Monday, September 28, 2009

Some tentative thoughts about a networked rhetoric

I've been rereading David Ronfeldt's RAND working paper "In search of how societies work: Tribes - the first and forever form." Ronfeldt's work is fascinating to me, partially because it's really grappling with the broad implications of organizational forms, partially because it's often illustrated with very concrete cases (e.g., his monograph with Arquilla, Fuller, and Fuller on the Zapatista netwar in Mexico, which I'll be reviewing soon). This work ranges broadly - like Castells, Ronfeldt seemingly reads from everywhere - and has interesting implications, although I approach those implications gingerly because I don't feel that I've reviewed them enough to stand solidly on them.

So I'll be tentative here, speculating about what Ronfeldt's ideas might mean for a networked rhetoric.

Ronfeldt lays out his TIMN framework here: Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks. These, he suggests, are the four major forms of organization. Plenty of minor forms exist, but, he argues, as hybrids of these four. These emerge over time, in response to specific conditions, and differently in different societies; although, he says, forms of each have existed since ancient times, different forms become ascendant under different conditions. They tend to coexist in a given society. And each "embodies a distinctive set of structures, beliefs, and dynamics (with bright and dark sides) about how a society should be organized - about who gets to achieve what, why, and how" (p.1).

These different forms matured during different epochs: tribes in the Neolithic era; hierarchical institutions, most notably with the Roman empire; competitive markets with England and the US in the 16th century; and collaborative networks in the present day (pp.1-2).

These forms also emphasize different things: tribes, social identity and belonging; institutions, power and administration; markets, complex exchanges; and networks, Ronfeldt suggests, perhaps emphasize social equity. I think that perhaps he's more on the mark at the top of p.2, where he suggests networks emphasize collaboration across boundaries.

The forms are typically overlaid: as a new form becomes ascendant, the old forms are often strengthened, although their scope becomes more limited (p.3).

And the forms, Ronfeldt argues, involve "different kinds of bonds, transactions, decision rules, and coordination mechanisms. Each has a long, distinct history of association with different philosophical ideals, codes of conduct, and mentalities. Moreover, each requires an actor to have different kinds of information to perform well in that particular form" (p.16). And "What is deemed rational - how a 'rational actor' should behave - is different for each form" (p.20). They are also enabled through different information technologies: tribes, early language; institutions, writing and printing; markets, telephony and radio; and networks, the Internet and faxes - and we might add texting (p.20).

(Just to illustrate, recall that writing apparently emerged to address a thorny accounting issue that the Sumerian empire - an early institution - faced when gathering tributes from its far-flung tributaries.)

With all that in mind, let's tentatively postulate that Ronfeldt has given us a starter framework for understanding types of rationality in different societies, and by extension, a way to conceive of effective logic within each.

Tribes respond well to affiliation, since their key purpose is identity, their key effect is solidarity, and their key information technology is the spoken word; we can see the effect, Ronfeldt says, in failed states. In tribes, "it is not at all illogical to have one code for one's kin and another for outsiders. Indeed, it may seem sensible - and not at all unethical or illegitimate - to behave in what modern analysts may regard as deceptive, exploitive, and even murderous ways toward outsiders" (p.40). Among other things, Ronfeldt suggests that racism is largely situated within a tribal frame.

Institutions, on the other hand, have the key purpose of power and authority; the key effect of sovereignty; and the key information technology of writing and print. Their structure is hierarchical, meant to deal with groups of people that have scaled beyond the limits that tribes can handle. Institutions help people to deal with others that they don't necessarily know by name. Think in terms of Hammurabi's code, which was promulgated so that everyone knew the laws to follow and the rights they had under the laws. What we know as classical rhetoric was codified during this period, originating with a particular institutional setting: the courts.

Markets address the issue of complex exchanges. They have the key purpose of trade and investment, Ronfeldt says; the key effect of competition; and the key information technologies of telephony and radio. Their structure is the exchange. Ronfeldt doesn't address rhetoric here, but we might draw from Drucker's account in Post-Capitalist Society, where he says that the modern age is characterized by knowledge applied to tools, to work, and lastly to knowledge itself (the management revolution). Efficiencies, leverage, and measurable outcomes might be aspects.

So now we get to networks, and Ronfeldt fills the boxes with question marks. Key purpose: Social equity? Key effect: collaboration? Key information technologies: Internet and fax (no question marks here). Networks span boundaries, connecting actors from different organizations, spaces, tribes, markets, etc. "What is distinctive about information-age networks is that people who are far removed from each other can connect, coordinate, and act conjointly across barriers and distances. ... this form is suited to enabling people to address modern, complex policy issues that may require efforts from many directions at the same time, such as health management and disaster recovery. These networks offer new designs for mutual collaboration that cannot be characterized as tribal, hierarchical, or market in nature" (p.22).

Ronfeldt and colleagues offer several examples in the netwar literature, but one of the best is their analysis of the Zapatista netwar. The Zapatistas (EZLN) began as a traditional Marxist insurgency, arranged along Maoist lines in which guerillas would build up forces and eventually form regiments and divisions to confront the enemy. Unfortunately for the EZLN, this strategy was not working. But the EZLN found that it gained traction among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) interested in various issues, such as indigenous rights, human rights, and anti-NAFTA sentiment. These NGOs did not necessarily agree with each other about many things, but they did detect a shared set of propositions - which the EZLN quickly clarified as its own, shifting its objective from revolution to reform, jettisoning much of the Marxist language and demands along the way. As Ronfeldt et al. put it in the Zapatista study, "NGO coalitions arose that were characterized by 'flexible, conjunctural [coyuntural], and horizontal relations' held together by shared goals and demands" (quoting Castro 1994; brackets in original). And "To some extent, this was a compromise agenda" (Ronfeldt et al. p.51).

Let's think about this, tentatively, in rhetorical terms. Under classical (and arguably institutional) rhetoric, arguments are expected to be internally coherent. Let's use the Toulmin structure as an example: A well-formed argument has a claim supported by reasons, each of which is in turn supported by evidence. Connecting the claim to each reason is a warrant, an assumption shared by both the speaker and the listener. The more reasons, the better; the more evidence per reason, the better. And in a well-formed argument, none of these can contradict each other.

But in the Zapatista example, we see something rather different. True to network principles, different actors cross boundaries to collaborate on a single set of shared goals and demands. Let's call this set of goals and demands the claim. The NGOs are largely single-issue: indigenous rights, human rights, anti-NAFTA, etc. They come from different regions, are based in different countries, and reflect different ideologies. But they are all interessed (to use actor-network theory's terminology) in the same problem or proposition or claim; they all define it and are in turn defined by it. So in Toulmin terms, each contributes warrants, reasons, and evidence. But these components do not have to be coherent with the components of the other NGOs. NGOs A, B, and C may have completely different logics, ideologies, warrants, reasons, evidence, etc. But they swarm the proposition/claim and lend their support to it.

Since this networked argument is not coherent, it provides a much more difficult target. It may not even appear rational to an institutional actor, and in fact it's probably a lousy argument by institutional (classic rhetorical) standards. To use terms from my recent book: institutions expect a woven argument; networks deliver spliced arguments.

For fun, let's (again, tentatively) plug this back into the recent health care town hall protests I blogged about recently. As I argued there:
they are united in tactical opposition rather than strategic objectives. And they come into contact and network with those who have similar tactical goals through information technologies that also help them to rapidly coordinate.
That is, they are united in claim or proposition, not in reasons, warrants, or evidence. They don't necessarily form a coherent argument because they have their own, often orthogonal reasons for opposing the health care bill. Seniors worry about Medicare cutbacks; deficit hawks worry about the deficit; proceduralists worry about the aftermath of a rush job; birthers and red-scare types worry about socialism. They might trade reasons and evidence, but they don't necessarily buy into each others' arguments. They don't have to.

What does this sort of networked argument look like to an institution? Either it looks irrational or it looks like a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Addressing this sort of argument with a structured counterargument, point by point, as President Obama attempted, doesn't help much because such counterarguments are geared to exposing incoherencies and contradictions, and incoherencies and contradictions aren't a liability in this case.

Of course, the rationalities of the earlier forms have not disappeared and can still be exploited. Individual institutions can be vulnerable to institutional counterarguments, for instance. Racism - and for that matter, the accusations of racism leveled by some of the President's defenders - can be considered a tribal appeal. But a rebuttal for networked rhetoric perhaps remains to be developed.

One more thought. Activity theory, I suggest, is institutional; actor-network theory is networked.

As mentioned, these are early, tentative thoughts. Comments?

Reading :: The Ethics of Internet Research

The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process
By Heidi McKee and James Porter

Internet research - specifically, qualitative research conducted in Internet spaces, such as email, listservs, social networking sites, and virtual environments - has become increasingly important as we conduct more interactions via Internet media. Yet, as the authors point out, institutional review boards and other research ethics bodies have not kept up: in some cases they have tended to interpret Internet research as archival research, demanding relatively low hurdles for consent, while in other cases, they have demanded much higher hurdles. In this book, McKee and Porter examine the ethical and institutional issues that surround this sort of research. Through their interviews with several Internet researchers - including, I must add, my friend and fellow Iowa State alum Dave Clark - they look at a range of ethical actions that these researchers have taken that go beyond the demands of their IRBs. And they push toward an understanding of ethics that is more tuned to the specifics of Internet research.

So they do useful work here, and I'd recommend the book to scholars who are embarking on Internet-based studies. (I should mention that I haven't conducted such a study so far.) I am not entirely in step with some of their conclusions, such as their recommendation that "the genre of the social science report ... [be revised] to include a section on ethical issues" (p.156), a move that I worry will bog down the genre with pro forma pronouncements as ethical standards for Internet research become more settled. But as a temporary feature during the development of Internet research ethics, such a section makes sense.

If you're doing Internet research, I suggest giving this book a read.