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?


Brian J. McNely said...

I think I need to give this a second read before I, too, comment with anything beyond the "tentative," but I can't help think of Law (2002) as congruent with some of these ideas.

In "Objects and Spaces" Law argues that "networks tend to panic when when they fail to secure network homeomorphism" (p. 102), that fluid objects and spaces (as differentiated from Euclidean and/or network objects and spaces) cannot be accurately represented in networks, and thus flow "through the meshes" (p. 101).

Law also notes that networks "embody and enact a politics, a politics linked up to and dressed up as functionality" (p. 102), a statement that I can't help but link to your later comments about the health care debate--enacted and held together by arguments "united in tactical opposition."

So networked rhetorics, in some sense, seem to foster compulsory political oppositions as a means by which "arguments" are made--arguments that, as you point out, don't adhere to traditional models. Returning to Law, when "fluid objects or subjects do become visible in network space they tend to look dangerously elusive, vague, and sloppy".

I wonder if there are networked rhetorics, and interstitial rhetorics (those which flow "through the meshes") which, in concert, produce the "irrational" rationality of networks?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Okay, now I have to reread Law. Great comment. And the idea of interstitial rhetorics is especially intriguing.

David Ronfeldt said...

a very interesting post (and again, thanks for the plug).

i quite agree that each of the four TIMN forms may be associated with a different type of rationality and thus logic and rhetoric. it’s a point worth continued development. there’s still lots more to be said about it, i’d suppose.

at the same time, i’m thinking that you have run into something similar to what i’ve run into: two different kinds of views about networks. in my case, that means sticking with the view i prefer, which is that networks are a form of organization distinct from tribes, hierarchies, and markets. the other view, which dominates in network science and social network analysis, is that all forms of organization are networks, or can be reduced to networks of one kind or another. this new expansive view contrasts with much older, more classical traditions in social science that tended to view all forms of organizations and other systems as resting somewhere on hierarchies / institutions.

what i’ve seen at the town-hall meetings looks more like a pro-tribal than a pro-network (or pro-institutitonal or pro-market) rhetoric, as i use those terms. the people i’ve seen speak out seem to be longing more for tribal than for information-age network answers . nonetheless, at the same time i think you are quite right, and are saying something interesting, to observe that the town-hall participants, in voicing their tribalism, reflect a “networked rhetoric,” as distinguished from a classical, more linear, logic-oriented rhetoric that stems from its institutional origins.

what i would suggest you consider is the following: relate the underlying structure of this kind of rhetoric to the kinds of concepts found in social network analysis. maybe the rhetoric and its ingredients could be depicted in terms of a network map showing nodes and links, with some hubs. this would result in quite a different depiction from a classical, more linear, even pyramidal logical layout, i’m supposing.

a couple of possible insights from going in this direction: it may help explain why, if counter-arguments seem to take out a few nodes and links in a raging rant, it doesn’t matter much to the ranter. he / she just shifts to another node / link in his wide-ranging rhetoric. whatever sticks, works. better to spray than to take narrow aim.

also, it might be interesting to relate this to one of the major notions in social network analysis: that it’s interesting to distinguish between weak ties and strong ties (i.e., links), and that it’s the weak ties that lead to more results (e.g., job opportunities) than the strong ties. you may already know of this notion; but if not, it’s from a paper by granovetter.

again, i think you are on to something. i’ll hope to see more. my apology for taking so long to get around to offering this comment. i hope it helps. onward.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

David -

All good points. I'm also coming at this question from a third understanding of networks as heterogeneous assemblages of humans and nonhumans, based in the actor-network theory (ANT) literature. In that view, networks are not understood in terms of structure so much as they are in terms of how actors and resources are connected - ANT is much more interested in ontology and its relation to power and politics. At the same time, ANT doesn't provide a very good understanding of cultural-historical development, and its account of rationality or logic is fairly static. Part of what makes TIMN interesting to me is that it injects both org structure and development into this account while still remaining open to the sort of political-rhetorical translations that ANT excels at.

I'm not sure how much the two understandings of network can be reconciled, though, given their basic differences in what counts as a network actor. I'll keep working through this question as I continue reading the netwar literature. And, of course, the more classical network analyses you suggest. Although the task of absorbing yet another swathe of literature seems exhausting!

Definitely the issue of strong/weak links seems like a fruitful place to start. And so I will. Thanks as always for your insights.

Bill said...

Great stuff here Clay. What interests me most, I think, is a discussion of the limits of Network Rhetorics that lays just beneath the surface of your post.

All of argument falls under the category of probabilistic reasoning, but traditional Toulminian argument adheres to what in the face of NetRhet seems a hyperrational model where the constituent parts have defined dependencies and tight tolerances.

NetRhet, by your preliminary analysis here, may well show that these components can function in other arrangements...but the question remains what the limits of effective argument are? Can sheer volume and/or speed make up for tight alignment of claims, evidence, & warrants? (this begs the question what constitutes a "swarm?")

NetRhet cases may provide fascinating insight into the limits of probabilism.

And so stay with me here, this talk of limits is not quite a metaphor ...we may yet come to see Toulmin's structures as arithmetic, with the rhetorical equivalent of Calculus yet to be fully explicated. I would say that you are on that path, though.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Right - In a slightly different but analogic frame, I'm thinking in terms of classic project management as set out in the PMBOK and employed in construction and engineering projects. Here, the assumption is a fairly articulated and rigid hierarchy in which all parties must agree on a specifically defined set of objectives, a calendared series of milestones with a critical path, and procedures for recovering from errors. Project management allows hierarchical organizations to coordinate, both internally and with other actors (e.g., contractors). PM reduces complexity by limiting the actions that actors can take - avoiding the high cost of communication and nodal coordination in traditional environments.

But in some sectors, classic PM is simply not seen as nimble enough. That includes, for instance, some strains of software development and most web development. So we get "agile PM" and variations, which assume more networked organizations, although those networked orgs still tend to operate on a hierarchical "chassis."

If we see classic PM as a response to the classic problem of high communication costs in an organization, lowering those costs might push us toward very different coordinative planning practices. For instance, in a more networked organization, we might see a much more rudimentary set of milestones, but a more interconnected workforce with higher operational autonomy and more robust channels of communication across all members of the workforce. Planning might become more cycle-based rather than milestone-centric, and collaboration might happen in more frequent casual interactions rather than coordinated by the central set of milestones. And in a much looser transient organization, such as a federation, we might see even fewer remnants of PM.

In such cases, PM can be seen as a set of genres embodying a particular worldview based on pervasive constraints. Lift the constraints, and the set of genres - and thus the worldview - starts to decay.

Also, in cases in which individual nodes exercise more autonomy, audience analysis and ethos become far more complicated and contingent. Logos, perhaps, takes a back seat.

Obviously that's pretty hand-wavy at this point. I'll keep processing it.