Technologies of Flocking

Nieuws | de redactie
3 juli 2009 | "Only from the heart can you touch the sky." Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Persian Poet

No, they couldn't twitter Ahmadinejad out of his presidential palace, but the Iranian netizens surely demonstrate that the internet is mightier than the pen, to paraphrase the famous 1839 sentence of Bulwer, Jaap van Till argues. A new and wired middle class is waking up.

There are now 34 million women in Iran, of which more than 70 percent is below thirty years of age, who have shown on the net that after 30 years of this regime that they no longer want to be treated as objects. Out of respect for them it is interesting to take a closer look at what is happening online and why. Some things have really changed irreversibly in Iran and the netizens there deserve a monument for that.

Lady Iran

So the heavy use [1] of Twitter bird tweets (short messages) by Iranians and ex-patriates showed how much social and political impact networking technologies can have besides the commercial and economic impact of Internet technology we discuss on the Arch-Econ list of Gordon Cook.  Social media is more than just a “nifty” thing now. Real people connected to real people are changing the world. This short paper tries to give a bit more perspective on (1) what civilians can do with net-tech during rebellions and (2) how they organize themselves to empower themselves and each other.

You surely will have noticed [2] from the post-election (June 12) protests and turmoil in Iran that the combination of on the spot cell-phones and photo’s and films on the Web may in some instances be more effective than Kalashnikovs and axes against demonstrators. This fast communication of short group-messages is a handy way of sharing info and synchronizing actions and demonstrations. At first the authorities had not noticed this social network and thought that they had blocked the demonstrators by taking out part of the internet and the sms traffic in Iran. The authorities tried to stop the flow of information out of the country from cell nets and web pages in every way they knew of. And still the images get through. It is not wise to tell too much about how this is done but parts of the parallel worldwide internet paths are kept open by volunteers that installed proxies [3] faster that the authorities could stifle them. The massive use of simple and powerful technology in the hands of the people (aka ppl) turns out to be unstoppable. As are the shouts of the slogan of the 1979 revolution from the rooftops at night.

This has been done before, and every time ppl have found another clever telecommunication system to collaborate p2p and to bypass government info-blockades to the outside world. Information technology changes the balance of power between civilians and rulers. Each time they surprised and baffled the authorities by audacity and unstoppable technology. The net tech shown in the next list of examples was often used in combination with other tele-tools and many other ‘old fashioned’ and proven mouth-to-mouth links are present everywhere:

a. The Pirate Bay movement and political party in Sweden: blogs from the courtroom and a clear rebel messages.
b. Blogs from disaster sites by those present being better informed and faster than the media reporters.
c. Belgrade, Internet Radio relayed from Amsterdam.
d. Gdansk Solidarnost: Walky-Talky radio links and donated fax machines.
e. Vilnius: FidoNet dial-up email linked bulletin boards + international links and CNN Satcom.
f. Mexico Zapatistas: Citizens Band radios
g. Moscow countercoup against Gorbachev was defused by the NREN networks
h. Bucharest: the TV & communication tower was constructed to be defendable but the rebels where inside.
i. The present Iranian clergy rulers overthrew the Shah regime in 1979 by … tape distribution.  Every week the Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris recorded a sermon which was smuggled to Iran on an audiotape with for instance Elvis on the cover. Then these tapes where copied and copied and copied until every mosque tower in the country could sound it on the loudspeakers for all in the country to hear.

What are the recurring patterns from all these uprising cases?

As a scientist, I do not automatically sympathize with every protestor or all these movements described, but what appears is: massive unstoppable free flow of relevant messages that show reality by and between those present and bypass the authorities and invalidate the official broadcasted version of what ppl are supposed to see and think. The central officials are often faced with a dilemma with openness and would rather isolate the rebels: to block communication channels would harm the publicity, command & control links of the state too and would harm education and economy. So what is happening that can make a few thousands of twittering young boys and girls in Tehran so important?

Long before Internet, ICT and telecommunications started to be in such a vital infrastructural position, the visionary Ted Nelson already described [4] the liberating effects personal computing and messaging would have. In the early 2000’s, young volunteers of the Open Society Institute [5] helped to establish new economic, social and cultural life flows in the former USSR countries with the help of computers and networking. George Soros, its Maecenas, was certainly conscious of the powerful role of young professionals using linked PC’s can play for a post dictatorship open society.

So what happens during the use of these power tools?

Recently Clay Shirky explained very clearly the shift in communication patterns from ‘central’ to ‘lateral’ in a spectacular recent speech [5] on TED, as far as I know before the recent turmoil in Iran, and he did see this trend coming in his book [6]. While the established view of many people about Internet is that is a new vertical broadcasting to the ppl (I) medium for PR, news, high attention celeb gossip and commerce; side by sides with classical one-way distribution channels advertisements, newspapers and TV; a much more significant role is discovered by two-way vertical dialogues (II) of authorities and companies with citizens, clients. Not a bad idea to talk to your subordinates, what?! A famous demo of the power of dialogue was the sudden shouting back from the audience gathered to hear yet another lengthy monologue from Ceausescu on December 21 1989. He was baffled. What now in 2009 takes and took many by surprise is that a third form of communication: horizontal/lateral collaboration (III) between ppl is a much more potent stuff. The essential change from I and II is that now the communication is not only between controlaholic rulers and individual citizens but the latter organize themselves ad-hoc into close knit groups/teams which we can call “flocks”.

k. The Obama pre-election campaign heavily used telecom and internet for I, and II, but exploded with bottom-up success in III “grass roots Community Action”. This campaign surprised many with the power it had of mobilization of voters and end-user innovations. Obama did not only talk to the ppl and with the ppl but they locally flocked together into strong teams with lateral P2P links between themselves. Bands of new middle class activists/ troupes that clustered/ coagulated around certain tasks and issues with the help of internet networking and by finding volunteer-specialists who could help solve problems.

What these flocks do is P2P value creation. Groups of professionals and connectivists, each of them very good at something with unique skills and knowledge interconnect at a site and/or online to design something, solve problems together or create new ideas or concepts by synergy from mixes of available ideas or skills. Working network relations are more important than ego or position. On a larger scale, this synergy happens in new value chains between specialized small companies in the new network economy. Problematic is that “managers” and bureaucratic planners are in this new (III) context less relevant or at least not at the core of the primary process anymore. Often they fail to grasp what is going on. Clueless. Or if they do try to simplify, linearize and freeze the new living complex, nonlinear and dynamic situation by imposing even more control and red tape, which puts them in a parallel bureaucratic universe of ‘nowhere men’ which may fade away sooner or later.

The power of flocking via networks

Broadcasting has a network effect in the sense that for the maker of the publicity and for instance the state propaganda (see (I) above) the value of the medium (1:N, one to many) grows with the number N of readers/viewers (eyeballs). This is Sarnoff’s Law V ~ N = 1+1+1+1+ …., which is additive, and in some cases of celeb fame addictive. Communication (1:1, one on one dialogues) between N people grows in value for the network provider as N * N-1 = N squared, so it is stronger and more valuable than broadcasting N. Content is not king!! This is Metcalffe’s Law. A better version on this law is the Odlyzko-Tilly’s Law: V ~ N * Log N.  And state dialogues with citizens (II) are also valuable but only N to 1 which is also additive.

The third networking law is that value for the participants themselves is growing by being able to be part a number of tribes or flocks at the same time on- and offline which was defined as Reed’s Law which is Value ~ 2 to the power of N, which is the amount of flocks you can be member of / or not at the same time.  I have defined a fourth law in which the value for each participant grows with N! Of unique and different participants and ideas! You can collaborate with is a number of combinations [8]. Van Till’s Law of synergy by network combinations: Value ~ N! = N * N-1 * N-2 * N-3* ……*1.

To summarize for those who start see dizzy when confronted with math formula’s, the above simply says that propaganda and top down control (I) only grows in power additive 1+1+1…, hence their craving for mass audiences. And on the new side of network society value for each participant grows multiplicative by connecting flocks of unique and creative professionals (III) who can organize themselves. Their combined network power is stronger!!

Network power grows by leaps and bursts.

One of the first scientists who studied the emerging phenomena of the coming “information society” was the enlightened Prof Tom Stonier. In a groundbreaking paper [9] he (double logarithmic) charted the teledensity, then fixed telephone lines / 100 inhabitants, in a number of countries versus the average BNP. These two are highly correlated and show a remarkable range of different incomes and teledensities.

But what is more important that countries which over the years broke though the threshold of 20 phone lines/ 100 inhabitants all changed regime. Stonier stated “no dictator can survive for any length of time in communicative society (III) as the flows of information can no longer be controlled from the centre (I)” In this paper he did rather precisely forecasts the fall of the USSR around 1990. He later explained that the teledensity was just a measure of a new middle class of Wired “knowledge workers” appearing, or what we now would call the online highly educated young creative class alive on bandwidth.

In fact during an interview, one of the generals in Moscow who tried and failed with the countercoup (g) said that he was baffled by a totally new type of workers/activists on the streets: young knowledge workers! So a certain density of internet & cell phone connections must be present to make the transition on a wider scale in a country. So the process of renewal is discontinuous once thresholds are crossed. And on the charts of teledensities of cell phones and FttH there will be several such distinctive thresholds in flocking behavior. And the transitions are unstoppable.

No new network society innovation without rebels.

Whether vested parties or companies like it or not, these transitions do appear in various breakthrough disruptive innovations as well and also businesses start to think in terms of co-creation of new products and services in a process which is driven by black swan rebels and activists. Prof. Rao of Princeton University wrote an interesting account of these activist movements in his recent book [10]. Rao quotes the advice a famous American social community organizer Alinsky (1909 – 1972) gave to rebels active in mobilizing communities to act in common self-interest in the form of five rules to link hot causes and emotions:

1. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. The opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen”.
2. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. It also infuriates the opposition, who then reacts to your advantage.
3. Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action is outside the experience of the ppl the result is confusion, fear and retreat.
4. Whenever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear and retreat.

I think it can hardly be a coincidence that both Barack Obama, now Prez of the USA and Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State (minister of foreign affairs) both where students of Alinsky, so they will be I assume very much aware of flocking network power all over the globe. So cell phones and internet connected laptops are not politically neutral stuff, in the hands of the emerging class of young flocking netizen professionals they will be more powerful than destructive men with motorcycles, clubs and axes. Thus the little birds will not only twitter and tweet but will also flock in networked groups and then they will suddenly swarm up high above all of us.

I wish you good connections.

Jaap van Till

[1] Mind-blowing #IranElection Stats: 221,744 Tweets Per Hour at Peak – during the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran and other cities.

[2] Stelter, Stone “Web pries lid off Iranian Censorship”

[3] TOR (anonymity network): instructions on how to make proxies.

[4] Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib/Dream Machines”, 1974.

[5 ] Jonathan Peizer, The dynamics of technology for social change- understanding the factors that influence results: lessons learned from the field, 2006, iUniverse.

[6] Clay Shirky: “How cell phones, Twitter, Facebook can make history” Video on  filmed May 2009, posted on June 2009

[7] Clay Shirky, “Here comes everybody – How change happens when people come together”, Penguin 2008

[8] Jaap van Till,  “Netwerk ver-bindingen voor samen-werking in co-laboratoria” ( in Dutch), pdf and interview in 2008.

[9] Tom Stonier, “The Microelectronic Revolution, Soviet Political Structure, and the Future of East/West Relations,” The Political Quarterly, April–June 1983, pp. 137–151.

[10] Rao, Market Rebels- How activists make or break radical innovations”, 2009, Princeton University Press

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