Four Futures Scenarios for Power in the Network Era (1): The Context

“This article asks questions about the futures of power in the network era. Two critical emerging issues are at work with uncertain outcomes. The first is the emergence of the collaborative economy, while the second is the emergence of surveillance capabilities from both civic, state and commercial sources. While both of these emerging issues are expected by many to play an important role in the future development of our societies, it is still unclear whose values and whose purposes will be furthered. This article argues that the futures of these emerging issues depend on contests for power. As such, four scenarios are developed for the futures of power in the network era using the double variable scenario approach.”

We are serializing here a important futures essay by Jose Ramos, which distinguishes four possible futures for a p2p-driven world.

Today, we publish the first part of the essay with background, context, methodology, etc ..

* Article: The Futures of Power in the Network Era. By Jose Ramos. Journal of Futures Studies, June 2013, 17(4): 71-92

* The Context, by Jose Ramos:

“As Edward Snowden spends yet another night in the limbo of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport (as I write this), one flight away from returning to his homeland to be drawn and quartered, one flight away from potential asylum with a country ready to risk the wrath of Imperium, and Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London one step away from a US Grand Jury, it is indeed a good time to reflect on the evolving nature of power in the modern world.

Contemporary societies are undergoing fundamental transformations and disruptions related to the emergence of the network form. Following on the back of my thesis work, my interest in the circulation of power, and the evolution of power in the modern era, still incomplete… I wanted a way to understand and articulate how the network form transforms and disrupts power dynamics, and to tease out some of the emerging threats, opportunities and strategic issues that we are all facing.

The culmination of this is an article in the Journal of Futures Studies titled “The futures of power in the network era“. It is an exploration and analysis of evolving power dynamics related to the network form across two critical axes of change: network politics and network economics. As such it is a kind of futures oriented exploration of political economy, with the emphasis squarely on the influence and dynamics of the network form.

More critically, I posit 2 struggles for power across these axes of change. For network politics: Will wikileaks and the anonymous millions tame governments, breaking through the veils of secrecy, forcing these institutions to reckon with a knowing public? Or will governments with sophisticated surveillance apparatus tame citizens, using big data to neutralize dissent before citizens even know they oppose the state? For network economics: will the netarchical giants like Google and Facebook capture all the potentials of the postindustrial sharing and making economy, or will citizen driven peer-to-peer enterprises prevail?

While I am squarely on the side of an empowered public creating transparent institutions and the victory of community driven peer-to-peer enterprises, my own estimate of their chances is tempered by the magnitude of the challenges and by history. While the National Security Agency (NSA) and other bureaus and departments practice widespread surveillance of citizens (which has been known and documented for many many years), countries like China already use such surveillance technology (sometimes aided by US internet companies) to repress those in their own country who aim for nothing more than social justice.

This is my very small contribution to this ongoing challenge and process. If we are to find a way to overcome power with impunity, and reclaim our capacity to come together in dynamic and strategic solidarities, then we really do need some strategic understanding of the landscape of change that we inhabit. These 4 scenarios offered here: Caged Chickens, Peer-to-Peer Patriots, The Republic of Google, and finally… The Federation of the Commons, each have their attendant strategic pathways and indicators.

But my real intention here is to start a debate about the futures of our society and the evolution of power in the network era.”

* Introduction: Critical Uncertainties

This article examines the futures of power in the network era from the vantage point of two critical uncertainties: the contest of power in the political and economic domains. As we move deeper into a cybernetic civilization, where the distance and indeed the distinction between internet technologies and the people that use them begin to blur, new potentials and predicaments emerge.

The key interest in this article is the empowerment of people in the face of significant issues, dangers and opportunities related to both capital and state power. The aim of this paper is therefore to interrogate the power dynamics across these two axes, political and economic, and to postulate alternative futures that can inform wiser strategies, policies and choices in the present that lead to better futures.

* The Methodology: two contests for power

This article positions critical social changes in economy and politics as major contest for power typified by uncertainty and indeterminacy.

On the political front is the increasing capability and indeed practice of widespread surveillance by governments of their populaces for the purpose of social control, if not outright repression. Reciprocally, citizen groups are increasingly using network forms of activism to break through the veil of government secrecy, with the espoused aim of creating transparency and accountability. Thus we might imagine a worst-case scenario in which government apparatuses with totalitarian designs win the struggle to control communications in the network age, creating a world of mass surveillance, social control and terror, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and resurrecting the horrors of Stalinism, but with much greater sophistication. Or we may see dynamic citizen movements to create open governments which are transparent and accountable (Greenberg 2012).

On the economic front, we see the emergence of what Bauwens et al (2012) refer to as ‘netarchical capitalism’, where great network conglomerates of the early 21st century jostle for power, and in the process absorb, stifle or co-opt smaller network enterprises. Reciprocally, an emerging peer-to-peer (p2p) economy may be outside of anyone’s capacity to control, as a variety of p2p enterprises and industries emerge that are both highly localized but embedded in a global open source service system, displacing the existing corporate mode of service. This implies a struggle between netarchical capitalism and community based p2p enterprises, where big network conglomerates oligopolize, subsume or criminalize localized p2p alternatives, or where we see a flourishing of p2p enterprises and industry which fundamentally displaces netarchical and/or vectoralist capital.

While the emergence of the network form is the foundational dynamic within which associated emerging issues owe their source to, neither can the network form be rendered in historicist terms as “outside” of human influence (Goldthorpe, 1971). Indeed the futures of power in the network era rests upon the decisions, actions and commitments that people make today. Thus in constructing four scenarios through the double variable method (Inayatullah 2008), what is posited are not simply uncertainties related to emerging issues, but more fundamentally who wins major struggles for power in the network era? The approach to developing scenarios here is focused on highlighting the institutional patterns within each distinctive scenario.

Institutions can be seen as a meso or a mediating level in the circulation of power, between the micro dimension of the individual and his or her subjectivity, and the macro level of political economy (Boulet, 1985). Each scenario in effect carries a distinctive political economy depending on the winners and losers in each axis of uncertainty. What this political economy looks like is interrogated by asking how key institutional structures or functions change in the areas of: education and research, health care, law, policing and emergency services, agricultural production, primary and secondary industries, media, government, transport, energy, and other institutions.

Within each scenario’s distinctive system of power emerges the overall system purpose and identity characterized by its political economy; and within each scenario’s distinctive system are nested an array of subjectivities – people either conscious of unconscious of the systems they are embedded in. Soft power must circulate in each scenario in a way that legitimates the winners, and de-legitimizes the losers. Or in other terms the political economy within each scenario is accompanied by a distinct form of cultural hegemony.

* The Scenario development method

Within each of the two contests for power, network politics and network economics, two critical uncertainties emerge, represented by two axes.

With respect to the economic axis (horizontal in diagram 1 above) the question that emerges is whether the network economy devolves toward p2p producing communities, or whether this network economy is incorporated into large-scale centralized corporations (netarchical capital). If network economic power shifts toward a meshwork of networked communities and individuals (both local and trans-local), we can call this a citizen driven p2p economy. If network economic power is ensconced into large networked multinational corporations, we can call this netarchical capitalism. In this polarity, major corporations, like Google and Facebook, co-opt the potentials of the emerging p2p and sharing economies, and provide the infrastructure and networks for sharing and exchange, though suppressing and squashing its diversity and autonomy, while extracting surplus value from such platforms

With respect to the political axis (vertical in diagram 1 above) the question that arises with the emergence of network politics is whether surveillance technologies, soft power and network control tilt in the favor of government, or alternatively tilt in the favor of citizens. If existing forces for surveillance and social control have their way, governments will increasingly collect large amounts of data on the lives of the average citizen. When a person becomes of interest to the state they can be surveilled and monitored, and effectively tamed. This condition would be one in which citizens lose their capacity for privacy, while government is increasingly shrouded in secrecy. If citizen movements for transparency and accountability have their way, then the inner workings of government are pried open for all to see, government transparency becomes the norm, and the citizenry tame government. Importantly, in this polarity, individuals retain certain rights to privacy.

The scenarios in this paper are written generically, to allow for their application across geographies. As an author, however, my own worldview, fears, hopes and concerns are imprinted throughout the text. I grew up in California, where I spent the first half of my life, and I therefore use the United States as an imaginative and contextual backdrop. And thus the ‘uncertainties’ are uncertain by virtue of geography. In other geographies they may be more certain or even less certain. Particular countries may already be examples of one of the four scenarios, and I have therefore added some examples (by way of speculation) in Appendix A.

Secondly, my notion of privacy is shaped by both historical and geographic contexts. As a non-digital native I have a naturalized attachment to privacy as a good, and am somewhat uncomfortable posting mundane aspects of my life online. This is also influenced by the strong and foundational views in the US with regard to constitutional rights to privacy. Residents of other countries, (e.g. Singapore) or those from younger generations who post much of their lives on Facebook, may not consider privacy an issue at all. Categories of analysis and problematization thus arise from context and embodied disposition.”

1 Comment Four Futures Scenarios for Power in the Network Era (1): The Context

  1. AvatarEimhin

    Thanks Jose,

    good reading , helps me a lot in considering the motivations and trajectories of both my own work and folks I work alongside.

    Comes at a good time. Much appreciated,


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