John Robb Interview by Kevin Carson

[This is an interview I originally did with John Robb of Global Guerrillas blog in September of last year for another publication, which was never published]

I’ve long been an avid reader of your work, and consider you the most provocative analyst out there when it comes to the ongoing war between networks and hierarchies and the possible ways it might develop in the near future.  I’ve been heavily influenced by your writing in the development of my own ideas.  So it’s an honor to interview you.

Starting with Rand authors like John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in the ’90s, continuing with work by Naomi Klein and Frank Kernaghan, the post-Seattle movement, yourself and Jeff Vail, and even defenders of the old system like Richard Telofski, the concept of netwar or networked resistance has had widespread currency.  Oh, and don’t forget the Cluetrain Manifesto…  Is this a natural outgrowth of the rise of the Internet?  Is it “steam engine time” for networked resistance? Is thinking in terms of networks an outgrowth of the Internet?

Yes.

Open source warfare is definitely in motion.  It’s evolving, getting better.. more powerful.  Tunisia, etc. is the latest example.

How about the potential for open-source warfare techniques as a way of evening things up between superempowered individuals in the Western countries and powerful corporate/state institutions?

It’s already even. Small groups can use disruption as economic coercion against any large corporate/state target.

One thing I have in mind is marrying networked resistance techniques to the labor movement:  antecedents and/or possible components include the use of Web 2.0 for Wobbly open-mouth sabotage, the Streisand effect, corporate campaigns, Frank Kernaghan’s culture jamming, and early networked efforts like the Imolakee Workers and the Walmart Workers’ Association.  Does this strike you as a feasible application of the individual superempowerment principle?

Sure.  It’s an effective method of conflict in the 21st century environment.  It can be used in a variety of ways.

Months ago, you proposed “Economies as a Software Service,” which seemed to dovetail quite a bit with stuff like David de Ugarte’s phyles and Daniel Suarez’s darknet.  Elsewhere, you proposed phyles as a model in their own right.  First, have you further developed your agenda for building phyles or EaSS?  Second how does Miiu tie in with this?  I’ve noticed that there are bits and pieces at the Miiu wiki that could serve as building blocks for an EaSS/phyle architecture, but it’s not really developed as a major sub-category at the site.

I proposed EaSS as a way to connect decentralized resilient communities.  Each economy, in this instance is a game.  Different rules.  Different dynamics.  All virtual.  You play the game that makes sense to you.  However, it’s going to take some time to get there.

So, to build these new economies, I’ve proposed building open source ventures.  Business ventures that operate according the same rules as open source software, but that they are formed to make money.  That’s much harder to pull off than it seems.  Businesses are dictatorships for a reason: ownership/control.  Also breaking that relationship runs up against all sorts of psychological barriers formed over the last hundred years.

Open source ventures appear to work best if they are very narrowly focused.  A very specific business idea with a very specific set of rules/rewards.

Open source ventures reach their ultimate potential when they are open to the crowd.  The simple rules/reward structure can scale like nothing else.  The ability to reward people from the crowd that contribute, with value derived from their contribution over time, radically increases returns.

Anyway, I’ve tried to build something like this.  Learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  It’s possible, but I’m not the guy to get it done.

MiiU has some of the elements of an open source venture.  It’s a wiki, so its open to contribution.  People that build pages related to resilience (that are good pages, not scams/spam), can add affiliate links and keep 100% of the revenue from them.  Some of the folks working on the site are already earning a couple a hundred a month from their pages.

However, the best part of MiiU, is that it is aimed at collecting all of the information/insight possible on resilient communities.  How to survive a crisis of capitalism/hollow states to how to start a new local economy.  From DIY projects to books to permaculture plants.

You’ve proposed Resilient Communities and assorted networked platforms supporting them (phyles, EaSS, etc.) as something to fill the void left by the hollowing out of the central state.  Do you see the process of hollowing out as a prolonged one (a “Long Emergency,” in Kunstler’s words) or as something short and catastrophic?  Or a mixture of the two?

I see a hollow state, accelerated by sovereign default/debt.  I also see a crisis of capitalism as the global economy plunges into a deep economic depression.  Think in terms of the 1930’s with a lot more dynamism and the nation-state in decline.

What do you think of attempts to slow down the process?

Not going to work.  It’s inevitable given the rise a global economy and a global communications system.

One proposed alternative is to coopt networks, putting new wine in old bottles through techniques like Enterprise 2.0 and military 4GW doctrines that incorporate network elements into hierarchy.

It doesn’t work well in the US military.  It’s completely bureaucratic.  It does work on the small scale unit level, although given the level of autonomy they need to be given, there’s lots of worry/oversight.

Another (mentioned by the P2P Foundation’s Michel Bauwens among others) is making open-source, network communications and green technology the basis of a new “engine of accumulation” or Kondratiev long-wave cycle that will provide a new sink to absorb surplus capital.

Hmmm.  I think that will be crowdsourced companies and resilient communities.  Essentially, these will increasingly compete with traditionally organized systems.

It seems to me that the first alternative does a very bad job of incorporating networks (as you’ve observed in regard to military attempts to take advantage of network communications technology in Afghanistan).  And the second won’t be much of an engine of accumulation unless it relies in “intellectual property” to enclose new technology as a source of rents.

True to the first point.  To the second:  It can be an engine of accumulation if it is a complete economic game (i.e. currencies, markets, dispute resolution, dynamics, etc.).  A new game can suck capital out of an existing system.  Hard to do?  Not impossible though.  We’re already seeing games online today that have as much complexity as any new economy would.

You’ve been writing about the hollowing out of the state, and the supplanting of its functions by agile networks, for some time now. What’s your view of where we are in the progression of this process?

It’s accelerating.  Open source movements just replaced a bunch of governments in the Arab world.  More are coming with the onset of sovereign default.  Nothing happens overnight, but the big trends are inexorable over the long term.

As a follow-up to the previous question:  Many of the technical developments that are prerequisite to a darknet/phyle economy – the network culture itself, encryption technology, digital currencies, and various platforms that could be expanded into the architecture for a counter-economy — are already available to a considerable extent. What do you see as the tipping point that will spur their widespread adoption?

A crisis of capitalism.  A deep and dark global economic depression where people lose faith in global markets and the financial oligarchs that rule them.  That will kick things into high gear.

As a further follow-up, can you describe trends in our current society/economy — stuff like Angie’s List, the Ebay reputational system, etc. — that are contributing building blocks for a future darknet economy?

Yes.  Early corporate models of how it’s possible to employ the crowd.  The feedback we see on eBay and Amazon etc. are what makes it valuable.  It’s what will drive open source ventures that employ the crowd in the future.

People like James O’Connor have argued that, in the past, deep recessions have been associated with a shift of manufacturing activity from the mass-production core to the lean/networked periphery, and with a shift to self-provisioning by the unemployed/underemployed in the informal and household sector.  A number of commentators these days argue that, with the tendency toward idle capacity and underemployment becoming a permanent secular trend, these tendencies are becoming permanent.  How do you see these things as contributing to the adoption of resilient local economies and networked economic platforms?

Look.  The dependency that we saw develop over the last 150 years is a blip.  A child like dependency on “jobs” and “utilities” and “government services.”  That has changed/distorted our politics and colors every conversation.  That will end when this mana from heaven stops flowing and people have to become more independent.  All the tech is there to do it.  It’s not rocket science.

In the past year or so, The Pirate Bay, Wikileaks and Anonymous have been featured prominently in the news.  How do you interpret them as extensions of the ideas you discussed in Brave New War?  And how do you see the struggle between them and legacy hierarchical institutions (corporate and state) shaping up?  Are the responses of the latter at all effective, or are they just setting themselves up to be killed faster?

They are another step in the evolution of open source movements/warfare.  The struggle is going to get more aggressive as the economy winds down. More attacks.  More violent response.

In Brave New War and subsequently on your Global Guerrillas blog, you’ve described Al Qaeda’s shift toward maximizing “ROI” by using minimal expenditures of resources to provoke enormous overreactions by the West.  Do you still see their strategy as progressing along this path?  And how are the strategies (if you can call them that) of Homeland Security and the TSA playing into Al Qaeda’s hands?

It’s funny how weakness often begets the right strategy.  It’s probably too late for the shift however.  Would be better off rebranding and starting fresh.

The TSA and Homeland Security in general THRIVE on terrorism.  It drives their budget.  Organizes their day.  They wouldn’t exist in their current form without it.  So, it’s now a symbiotic relationship.  Does system disruption cause more expense?  Yes.  Does it matter to the TSA?  No.

Without any breach of confidentiality, can you give some idea of your interaction with Suarez in the period leading up to the publication of Daemon and Freedom(TM)?

Didn’t know Daniel before Daemon.  We’ve become friends since.  Lots of interaction. We’re on the same page with lots of things.

Can you describe the influence of writers like Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling on your own ideas?

A ton.  Bruce is a friend.  Loved all of his books.  Don’t know Neal.  Loved his work too.  My favorite Sterling books: Schismatrix and Islands in the Net.  Absolutely brilliant.

Thanks very much for taking the time to participate in this interview.  It’s been a pleasure.

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