The (renewed) Prospects for Cyberocracy and the Nexus-state

Essay: Ronfeldt, David and Varda, Danielle,The Prospects for Cyberocracy (Revisited)(December 1, 2008).

Available at SSRN.

Introductory comment:

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.”

Some details:

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. ”

7 Comments The (renewed) Prospects for Cyberocracy and the Nexus-state

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Comment from Kevin Carson:

    QUOTE: “Thus, optimism about the information revolution should be
    tempered by an anticipation of its potential dark side.”

    IMO the “dark side” will only be dark, for the most part, from the
    perspective of existing institutions like the corporation and state.
    Rhizome organization certainly makes asymmetric warfare a lot more
    devastating against large organizations like the state and the large
    corporation–but devil take them. Rhizome organization won’t be very
    effective in the target-poor environment of the successor society.
    It’s hard to imagine how a society made up of the kinds of small,
    self-sufficient, and loosely networked “resilient communities”
    described by Robb could be significantly threatened by the kinds of
    disruptive methods used by today’s networked resistance movements like
    Al Qaeda. Such a decentralized economic and political model would
    lack the characteristics that bring existing corporate and state
    institutions onto the radar screen of networked resistance
    movements–most importantly, the ability to exercise external power.
    And they would lack any nodes sufficiently large to present valuable

    What’s more, with these networks of resilient communities themselves
    possessing the advantages of redundant networks and lacking any
    central nodes whose destruction can cripple them, and having the
    advantage also of clear motivation in defending their home ground,
    it’s likely that any attempt at asymmetric warfare against such
    networks would turn into a war of attrition that would exhaust and
    destroy the attackers. Asymmetric warfare only works, by definition,
    as long as the asymmetry persists.

    In an America of ten thousand resilient local economies, with largely
    localized industry centered on small industrial shops taking advantage
    of the decentralizing potential of electrical machinery, a vigorous
    household and informal economy using even smaller machinery (including
    desktop machine tools), and the proliferation of low-overhead
    microenterprises using spare capacity of ordinary household capital
    equipment, what will be worth attacking? An Al Qaeda, with its
    limited resources, must economize force by concentrating it against
    single spectacular targets like the WTC; it lacks the resources to
    destroy an entire networked society one tiny node at a time.

    IMO the very existence of the hierarchical organizations has generated
    the contradictions that will bring them down, and the disappearance of
    hierarchy will bring those contradictions to an end.

    QUOTE: “The first cyberocracies may appear as overlays on established
    bureaucratic forms of organization and behavior, just as the new
    post-industrial aspects of society overlay the still necessary
    industrial and agricultural aspects. Yet such an overlay may well
    begin to alter the structure and functioning of a system as a whole.
    Just as we now speak of the information society as an aspect of
    post-industrial society, we may someday speak of cyberocracy as an
    aspect of the post-bureaucratic state.”

    Exactly. People like Bill Gates tend to treat networked organization
    as something that can be harnessed within the bounds of existing
    corporate organizations, when in fact it will likely destroy them.
    Gates, Tom Peters, and the like write a lot about “flattening
    hierarchies,” “outsourcing everything,” “dissolving corporate walls,”
    etc., but their vision always in fact assumes the persistence of
    corporate walls, in the sense of entities that retain control over
    finance and marketing and “intellectual property.” But IMO
    “intellectual property,” in an age of encryption and bittorrent, will
    not survive the asymmetric warfare waged by the open-source movement.
    Eventually those engaged in actual production, from Nike’s sweatshop
    workers to code writers, will perceive the corporate headquarters as
    nothing but nodes to be bypassed.

    And as states hit the wall of the fiscal crisis and input crises like
    Peak Oil, they will find that their ability to perform their main
    function (subsidizing the operating costs of large, centralized
    corporate enterprise and externalizing it on taxpayers, and protecting
    large corporations from market competition) will eliminate the main
    necessary support to the corporate economy. As governments exhaust
    their fiscal resources in an attempt to provide subsidized inputs as
    fast as corporations gobble them up, they will retrench and devolve
    real government functions to localities, with legislators and heads of
    state increasingly relegated to symbolic figures to whom the
    localities pay nominal allegiance.

    In the end, I don’t think there will be any cybercrats after the
    transition, because their organizational base is unsustainable.

  2. AvatarPatrick Meier

    Thanks for the blog post. I’ll be using various blog entries from P2P Foundation for a course I am co-teaching this semester on Digital Democracy.

    Please see my comments and reaction to Ronfeldt’s and Varda’s piece here:

    As you will note from my comments, perhaps what is missing from the 2008 postcript section of “The Prospects for Cyberocracy” are important insights from contemporary writers such as Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Antony Loewenstein, etc.

  3. Pingback: More on cyberocracy « Thinking About Technocracy

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    From David Ronfeldt, via email:

    Michel et al. — Fair enough. Interesting too. Some comments in reply:

    At first sight, I thought your criticisms meant we had generally neglected p2p networks. But that can’t be. We make a big deal out of the rise of network forms of organization, including “p2p” (though I have previously preferred the term “all-channel”).

    Then I saw you refer to “peer production” (a la Benkler?), as found among open-source undertakings for software development and file-sharing. Well, that we do not attend to. I view it mostly as an innovation in a part of the economy — one that engages a proposition for my TIMN effort, and I’d rather take it up when I get around to doing the rise-of-markets chapter for that study.

    [See below for a reminder of what TIMN is about. The proposition is that the rise of a new form (and its realm) has effects that modify the existing forms/realms. Thus, state hierarchies get modified by market principles to generate liberal democracies. Today, capitalist markets are being modified by network principles to generate new modes of social production. But I digress.]

    However, I finally spotted that you were mainly referring to “peer-governed civil-society networks” that include newer kinds of entities than just NGOs and NPOs. Hmmm. Well, the paper does repeatedly emphasize NGOs and NPOs, partly for shorthand reasons, and it wouldn’t have taken much extra space to add epistemic communities, virtual associations, and other new network entities to the picture, not to mention individuals, as we have done in other writings. Moreover, on review, I see I left out a phrase I’ve used in the past to help cover such possibilities, by referring to the emergence from civil society “of a new network-based realm whose name and nature are not yet known.” I’m certainly not supposing that all of civil society will fold into this new realm. Maybe Danielle and I can edit for all this before long.

    I try to keep an eye out for innovative entities and networks that transcend existing NGO/NPO-related categories. But I’ve not spotted a lot yet, even less when it comes to durable new entities that would be of interest to policymakers and could participate in governance programs. It will be interesting to see what happens to the “Obama network” in this regard.

    Amid all this, you found our second section in the Postscript “disappointing, as a third nonprofit sector already existed.” Well, yes, it has kind of existed for a little over a decade or so. But that isn’t long. Researchers didn’t make much of it as a social or third sector until the 1980s-90s (see our citations). Policymakers still aren’t sure about it, from what I’ve seen. Our point is that its significance will be for sure when policy dialogue shifts — when it moves beyond the standard public-private, government-or-market categorizing, and engages a language that means going in distinctly new directions.

    Later, you claim we have a “top-down bias.” But in fact, there is lots of room — and need — for bottom-up as well as side-to-side structures and processes in our vision. This is most evident in the section on sensory apparatuses, as in our references to sousveillance and collective intelligence. However, your comment is aimed at the section on networked governance. There we observe that hierarchy will persist; it is essential to some degree for states. But, even in the quote you use as an example of top-down bias, what we look forward to seeing are more networked partnerships between state and other actors. I figured it would be implicit that such networks would not have to be top-down hierarchical.

    Perhaps you have a deeper critique in mind, akin to Kevin Carson’s interesting comments aspiring for p2p networks and p2p governance to displace hierarchies (not to mention markets too) as a main form of social organization. That networks are gaining ground relative to hierarchies and markets has been a key theme in my work for many years, esp. in writings with John Arquilla. We have even helped argue that networks can outfight hierarchies in some circumstances. But it is quite another matter to suppose that, over the long run, hierarchies (or markets) are goners, and networks their entirely preferable successors.

    My theoretical stance stems from trying to figure out the TIMN framework and what it means for social evolution. As you may recall, it concerns how societies have developed four major forms of organization — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks — and combined them (and their resulting realms) in a prefered progression that takes centuries to evolve: from monoform T, to biform T+I, to triform T+I+M, and next to quadraform T+I+M+N societies. As I see it, one of the underlying principles for success is balance: Each form, as it arises, is essential. For societies to achieve higher levels of systemic complexity, no form (or the realm it creates) should be allowed to dominate any other; some kind of balance and equilibrium should be built among these inherently contradictory forms and their realms. If correct, I regard that as science, not bias.

    I hope to get back to working on this framework soon. Our cyberocracy paper relates to it, but I never meant for it to be a major endeavor.

    One advantage of posting and sharing via SSRN is that the paper is not firmly published. After we see what other comments roll in, we could revise and repost.

    I commend you on the material here on your blog. I’ve spent more time than before in browsing it, and I’m impressed. I’m also pleased that you’ve helped circulate our paper.

    These are my personal, independent views (and Danielle’s may differ).


  5. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    From David Ronfeldt, via email:

    i’m delighted to see that you’ve treated my timn work well. yes, i had spotted your postings about it. that’s partly why i decided to include your name on my latest send-around: the cyboc paper.

    your email raises a lot of theoretical points, more than i can handle right now. maybe later, because this is all very interesting, and we are seeking in rather similar directions.

    but i do have one comment that i can offer quickly enough. it’s about fiske’s framework. there is some overlap with timn, but not exactly. i briefly explain this in a 2006 study you may not have seen yet that focuses on the tribal (t) form, but also contains material on the other timn forms (see url below).

    my take on fiske is different from your own. you equate the tribal form with equality-matching, but i equate it to his communal-sharing form. you think his communal-sharing form matches p2p nicely. in my view, none of his forms match the network form the way i’d like. here’s what i say there:

    “One psychologist (Fiske, 1993) posits that all social relationships reduce to four forms of interaction: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing. People develop their capacities for social interaction in that order, from infancy through early childhood. The sharing, ranking, and pricing forms correspond to the tribal, hierarchical, and market forms, respectively. The equality-matching form, which is mainly about equal-status peer-group behavior, does not correspond to any single form; it has some attributes that fit under network form, but other attributes (e.g., reciprocity, feuding, revenge) fit better under the tribal form.”

    the url for this (including for .pdf download) is: (Social Forms, 2006)

    a deeper issue here is whether the tribal and the network forms are all that different. i think they are. and i’d like them to be so. i write several pages about this. but as i note, if it turns out that the new network form is an upgraded version of the old tribal form, then the timn framework should be converted into a three-form framework, and what will come next later in spiral fashion is an upgraded version of the hierarchical form. hmm

  6. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi David,

    I’m really surprised by your different interpretation of Fiske, and I must say that I missed the sequential interpretation that you mention (but then, I’ve read only the first 100 pages of his massive book)

    I have no doubt that communal sharing was important for the tribal form, within the family unit. Bear in mind that CS is a form of ‘general reciprocity’ which does not require an individual or precise counterpart. But everything I read so far, from Mauss ‘the gift’ and other accounts, show that as a society, goods where exchange on the basis of symmetry, not direct as in market trade, but definitely creating obligations of some form of return. For example, a potlach festival created a competition in giving, not an indifference to that process.

    So for me, as a society, i.e. a grouping of tribals, to exist, they were in my mind necessarily organized around the gift exchange.

    To know if this is true we would have to answer the question: if a clan/tribe gave something away, did they expect a return or not. From what I’ve read, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

    Now we move to peer to peer. In free software and open knowledge, amongst the volunteers who participate, can anyone have a direct expectation from the other invididuals or collective? The answer is this time a unequivocal no. You contribute to the whole, you get a lot of indirect benefits (use of the whole, accrued reputational, knowledge, and relational capital), but no expectation of tit for tat returns. So it is without doubt, for me at least, not a gift economy of mutual obligations, but a clear form of CS.

    This being said, I expect no identical overlap between both of your framework

    – for example: tribal society combines CS and EM with minimal markets and hierarchical allocation

    – slave-based, feudal, tributary societies combine hierarchical allocation, with CS in the local agricultural communities, and a gifting competition of the nobles towards the spiritual bodies

    – market capitalism is based on the market pricing mechanisms, but could not exist without a strong state, and significant redistributory mechanisms to keep the social peace

    I expect the coming P2P society to be dominated, for its social, intellectual and cultural innovation, by CS dynamics, but surrounded, onion-like, by peer-informed market forms, revived forms of reciprocity, and new forms of hierarchical allocation that are compatible with its overall logic

    What the network society is concerned, I do not believe myself this is a valid concept, because we have hierarchical, decentralized and distributed networks, and only the latter allow for a deployment of the CS dynamic, in the field of abundant immaterial reproduction. Bear in mind that for scarcity-driven goods, this dynamic cannot fully operate, and will use market forms (as advocated by Kevin), and others yet to be invented.

    So, my view is that today we have a dominant market society, with networks forms of the 3 varieties, and emerging distributed p2p networks. Because of the dominance of the market form, all other formats are necessarily ‘market-informed’, though the already existing p2p networks have the strongest transcendendal potential vis a vis the market.


  7. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » David Ronfeldt: hierarchies will not disappear

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