Monday, October 03, 2005


For some reason, the term "netarchy" is not being used to describe the social/governmental structures that are going to subverty nasty old hierarchical structures we are saddled with. It is not a totally unknown term but does not appear in google blog search (until now). I'm not even sure what exactly netarchy means, although it sounds attractive. It seems as if it would be a good title for a book by some high-powered internet pundit, which I am not, although I suppose I must have some aspirations in that direction or I wouldn't be blogging stuff like this.

So what the hell is netarchy? Rule by social networks, I guess. It could encompass a wide swath of social network theory, but it's emphasizing that these networks aren't just for chatting, but for coordinating goals, actions, and power. This is the interesting part of SNA (to me) but often seems lost with the emphasis on dating services like friendster or job-finding services like linkedin or marketing tools like visible path. The important social networks are outside of such simple-minded mapping schemes, I'm pretty sure. Something like is a little closer to the mark, but too conspiracy-minded, as is the ridiculous Discover the Network site, beautifully parodied here. Netarchy acknowledges such traditional power-networks, but instead of reacting in horror accepts them as a given and tries to work with them. One way to do this is simply by mapping and talking about the power networks, as the above sites do. Another is by encouraging the formation of counter-networks.

There's a paper by Valdis Krebs called "It's the Conversations, Stupid!" where he points out that ordinary social networks are a strong determinant of voting behavior. A somewhat obvious point, except that most analyses of voting behavior are in terms of individuals, demographic groups, or interest groups. These are not the same as networks, and the network approach provides some interesting strategic insight. Networks already are a big, unacknowledged part of democracy, even if they are not yet acknowledged by changing the name to netarchy. Netarchy encompasses not only the crony networks that are the obsession of conspiracy theorists, but the more bottom-up networks of a functioning democracy.

Netarchy can be used to describe existing political phenomena but may also be used as a guide, or at least a slogan, for generating some new ideas about how to run a society. Maybe it's time to revisit the lovely but rather old-fashioned models of democracy we have inherited. Direct democracy doesn't scale and lacks the damping factors of a separate political class; representative democracy has some of the opposite problems -- elites lead to self-serving corruption. The old science-fiction model of an electronic plebescite voting on issues directly might not be so great, if the model of California's ridiculous ballot propositions is anything to go by. But why not some sort of more flexible network based representation system? How about a website where I can pick new political representatives for myself at any time, rather than at artificial 2, 4, or 6 year intervals? How about if I can pick specific ones for particular issues? I don't have time to study every environmental question in detail, but I'd be happy to be able to designate the Sierra Club or the Viridian Underground as my representative on such questions, with an option to override on specific bills. When it's time to draw up the new constitutions for the Devolved Former States of America, let's try and be open to these and other netarchy-inspired ideas.

1 comment:

sunamumaya said...

VERY interesting theory. What's flat out freaky is this: I'm postulating a lot of these ideas under the term "netarhia"! Strange how a guy from California and another from across the globe talk of the same rather complex concepts and they dub it "netarchy" and "netarhia", in the same moment in time. Are there others, as there have always been at times when great ideas were pondered? This is definitely a trend and there will come a time when web technology and human consciousness will be ready for it.