The Fundamentals of Network Society by Alexander Schellong, Philipp Mueller
Alexander Schellong, PhD, MA, is a Senior Consultant with CSC’s public sector management practice advising clients internationally on issues of eGovernment, citizen relationship management, public management and public policy. Among others, he serves as an expert to the European Commission. He continues to be active in academia through research and lectures. His studies focus on the impacts of ICT and organizational and societal issues. Philipp Mueller, PhD, MA, is director of the Center for Public Management and Governance at the Salzburg University Business School and visiting professor for public policy and management at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt. His research interests lie in the interplay of ICTs and public policy and he is working with leaders in business and governments worldwide on strategies to adapt to our changing world. Both authors have collaborated in various executive education programs and research projects at Harvard University and elsewhere.
In the sixteenth-century, Machiavelli, a senior policy advisor in the city-state of Florence, Italy, became one of the first thinkers to address the new formations of political power that developed with the advent of modern society. In his seminal work, the prince, he argues for the importance of influencing public opinion. For Machiavelli, attaining the positive opinion of his subjects is the precondition for political effectiveness. Machiavelli believed in the capacity of the people to judge the public good in various settings. This understanding deviates from the monarchic subordination-and-rule approach derived from divine right of his time. In modernity, public opinion, expressed in various forms, became the currency of political legitimacy whether in democracies, monarchies or dictatorships.
The evolution of modern society is marked by continuous rise of government size, obligations and market interactions. According to Juergen Habermas, the expansion of the state into more and more private affairs led to a slow demise of the public debates over ideas and conflicts—the expression varying with context, history, and technology. Citizen-government interaction is reduced to election periods, interest groups and media-spin.
However, there was opposition to this development. Henry David Thoreau argued in his essay “Civil Disobedience” in the late 18th century, “government is best which governs least.” It implies a government reduced to the minimum in size accountable to its people. Because American government in the 18th century was already on its way to assemble the contrary, Thoreau suggested that if as many people as possible join peaceful protests, their actions would “clog the machinery of the state”, eventually leading to change. However, he did not succeed. And over the next 200 years, the state developed as the most successful organization form, an “imagined community” that structured the lives of most people on this planet. Today, however, with the advent of new network-based social platforms, Thoreau might have been more successful with his attempt to let his voice be heard and activate others for his cause.
In the 21st Century the 'network' has transcended the academic context and entered the wider field of the political discourse. Policy networks, networked governance, peer production, massive collaboration, open government, and radical transparency have become part of our political vocabulary that we rely on to legitimize why and how we act collectively. With web technologies and social media, such as interchangeable data-formats, wikis, transparency, and social networking, network society has become part of the mainstream global public policy discourse.
The early 21st Century evoke a Machiavellian time—a time when new technologies and new forms of thinking and governance emerged. So, if we are living in times of transformative change, where Internet technologies and an understanding of society as a network of inclusive, some-how like-minded, outcome-oriented, collaborators emerges we need to ask, what the logic of network society is, to be able to explain our world and predict future developments. Dave Clark, one of the original architects of the Internet, argued in 1971: We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.
There are two driving characteristics of the networked society: the ease to connect (technology) and the willingness to connect (social legitimacy) which redefine territoriality and increase complexity. The ease to connect stems from technologies that allow us to supersede territorial space and linear time. However, without a willingness to interact, the ability does not lead to a changed world. It is not technological determinism, but the interplay between new social practices and enabling technologies that have transformative potential. So, in a nutshell, there are four main principles and several corollaries that describe network society: the territoriality principle, the complexity principle, the technology principle, and the choice principle.
The territoriality principle
Technology, greater mobility of society or capital—some may refer to it as globalization—facilitates blurring the formerly clear boundaries of territoriality. The Westphalian Order marked by the peace agreement in 1648 ending the 30 Years War in Europe, defined nation-states as entities with fixed territorial boundaries that defined the limits of their legal jurisdiction and the scope of their political authority. Today the fundamental principles and practices of liberal democracy—the nature of citizens, the definition of democratic citizenship, the ideas of self-governance, consent, representation, political spin, popular sovereignty—are almost exclusively associated with the institutions of the sovereign territorial nation-state. Consequently, modern democratic theory and democratic politics assume correspondence between the democratic political community and the modern nation-state: a self-contained, self-governing, territorially delimited national community. Yet world order and sovereign statehood is no longer immutable. The world faces problems such as environmental change, large-scale market failures and terrorism which span the globe, are known to many and which cannot be solved by one entity alone. Thus political issues and action are now also located in the global arena.
The complexity principle
The territoriality principle and the corollaries of the technology principle make the cornerstones of the complexity principle. In the network society, interdependence is increasing. Everything is and can potentially be connected. The recent financial crisis provides us with a case in point. Because of complexity and the capacity (institutional, organizational, and technological) of the nation-state being the strongest within its territory, government faces a crisis of efficiency and legitimacy.
The technology principle
The technology principle includes the corollaries of path dependency, scale and networks effect, real-time, modularity and granularity. The network society is mediated through advances in technology. The Internet, especially, is continuing to play an important part in the change towards network society.
The Path dependency corollary
Path dependency makes it costly for us to exercise choice and leave any given network because of the network effect. Examples are the width of our high-speed railway tracks which conform to the track-width of the mule-trains in the coal mines of Newcastle or Brazilians mainly joining Orkut, Americans joining facebook, and Japanese joining Mixi.
The Scale and Network Effects corollary
Network effects are the glue of network society. In essence, the network effect describes the positive externalities (value) of a product, service, or activity as more people use it. An organization taking advantage of the principle may refer to the practice as “crowdsourcing” (e.g. Wikipedia, Dell’s Ideastorm, iPhone Apps) taking advantage of the “wisdom of the crowds”. Individuals may also aggregate and mobilize for a specific cause, be it political, civic or commercial (e.g. Moveon.org, Ukrainian orange revolution). The emergence of the latter can be of spontaneous and real-time nature.
The real-time corollary
With the reduced need for securing the supply of physical goods, consumers are turning to experiences to find gratification and an escape from everyday life. Moreover, with people’s lives full of obligations and choices, and with only roughly waking 16-17 hours available each day, the more (new) information and activities that can be obtained in a short time, the better. The Netizen, the member of those generations that have grown up with the Internet or use it heavily, constantly hunger for something new—think real-time communication and interaction (e.g. Google Wave, Twitter), real-time news, real-time search or real-time content creation. “Digital” is becoming synonymous with “instantaneously” for many.
The Modularity corollary
Modularity allows complexity through the combination out of simple parts. Examples of modularity at work is when social movements combine technologies such as skype, twitter, and facebook status updates to organize the post-election demonstrations in Iran.
The Granularity corollary
The smaller the useful contribution, the easier the scalability. In the 2009 expense scandal in the British parliament, the Guardian put a website online where they posted all potential infringing documents. By 2010, 25,530 people had visited this website and reviewed 218,587 of the documents, unearthing information that would have never been uncovered.
The choice principle
The choice principle includes the corollaries of consensus, forking, peer-production and transparency. According to the choice principle, any network participant chooses to participate or to leave at any given point in time. However, because of the complexity principle, entities that have chosen to opt-out of a network or a particular activity does not mean they can not be affected by it. Mass society tends unite and disrupt existing communities and traditions over time. The choice principle also accounts for the increasing number of decisions individuals must make on a day-to-day basis (choices include those relating to products, communication channels, information sources, setting.
The Consensus corollary
Decisions in choice-communities are made by consensus. David Clark explains that this does not mean unanimity and certainly not majority voting. It is the mechanism with which the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) develops and promotes Internet standards.
The Forking corollary
Forking happens when developers take a copy of source code from one software package and start independent development on it, creating a distinct piece of software. This happens often in open source development projects as well as in online content creation, combining different sources to create new insight.
The Peer Production corollary
Public Commons in network society are produced by peers for peers. Examples of such commons that are playing an ever more important role in our societal and political lives are Ubuntu Linux, Wikipedia, or the Obama volunteers.
The Transparency corollary
Transparency/Documentation takes the role of democracy as the standard against which any governance situation is evaluated. The open government directives and the corresponding data.gov websites in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia show how much transparency has become the core legitimizing instrument of governments. At the same time an individual’s private life and experiences become more transparent through technology which opens many avenues for government communication. Along these lines there is also greater transparency about organizations, their activities or products (e.g. thousands or even millions of reviews can be found on products, doctors or hotels). The organizations concerned are either disclosing this information on a voluntary basis or because they are forced by external entities (e.g. consumer initiative; think of a non-profit such as foodwatch) that can build power through the network effect. In addition, transparency is prone to the network effect, too. Transparency in one area increases the expectations of people in other areas (e.g. the idea of Open Government spreading from the U.S. to Europe).
With the phenomenon of “web 2.0,” defined by Clay Shirky as ridiculously simple group forming, this trend towards network society has accelerated. The transformative potential of web 2.0 technologies and their accompanying societal practices is derived from four factors: First, they expand the social universe by making cooperation possible in situations where the transaction costs would have been prohibitively high. Wikipedia, Facebook and MySpace are good examples of such services. Second, web technologies compete with existing forms of providing public value. Peer-to-Peer-Music-Sharing platforms are examples, but also new discovery platforms such as Amiestreet or Jamando. Third, they disrupt the balance of power between existing social actors, for example by empowering NGO’s by allowing them to distribute massive amounts of data to the community as the Groklaw example has shown, or by moving power from large to small donors in U.S. Presidential elections. And lastly, they corrode how we do things in existing organisations by giving us new tools that undermine internal information flows and hierarchies.
Because of this four-way assault on our existing societal institutions, even as good followers of Machiavelli, we have to expect dramatic shifts in how we do things in collectivities from the local to the global level. Many societal communities are already functioning according to such principles, most notably in open source development, global terrorism, political campaigning, or the alter-globalization movement. Networked forms of societies are becoming serious alternatives to modern societies and we need to better understand them if we want to succeed in today’s complex policy environments. So in 2010, Machiavelli would advise the prince to build her power base around open networked communities, transparency, standardized interfaces and a bold move to just sail unchartered waters to test their boundaries.