Thursday, January 12, 2006

Reading :: The Rise of the Network Society

Originally posted: Thu, 12 Jan 2006 21:29:31

The Rise of the Network Society

By Manuel Castells

The Rise of the Network Society is the first volume of a three-volume work entitled The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. I first ran across it as a cite in John Arquilla's work on networked warfare, but apparently it's well known in other circles. In fact, two of my colleagues are reading Castells' work.

Colleague A saw me carrying this book a couple of weeks ago. "Oh, you're reading that? I'm reading Volume 2 right now." What do you think, I ask. "He -- seems to have a high opinion of himself," Colleague A said with evident reservation.

Colleague B saw me with the book a few days later. "You're reading that too? So am I. I've been avoiding it for a long time because it's so massive, but it's cited so frequently I figured I had to read it. It's like Das Kapital." Colleague B thinks it's fantastic and has decided to order the other two volumes as well.

And what does Colleague C -- C for Clay -- think about it? C is still deciding. The problem is that Volume 1 deals primarily with economics, which is not my strong suit. And although the author has obviously thought quite a bit about these matters, and has been celebrated for his work, I don't have much of a frame of reference for evaluating most of his economic claims. The parts that I can evaluate are mixed. For instance, much of what he says about changes to work organization seems dead on, based on my observations and readings. On the other hand, his chapter on electronic communication draws heavily on scholars such as Havelock and Postman, neither of whom I find particularly convincing in terms of understanding communication changes.

Let me sketch out Castells' basic argument, which is fairly complex. Writing in 1996, he argues that capitalism has been profoundly restructured as "informational capitalism":

Capitalism itself has undergone a process of profound restructuring, characterized by greater flexibility in management; decentralization and networking of firms both internally and in their relationships to other firms; considerable empowering of capital vis-a-vis labor, with the concomitant decline of influence of the labor movement; increasing individualization and diversification of working relationships; massive incorporation of women into the working force, usually under discriminatory conditions; intervention of the state to deregulate markets selectively, and to undo the welfare state, with different intensity and orientations depending upon the nature of political forces and institutions in each society; stepped-up global economic condition, in a context of increasing geographic and cultural differentiation of settings for capital accumulation and management. (pp.1-2)

So far, this is familiar territory, covered (with considerably more optimism and less macroanalysis) in Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy and similar works. But Castells brings to bear decades of scholarship and reams of economic data to develop these points.

One factor he discusses is of particular interest to me: telecommunications. Castells argues that

what characterizes the current technological revolution is not the centrality of knowledge and information, but the application of such knowledge and information to knowledge generation and information processing/communication devices, in a cumulative feedback loop between innovation and the uses of innovation. ... The uses of new telecommunications technologies in the last two decades have gone through three distinct stages: automation of tasks, experimentation of uses, reconfiguration of applications. In the first two stages, technological innovation progressed through learning by using ... In the third stage, the users learned technology by doing, and ended up reconfiguring the networks, and finding new applications. (p.32)

Telecommunications deregulation, in Castells' analysis, was key to the networked society because it reorganized and spurred the growth of telecommunications, leading to "the global integration of financial markets and the segmented articulation of production and trade throughout the world" (p.52).

Networks, Castells says (quoting Mulgan), were created not to communicate but to outcommunicate. They are adaptive, open-ended, and multi-edged (p.65). They are meant to move along the product of the information economy: information itself, which has become the product of the production process (p.67, 172). And even though this is the age of deregulation, Castells says, the role of the state is vital: "it is precisely because of the interdependence and openness of international economy that states must become engaged in fostering development strategies on behalf of their economic constituents" (p.90). States steer policies toward collective competitiveness (p.90).

The circulation of people drives innovation in this economy (p.95). And "the new production system relies on a combination of strategic alliances and ad hoc cooperation projects between corporations, decentralized units of each major corporation, and networks of small and medium enterprises connecting among themselves and/or with large corporations or networks of corporations" (p.96). In the new international division of labor, there is a "variable geometry" that dissolves historical, economic geography (p.106).

Castells identifies several organizational trends or patterns:

  • The transition from mass production to flexible production (p.154), characterized in part by "customized, reprogrammable production systems, capturing economies of scope" (p.155). (Think in terms of Victor and Boynton's co-configuration model.)
  • "The crisis of the large corporation, and the resilience of small and medium firms as agents of innovation and sources of job creation" (p.155).
  • New methods of management (p.157), necessitated by the vertical disintegration of production along a network of firms, substituting for a vertical integration of departments (p.158). (Think of Zuboff and Maxmin's federations.)
  • Interfirm networking, or a "multidirectional network model enacted by small and medium businesses and the licensing-subcontracting model of production under an umbrella corporation" (p.160).
  • Corporate strategic alliances, involving the intertwining of large corporations (p.162).
  • The transition from vertical bureaucracies to horizontal competition, involving seven trends: "organization around process, not task; a flat hierarchy; team management; measuring performance by customer satisfaction; rewards based on team performance; maximization of contacts with suppliers and customers; information, training, and retraining of employees at all levels" (p.164).

"Networks," Castells says, "are the fundamental stuff of which new organizations are and will be made" (p.168).

But technologies and networks don't play a determinist role. "Cultures and institutions continue to shape the organizational requirements of the new economy, in an interaction between the logic of production, the changing technological basis, and the institutional features of the social environment" (p.194).

In response to these macro-level changes, Castells says, work and employment are transformed. The traditional form of work is eroding (p.268). Employment now is characterized by decentralized data entry (p.248); the concentration of higher-level operations in the hands of skilled workers (p.248); multiskilling of jobs (p.251); the individualization of responsibility (p.251) and labor (p.265); and segregation by education (p.251). "The new social and economic organization based on the information technologies aims at decentralizing management, individualizing work, and customizing markets, thereby segmenting work and fragmenting societies" (p.265).

In chapters 6 and 7, Castells that ? at least in social terms ? the network society is reconfiguring space and time. (This argument sounds a bit like the one we encounter in Distributed Work.) Chapter 6 chronicles the growth of information flows (p.382) and argues that information technology leads to the breaking up of spatial patterns into a "fluid network of exchanges" (p.398). "The space of flows is the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows" (p.412). Chapter 7 similarly argues that time is compressed and processed in the network society (p.439); "the network society is characterized by the breaking down of rhythmicity, either biological or social, associated with the notion of a lifecycle" (p.446).

Colleague B is at least right in this: reading The Rise of the Network Society is like reading Capital. It's overwhelming, hard to digest, and full of fascinating ideas that take a lot of background to churn through. I'll be churning through this for some time to come, I think.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Reading :: Swarming on the Battlefield

Originally posted: Mon, 09 Jan 2006 21:00:24

Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future

by Sean J. A. Edwards

Recently I've been reading a lot of these RAND reports and other texts on the swarming doctrine ? a way of attacking enemies that is fundamentally different from the massed formations that have typically characterized mechanized warfare. But most of the swarming literature has been frustratingly short on specifics, and consequently there's a lot of slippage in what swarming actually means. People familiar with military strategy have told me that swarming does not seem to be the fundamental shift in doctrine that it purports to be ? "we've been doing this forever," they have said, referring to decentralized decisionmaking and other characteristics. Part of the problem, I think, is that "swarming" has been overused and stretched to mean too many things; it needs a treatment to nail down the concept, explain the characteristics, provide a variety of case studies, and explain its weaknesses as well as its strengths.

Sean Edwards' study goes most of the way in accomplishing that. Edwards, who worked under Arquila and Ronfeldt at RAND, undertakes a quasi-experimental comparison of several historical cases of swarming: Scythians v. Macedonians, Parthians v. Romans, Seljuk Turks v. Byzantines, Turks v. Crusaders, Mongols v. Eastern Europeans, Woodland Indians v. U.S. Army, Napoleonic Corps v. Austrians, Boers v. British, German U-Boats v. British convoys, and Somalis v. U.S. commandos. For each, he carefully examines the case and catalogues both advantages and disadvantages. Then he summarizes some general conclusions with the appropriate caveats:

The cases have highlighted some successful countermeasures to swarm tactics, such as
  • pinning a swarm force using either a part of one's own force or a geographic obstacle (Alexander, Crusades)
  • eliminating the swarm force's standoff-fire advantage (Byzantines)
  • eliminating the swarm force's mobility or elusiveness advantage (U-boats)
  • securing the countryside by building a linked network of fortifications (Macedonians)
  • separating the swarmer from his logistics base (Macedonians)

Edwards also make the important point that the threat of WMDs leads armies to consider far more dispersed formations, making swarming more attractive than it might be otherwise.

In all, if you're genuinely interested in swarming as military doctrine, Edwards' study is a really important one to read. But the application appears to be quite strictly military. Edwards does a good job nailing down the term, and in the process, squeezes out the more metaphoric applications (such as Hugh Hewitt's application of the term to blogging). In my book, that's not a bad thing. >

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