Saturday, December 03, 2005

Reading :: Swarming and the Future of Conflict

Originally posted: Sat, 03 Dec 2005 01:49:44

Swarming and the Future of Conflict

by John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt

Whereas the authors' Advent of Netwar focused on the organizational structure of networks, this RAND report focuses on the key doctrine of netwar: swarming. (This doctrine is what interested Hugh Hewitt in his book Blog.) Swarming is

the systematic pulsing of force and/or fire by dispersed, internetted units, so as to strike the adversary from all directions simultaneously. This does not necessitate surrounding the enemy, though swarming may include encirclement in some cases. Rather, emphasis is placed on forces or fires that can strike at will ? wherever they will. (p.9)

The authors concede that swarming has historical precedents, but "swarming could not come into its own as a major way of war, because its organizational and informational requirements are huge. Swarming has had to wait for the current information and communications revolution to unfold as robustly as did the earlier forms of fighting" (p.9).

Those earlier forms of fighting were the melee (every fighter for her/himself); massing ("stacked, geometric formations" (p.13)); and maneuver warfare. In contrast to these, swarming involves autonomous or semi-autonomous units in a convergent assault; amorphous but coordinated "pulsing" or striking from all directions; small, internetted maneuver units; integrated surveillance; and attacks that disrupt the adversary's cohesion (p.21). The authors give several good examples of each, including swarming (e.g., German U-boats, Parthian horsemen, ants, bees, wolf packs). The nature metaphors put me in mind of A Thousand Plateaus, although I doubt the authors have read that work.

Overall, this was an interesting and illuminating report, and I can see how this doctrine has influenced recent changes in the US military. I also think that Hewitt did have it largely right when he applied swarming to recent "blog swarms," although the swarming that Arquilla and Ronfeldt are discussing seems more coordinated and controlled than what Hewitt is discussing. I'm more interested in applying lessons to nonmilitary organizations, of course, and in that vein I see some similarities with pieces such as The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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Reading :: Advent of Netwar

Originally posted: Sat, 03 Dec 2005 01:31:37

Advent of Netwar

by John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt

This RAND report precedes the authors' Networks and Netwars and outlines much of what the authors discuss in their chapters from that volume, but in greater detail. What they discuss is, again, fascinating. In their estimation, netwar entails the blurring of offense and defense, spatial boundaries, jurisdictions, and all sorts of distinctions (p.13). This blurring has to do with the newness of networks as an organizational design (as opposed to social networks) (p.19). The networked form, they say, follows other forms ? tribal, institutional, and market ? and although it is not completely new, it is newly enabled by pervasive information technologies (p.33).

In networks, members collaborate heterarchically:

Its key principle is heterarchic collaboration among members who may be dispersed among multiple, often small organizations. Network designs have existed throughout history, but multiorganizational designs are now able to gain strength and mature because the new communications technologies allow small, autonomous, dispersed groups to coordinate and act jointly across great distances as never before. (p.33)

The authors follow this up with a nice tabular comparison of tribes, institutions, markets, and networks. This table compares key areas, realms, interests, values, risks, and so forth; one thing that caught my eye was the structural comparison of space, time, and action. The authors argue that power is migrating to actors who are skilled at developing networks (p.43) and that networks may lead nation-states to become leaner and work in concert with nonstate actors (p.45). Think in terms of Rumsfeld's "leaner" military, with its precision strikes, emphasis on communications technologies, and heavy use of non-governmental organizations and subcontractors.

In netwar, the authors argue, the targets should be information-rich components: for instance, don't eradicate smugglers' drug crops, target their electronic bank transfers (p.90). The tactics of netwar are oriented not toward destroying assets but toward disrupting communication and coordination.

The authors conclude that netwar is less like Clausewitz and more like Sun Tzu, less like chess and more like Go. Sun Tzu, they argue, understood the importance of information dominance to victory (p.101). >

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Monday, November 28, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Gonzalez and Mark on Managing Currents of Work)

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 20:32:14

I blogged recently about scholarship in fragmented work, particularly some recent studies by Gonzalez and Mark. Although I was really taken with this work, one point that bothered me was their use of the term "working sphere," of which I said:

Notice that the working sphere is primarily defined by the material and human concatenation rather than the orientation toward a particular goal -?although "motives" is slipped in there. This sounds much more like distributed cognition's functional units than, say, activity theory's activity systems. And without that strong object-orientation, it seems likely that the unit is going to have trouble being nailed down or explained. On the other hand, downplaying the motive gives the working sphere the same advantages as actor-networks, ontologically speaking.

Victor Gonzalez read the review and was kind enough to forward a new paper that expands on the notion of working spheres:

González, V. and G. Mark (2005): 'Managing currents of work: Multi-tasking among multiple collaborations' in European Conference in Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Spring Verlang, September 18-22, Paris, France. pp. 143-162.

(The paper has no page numbers, so I'll refer to the first page as page 1 and so forth.)

In this paper, Gonzalez and Mark continue using ethnography to review how workers switch among working spheres. From the abstract: "We discovered that to multi-task and cope with the resulting fragmentation of their work, individuals constantly renew overviews of their working spheres, they strategize how to manage transitions between contexts and they maintain flexible foci among their different working spheres" (p.1). And in the process, they define working spheres in more detail in respect to other analytical frameworks, particularly activity theory. In the first footnote, they say:

Compared with other types of conceptualizations, a working sphere is closer to the notion of activity as defined by Activity Theory, in the sense of connecting sets of actions toward particular objects (Leont?ev, 1978). However the notion of working sphere lacks an emphasis on high-level motives as the notion of activity does (e.g. becoming a project leader) and focuses instead on practical short-term purposes (e.g. enrolling and attending the training sessions on leadership). (p.4)

Yes, yes. The working sphere is "a unit of work that, from the perspective of the individual, has a unique time frame, involves a particular collaborative structure, and is oriented towards a specific purpose" (p.3). It may last for longer or shorter periods. Working spheres are like topoi or assemblages or (most strikingly to me) contextual design's focus areas.

So perhaps I have to withdraw my complaint that working spheres can be handled within activity theory's activity systems. Those triangles seem to be containing less and less these days, and I think that's partially because they were developed to deal with a different sort of work: stable, cyclical, developing over time. AT lacks a strong vocabulary and set of concepts for describing work fragmentation. And although scholars such as Nardi and Engestrom are working to address that issue with AT, I think it will take some development to get these efforts off the ground ? and common terms for describing this sort of oscillation among activities, terms such as "boundary crossing," evoke journeys across demarcated areas rather than the rapid focus shifts that Gonzalez and Mark describe. In fact, they remind me a bit of Bodker's work with focus shifts (again in an AT tradition), but whereas Bodker saw these focus shifts as resulting from breakdowns, Gonzalez and Marks see them as part of the normal flow of operations. And perhaps that's the way to deal with the question in an AT framework: to emphasize polycontextuality over border crossing, to see interruptions as the new state of things, and thus to imagine activities overlapping each other in a sort of polydimensional scheme.

Back to working spheres. Working spheres seem to be well suited for studying the contextual cues and assemblages of tools and practices that are necessary for polycontextual focus shifts. On the ground, workers perform this work in part through the continual review of overviews (not a surprise to anyone who has read Getting Things Done). These overviews can be local or global and can be reviewed at different levels of aggregation (p.12). And they're necessary for managing transitions from one sphere to another (p.16). Sensibly, the authors call for ways to mark, support, and facilitate interactions among these working spheres:

We argue that technological support should be oriented towards helping individuals maintain both local and global perspectives of their working spheres, providing the ability to represent information in portable devices that can be located on their desks or hung on walls, and be connected and synchronized with other tools such as email, electronic calendars, or other systems. Similarly, those technologies can serve to link and share information about the progress that individuals have in their personal working spheres to the systems used by the organization to manage and coordinate team projects or manage customer requests. (p.18)

Yes, yes. Again, this sounds a lot like contextual design's focus areas, although Gonzalez and Marks' account is less anecdotal and more theoretically founded. The authors see collaborations as the intertwining of multiple working spheres and argue that new resources must be provided to help workers transition among these working spheres. Certainly this makes sense, and again this connective work is not well theorized in activity theory (although again, scholars have recently been attempting to formulate theory in those terms). As I continue my own attempts to develop AT along these lines, I'll be looking at this work often.

Reading :: Expanding the Scope of Localization

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 19:50:26

Expanding the Scope of Localization: A Cultural Usability Perspective on Mobile Text Messaging Use in American and Chinese Contexts

by Huatong Sun

Huatong Sun's dissertation won the 2005 CCCC Outstanding Dissertation Award in Technical Communication. It's easy to see why. This dissertation examines a spreading form of textual communication ? text messaging on mobile phones ? and uses it to provide considerable insight into usability and localization. In fact, this is exactly the sort of work I'd like to see more frequently in computers and writing studies: careful, systematic, empirical work that examines new forms of textuality, develops systematic ways to understand and study it, and unfolds its implications for written communication. And what new textuality is more widespread and more suddenly used than SMS? By breaking away from the big screen and the hoary textualities that are the staple of computers and writing studies ? MOOs, MUDs, online chats used in classrooms ? Sun demonstrates how to make computers and writing studies newly relevant, applicable, and ? dare I say it? ? useful.

Using a combination of activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies, Sun examines texting in China and in upper New York state, and of course finds cultural differences. But she also finds similarities. One striking similarity is that text messaging is so difficult. In Chinese and in English, each character often takes more than one press on the phone's keyboard (although, as she points out, there are some ways such as predictive typing that can lessen that burden). Texting is far more difficult than it needs to be. Yet texting has taken off at an incredible rate due to its advantages and the degree to which people can customize it. So we find that the Chinese tend to perceive and write text messages as a form of ci, a classic poetic genre "used for expressing feelings of the common people and portraying mundane life details" (p.164), while U.S. users tend to use text messages to perform small talk. And particularly in her case studies of U.S. users, Sun investigates how text messaging interacts with other communication technologies such as IM and voice; one couple, for instance, texted each other until peak hours were over and they could talk more cheaply (p.182). "Affordances of each technology are used here to arrange a stronger rhetoric," Sun argues, then proves it (p.183).

Just a note: Sun is one of a string of smart, innovative graduate students that Bill Hart-Davidson mentored during his stay at Rensselaer. I'm envious of Bill's obvious talents as a dissertation director, and I continue to be impressed with his students' work, especially Sun's.

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Reading :: Networks and Netwars

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 22:19:13

Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy

by John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

Although I was not that impressed with Hugh Hewitt's Blog, I was intrigued by his references to John Arquilla. Arquilla works (or worked?) for RAND, where he developed the concept of "netwar," a type of low-intensity conflict made practical by new information technologies:

To be precise, the term netwar refers to an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age. These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed organizations, small groups, and individuals who communicate, coordinate, and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, often without a precise central command. Thus, netwar differs from modes of conflict and crime in which the protagonists prefer to develop formal, stand-alone, hierarchical organizations, doctrines, and strategies as in past effots, for example, to build centralized movements along Leninist lines. Thus, for example, netwar is about the Zapatistas more than the Fidelistas, Hamas more than the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the American Christian Patriot movement more than the Ku Klux Klan, and the Asian Triads more than the Cosa Nostra. (p.6).

And, it might be added, about al Qaeda. In fact, bin Laden makes several appearances in this volume, which was written before September 11 but published shortly afterwards; the editors include an afterword discussing the attacks. And reading this volume has helped me to understand both al Qaeda and the US military response much better. The netwar strategy places a premium on decentralizing control, capability, and decision-making, and that decentralization is made possible by pervasive "internetting" or intercommunication among nodes. Think in terms of Afghanistan, where US special forces were authorized to infiltrate in small bands, keeping constant communication with air cover and authorized to negotiate with locals. Or think in terms of how the Iraqi army immediately dissolved when US forces reached Baghdad, leaving the invading forces with the problem of building security forces from the ground up while insurgents conducted irregular, improvised attacks. "Many ? if not most ? netwar actors will be nonstate, even stateless. Some may be agents of a state, but others will try to turn states into their agents. Also, a netwar actor may be both subnational and transnational in scope" (p.7).

In their introduction, the editors describe various network topologies. Smugglers may arrange themselves in a chain; a franchise or cartel might arrange itself in a hub with actors tied to a central node or actor; and militant peace groups may arrange themselves in an all-channel network in which every node is connected to every other (pp.7-8). The third is the most difficult to organize and sustain, but also the most powerful, as it offers "no precise head or heart that can be targeted" (p.9). In addition, organizations may form hybrids of these basic types. And, the editors caution, hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks (p.15). They helpfully outline prominent cases of netwar, from the Zapatistas to Chechnya to the Battle for Seattle (p.17); most of these are examined in subsequent chapters.

The rest of the book consists of case studies with interesting implications. In "The Networking of Terror in the Information Age" (pp.29-60), Michele Zanini and Sean J.A. Edwards argue that combating terror networks must involve monitoring changes in IT use (p.52) and targeting information flows (p.53). In "Transitional Criminal Networks" (pp.61-97), Phil Williams likens criminal networks to "boundary spanners" (p.77) that cross borders and markets. He identifies several different business roles, including organizers, insulators, communicators, guardians, extenders, monitors, and crossovers (pp.82-83). In "The Emergence and Influence of the Zapatista Social Netwar" (pp.171-199), David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla examine the Zapatista insurgency in Mexico, leading with the intriguing thesis that "social newar is more effective the more democratic the setting" (p.171); they demonstrate that the Zapatista insurgency's success rested on its ability to network with sympathetic NGOs that helped to turn the public's sympathy their way. They also call the Zapatistas the world's first "postmodern" insurgency.

Perhaps the most intriguing case study is of the "Battle for Seattle," the protests that occurred in that city in conjunction with the WTO summit in 1999. In "Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics" (pp.201-235), Paul de Armond dissects the conflict in detail, demonstrating how an all-channel network organized itself, constructed a strategy and tactics, and outflanked the Seattle response at every turn.

One of the most interesting overview chapters is Luther P. Gerlach's "The Structure of Social Movements: Environmental Activism and its Opponents" (pp.289-310), in which the author argues that networks are segmentary (composed of diverse groups), polycentric (having multiple, often competing leaders), networked (with mutiple linkages) (pp.289-290). Part of what makes these organizations so effective is that leaders may be charismatic and compelling, but they do not carry a movement on their own; movements are loosely affiliated but split and divide based on affinities, leading them to spread like kudzu (or, if you prefer, rhizomes). Interestingly, groups are interlinked through personal relationships and sustained by "living links" such as "traveling evangelists" (p.296) ? something that I certainly have seen in large organizations. The looseness and leaderlessness of these organizations lead to system reliability: organizations can both learn from and disavow failures, leading to relatively low-risk, high-yield development of the organization as long as the narrative is skillfully managed. Disavowal and emulation result in a sort of trial-and-error learning (p.305).

Let's sum up. What strikes me is that the all-channel communication model, the confusion of boundaries and peripheries, the headless/leaderless organization, and the devolution and distribution of authority and control, sounds a lot like some of the more ambitious new economy work. If you read Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy, for instance, they push the idea of small, flexible federations that come together temporarily to serve one customer's need, then disperse. Some of the "new economy" work in activity theory goes in this direction too. That wouldn't surprise Arquilla, who thinks that netwar is a precursor of larger changes.

Something to watch out for, though, is that the nodes of these networks don't seem to be well theorized. One problem that actor-network theorists have encountered is that their work is read as if "nodes" = human beings; their idea was that nodes were actors, which could be humans, nonhumans, or combinations; the idea was to leave the unit open in an ontological sense. I don't think that's how Arquilla and Ronfeldt are using the term; I think their nodes really are humans and/or aggregations of humans. And that means that the nodes are relatively fixed, closer to an activity network than an actor-network. Yes, it makes a big difference theoretically. >

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