Essay: Ronfeldt, David and Varda, Danielle,The Prospects for Cyberocracy (Revisited)(December 1, 2008).
Available at SSRN.
David Ronfeldt has updated his seminal 1992 essay on cyberocracy, which offered at a time a pioneering and refreshing vision on the new influence of the networks, and predicted the rise of a cyberocracy, a new elite of the well-connected, but without versing in a prediction that it would be a ‘new class’.
David, now retired, has co-written an update with Danielle Varda, which, in my opinion, is perceptive and worth reading but at the same time disappoints as it seems to totally overlook the specific emergence of peer production and peer governance. Their notions of networked governance and the nexus-state merely look at the new configuration of old actors, i.e. state, markets and nonprofits/NGO’s, and they do not at all see the new forms of production and organization emerging outside the already existing formal civil society. In a note, they refer to the p2pfoundation as ‘advocating panarchy’, which may be correct though we use the variant concept of peer governance. However, we do not really advocate it, but rather describe its emergence, try to understand it and refer to the growing body of research that examines it. Peer production and peer governance can in no way be subsumed to NGO’s and nonprofits being networked or networking themselves in new global structures with governments and market players. The new p2p field is fundamentally different, and of that, I see no trace in this update.
This is the crux of my critique, in the form of short phrases in between the following summary.
First the abstract:
“The deepening of the information age will alter the nature of the state so thoroughly that something new emerges: cyberocracy. While it is too early to say precisely what a cyberocracy will look like, the outcomes will include new kinds of democratic, totalitarian, and hybrid governments, along with new kinds of state-society relations. Thus, optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of its potential dark side. This paper reiterates the view of the cyberocracy concept as first stated in 1992, and then offers a postscript for 2008. It speculates that information-age societies will develop new sensory apparatuses, a network-based social sector, new modes of networked governance, and ultimately the cybercratic nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.”
The Authors’ Intro explains the scope and limitations of the essay:
“Recent re-readings of an old paper about cyberocracy (Ronfeldt, 1992) indicated that many of its points still read well and that the concept might be worth reiterating. Undertaking a full revision and updating was not feasible, so we decided to abridge the old paper and then add a postscript to update selected ideas and observations. This derivative paper is the result.”
Summary and Excerpts:
Pages 1 to 39 is a summary of the previous 1992 version of Cyberocracy and the post-script starts page 40, starting with developments that confirmed many of the predictions that it contained.
The author’s then go on to discuss four specific areas:
“Against this background, this Postscript extends the ideas in the original paper by engaging in four new speculations about future trends. These speculations should be added to the original six “next steps” for research listed earlier.
* The advanced societies are developing new sensory apparatuses that people have barely begun to understand and use.
* A network-based social sector is emerging, distinct from the traditional public and private sectors. Consisting largely of NGOs and NPOs, its rise is leading to a rebalancing of state, market, and civil-society forces.
* New modes of multiorganizational collaboration are taking shape, and progress toward networked governance is occurring.
* This may lead to the emergence of the nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.”
1. The new sensory apparatuses:
“Many of the new apparatuses reflect the perception of perils. Crime and terrorism are impelling new installations for watching cityscapes, monitoring communications, and mapping potential hotspots. But sensor networks are also being deployed for early warning and rapid response regarding many other concerns — disease outbreaks, forest protection, bird migration, and urban electricity spikes, to name a few. In addition, environmental, human-rights, and other social activists continue to develop new media — notably, IndyMedia — to keep watch and speed mobilization in case of a challenge or abuse somewhere, say against the Zapatista movement in Mexico.88 In a sense, the partisan blogospheres amount to a gigantic, reactive sensory apparatus in the American body politic.”
The authors stress that such developments are not just beneficial to large corporations and business, and recognize the potential of sousveillance:
“It has become standard fare to speculate that such apparatuses mainly benefit government and corporate actors, for good and ill. Less noticed, but we think equally likely and significant, is that the apparatuses will aid the rise of civil-society actors, by providing networked NGOs and NPOs with new tools not only for checking on the behavior of government and corporate actors, but also for participating in collaborative governance schemes with them. New mechanisms for attracting and combining diverse viewpoints under the rubric of “collective intelligence” could help foster this.98 So could the continued advance of principles favoring freedom of information, the right to communicate, and open access.”
2. The emergence of a new social sector
I find this part disappointing, as a third nonprofit sector already existed.
Here’s what they have to say:
“civil-society actors — NGOs and NPOs — are on the rise. Their numbers are mounting. The issues they care about — such as the environment, human rights, privacy, peace, health, poverty, consumer protection, disaster relief — are intensifying. The roles they play — as watchdogs, advocates, and service providers — are expanding, as are their abilities to affect the agendas of state and market actors. Civil-society actors also have a longer reach than ever; instead of standing alone, the usual case in the past, many now operate in sprawling collaborative networks that represent the rise of “global civil society”.”
They add that:
“the key factor behind the emergence of this sector is the rise of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies. These enable myriad dispersed, often small actors to communicate, coordinate, and act conjointly as never before, without a central command, while preserving their autonomy. Network forms have existed for ages — they are as old as hierarchies and markets — but they are only now coming into their own as a major societal organizing principle. To function well on a large scale, multiorganizational networks require complex information and communications systems — even more than do hierarchies and markets — and those systems are finally afforded by the Internet and other new digital technologies. The continued rise of networks as a distinct mode of organization, plus the new strength this is imparting to NGOs and NPOs, is one of the most important trends affecting the prospects for cyberocracy since the original paper was written.”
What is incomplete in this picture is the emergence of peer-governed civil-society networks, that do not take the form of NGO’s or nonprofits, (or for whom the legal face is accessory, as it is for us at the P2P Foundation). Surely that is the great innovation of the last decade, and NOT just the growth of already existing organized nonprofits.
3. Progress Toward “Networked Governance” and “Government by Network”
“To this end, networked governance is emerging in several arenas. It is a goal of regional integrationists in the European Union, where “joined-up government” and “multilevel governance” have become abiding themes. In North America — the United States, Canada, and to a degree, Mexico — the emphasis is less on regional integration and mainly on constructing collaborative networks that span the public, private, and nonprofit (social) sectors in selected issue areas, mostly within but also between these nations. In addition, networked governance is not just a matter for governments. It is progressing, albeit hesitantly, in the efforts of some corporations and civil-society NGOs to collaborate on matters of mutual concern, partly as a reflection of rising ideals about corporations having social responsibilities.”
This section offers a useful overview of networked governance concepts, noting two families of interpretations, depending on ‘narrow’ or ‘broad’ definitions of what a network is. But here again, this update disappoints as peer governance and the reality of the governance of peer production networks seem totally to escape their attention.
The authors write, and it is easy to see their top-down bias:
“As networked governance goes, so go the prospects for cyberocracy. This may take decades to unfold, for it is not just a matter of reinventing government, reforming bureaucracy, and wiring the state with new computers — the hierarchy-altering notions of the 1990s. It is mainly a matter of getting a potent new form of organization right. And getting information-age networks right is as difficult and complex a job as getting hierarchies or markets right — it’s a job for generations.
Networked governance depends on government and nongovernmental actors collaborating better. Learning to work with and through NGOs and NPOs to create new governance schemes for addressing social problems is the cutting edge of policy and strategy. And multiorganizational networks — not hierarchies or markets — offer civil-society actors the most appealing mode for partnering with government actors.”
All of this is of course true, and even important, but they also miss the most important story of the age.
4. Emergence of the Nexus-State:
“What will make the nexus-state so transformative is the rise of “government by network.” But as discussed above, our notion of it differs somewhat from others. Yes, as many analysts reiterate, it involves linking actors from anywhere into web-like collaborations. But that notion alone is so broad it can encompass matters that are better viewed as variants of government by hierarchy or by market, or as hybrids.122 In our view, the essence of “government by network” is — and increasingly will be — recourse to the NGOs and NPOs comprising the network-oriented social sector discussed earlier, in ways that are distinct from government by hierarchy or by market. Outsourcing to private businesses pertains mainly to “government by market,” though some analysts presently categorize it as “government by network.”
Finally, if not first of all, the nexus-state will rest partly on the most ancient mode of governance: “government by tribe” (and clan). All states do this to some extent, for example by favoring some aristocratic families over others in past eras, by drawing on figures from “the establishment” in modern eras, and in all eras by benefiting business cronies and ideological partisans.123 The nexus-state will not — indeed, cannot — be immune to government by tribe; it is too normal and useful to discard. But what will distinguish the nexus-state is the formation of a new generation of professional cadres — a kind of memetic tribe with its own convictions and esprit de corps — of forward-, outward-looking cybercrats who believe in advancing government by network, even more than by hierarchy and market. And they will appear in all sectors, replacing older generations of administrators, managers, bureaucrats, and technocrats.
A nexus is a juncture, an intersection, a site of linkage and convergence. It is a meeting-place for communication and coordination. It may be a clearinghouse for initiatives that take place elsewhere, but it may also be a center where initiatives are taken. The term normally means a network is present, not a hierarchy or a market — but a nexus can also involve hierarchies and markets (not to mention tribes). This definitional range assures the term’s appropriateness here.
The nexus-state, then, will be centered around what states are always centered around: a set of hierarchical institutions. Yet it will have all four modes of governance at its disposal, and it will be deeply embedded in society — more so than older types of the state. Moreover, that society will be characterized as much by the information-age network as by the other, older forms — it will have a networked sensory apparatus and a network-based social sector. Thus the nexus-state will be more robust and resilient than previous types of the state, but it will also be more circumscribed and interwoven with society. It will have more instruments for wielding control, but its strength will also stem from its capacity for decontrol to other actors. It will have to be effective at both orchestrating and delegating — at both knowing more and doing less by itself, in part because it attracts reliable private-enterprise and civil-society partners who know even more. In a sense, to use metaphors currently in play, the cybercratic nexus-state may thus be both “thicker” and “hollower” than the modern nation-state has been.
Furthermore, the nexus-state may well be more democratic, but some instances may also turn out to be more authoritarian than ever — all in innovative ways that we just don’t foresee yet. Indeed, the idea of “consultative dictatorship” enabled by advanced information technology continues to have stronger allure than liberal democracy in parts of the world.
These points may sound contradictory, but the history of social evolution bears them out. ”