't really at the front-end of current political debate as they make software. I put this down to a misunderstanding.

In terms of PR agencies, I'm fairly confident I can say that my dalliances with a couple of very big PR firms' digital teams has shown me that a) many high-profile firms they are not involved in intentionally astro-turfing (to the point of proactively avoiding anything that could be mistaken – although this policy has not always prevented it) and b) "whole departments" in my experience means less than 30 and usually a lot less (the implication for me here is that we're talking 100s as per the Chinese Government's 50 Cent Army) and never the whole department working on a single client.

On the latter point of journalists and union reps I do agree. It is a solution offered by economic capital – perhaps a wider critique missed here: the volunteeristic power of social media is based on social capital. A significnat benefit in circumstances where social relationships are all that's needed to negotiate an outcome. But by injecting economic capital into the mix you get a relational imbalance and if that relational imbalance is desired to misdirect, destabilise or destroy networks of relationships then it can be highly effective – providing you have the resource to scale. Refer back to China's 50 Cent Army.

Escalate also reject another misperception perpetuated through the media and some enthusiastic activists and academics. That is, the binary of social media and horizontality. This is a long-standing bugbear: just because something occurs via the web or social media doesn't make it horizontal.

Yes, the rhizomatic structure of the web often sets the default organisational settings to non-hierarchical networks but care is needed to ensure this myth doesn't end up hiding more deeply set hierarchies and power relations. And lest we forget: horizontal organising can – and does – take place outside of virtually networked structures.

Linked to this, another major critique of social media arises, again from media and organisational misperceptions of what the social web is and how it functions.

Escalate argue:

"Many organisations enjoy the perceived leaderlessness of Twitter and Facebook because of how clearly this myth masks the mechanisms of privilege and capital power which allow leadership to emerge when any network is left unchecked."

While I broadly agree with their conclusion that the "perceived leaderlessness" within social media allows privilege (presumably time-based and technological knowledge) and capital power to allow leadership to emerge this statement is useful because it points to a wider theme that runs through much of Escalate's analysis of social media.

Namely that social media, Twitter, Facebook, "web-based media", etc are interchangable, homogenous wholes when in reality they aren't.

While this methodological short-cut still allows Escalate to make incisive and accurate critique of conteporary politics, media and capitalism, it means that there is arguably a much more deeper analysis and (potentially constuctive) critique that could be made.

I say potentially constructive because this is something I'm thinking and writing about at the moment: how analysis of the complexities of the social web and its components can be used to achieve a greater understanding of forms of resistance.

Perhaps now isn't the time to go into the detail, but perhaps take a look at this recent conference abstract  for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Finally – and most glibly – the collective's approach to writing anonymously overcomes some of the ego issues that definitely can be seen within the liberal/left blogo- and Twittersphere. It's a breath of fresh air and allows – IMHO – a much more radical exploration of contemporary issues to be broached.