Jonathan Mendel

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March 02, 2011

Unrest, networks and connectivity

Last year, I wrote about the role of networks and connectivity in Afghanistan. I argued that such connectivity was key to the unpredictable and dramatic events emerging from the state. I ended the article by arguing (p. 746) that, rather than events in Afghanistan are part of a project of globalisation which potentially exceeds any US imperial project:

what is currently taking place in and emerging from Afghanistan could go well beyond any failing American imperialism. This projection – this throwing forwards – of globalisation will tend to ‘land’ in unexpected places, will tend to exceed the ambitions of those seeking a straightforwardly pro-US version of globalisation. Moreover, the forms of organisation currently in play in Afghanistan mean that – in the projection or throwing forwards of globalisation – it is no longer at all clear who is doing the throwing: instead of globalisation being US-led, a certain kind of project of globalisation may be an emergent property of the networks currently active in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Given the efficacy of such networks it could well – once again – be the case that networks flowing from, within, over and through Afghanistan are able to defeat a superpower.

I appreciate that for me to argue that the future is uncertain is not exactly a radical innovation. However, I do think that this work on Afghan networks might relate in some interesting ways to the role of networks and connectivity in the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and parts of Africa. I will use this blog post to think about how my ideas about network and connectivity could apply in these new contexts[1]: arguing that we may be seeing the emergence of new types of political movements. This is quite speculative - thinking about how particular concepts might apply in new situations - and, especially given the rapidity and uncertainty of what's unfolding, it's likely that I've got plenty of things wrong. I have found it useful to think about how some of these ideas might be extended, though.

I argue (p. 733) that non-Western states are often and inappropriately seen as primitive and disconnected:

Moving away from the assumption of a Western norm can open up other ways of thinking about certain processes. Sidaway argues that African states “are configured not simply by an absence of connection, power and capital, but by a particular form and experience (conceivably a surplus) of these” [2]. Analogously, it would be wrong to conceptualise Afghan networks as a failed representation of an external model…the startlingly ‘successful’ networking and globalisation taking place there may point to other potential models and futures.

Various networks are, it seems, also proving highly significant in the emerging unrest. The role of online social networks has captured a great deal of attention: these have been used in significant ways by many involved in the protests. As Peter Beaumont argues

Precisely how we communicate in these moments of historic crisis and transformation is important. The medium that carries the message shapes and defines as well as the message itself. The instantaneous nature of how social media communicate self-broadcast ideas, unlimited by publication deadlines and broadcast news slots, explains in part the speed at which these revolutions have unravelled, their almost viral spread across a region. It explains, too, the often loose and non-hierarchical organisation of the protest movements unconsciously modelled on the networks of the web.

However, what we’re seeing here is not some virtualising move beyond space and place. Instead, for Beaumont

the importance and impact of social media on each of the rebellions we have seen this year has been defined by specific local factors (not least how people live their lives online in individual countries and what state limits were in place). Its role has been shaped too by how well organised the groups using social media have been.

In my article on networks (p. 740), I note that

Painter advocates a move beyond any network-territory dichotomy: network and territory discourses should be conceptualised as different aspects of the same reality [3]. [Certain] network discourse can be read as an overlay network: a network that overlays territorial discourses, and functions across and over such discourse…Interactions between networks and territories are complex and it is not simply a case on one replacing the other [4]. In Smith’s terms, “Power is never deterritorialized; it is always specific to particular places. Reterritorialization counters deterritorialization at every turn”.[5]…One should therefore not ‘just’ focus on the problems that territorial and network discourses face in coexisting. Instead, networks can overlay territorial discourses in particular ways: networks can both draw on territorial discourses and play important roles in these discourses.

These networks were not simply technological. As Beaumont argues:

In Egypt, details of demonstrations were circulated by both Facebook and Twitter and the activists' 12-page guide to confronting the regime was distributed by email. Then, the Mubarak regime – like Ben Ali's before it – pulled the plug on the country's internet services and 3G network. What social media was replaced by then – oddly enough – was the analogue equivalent of Twitter: handheld signs held aloft at demonstrations saying where and when people should gather the next day.
It seems likely that, in other settings, very low-tech aspects of networks (from signs to the bodies of human and non-human animals) were also significant. As I argue in my work on Afghan networks, what is of interest here is the use of a networked form (which may echo social media networks) and not just the technology.

It is not clear what will be (or, even, what has been) achieved with these networks. I argue, after Arquilla and Ronfeldt, that

unpredictability…is an inherent part of the efficacy of networks in conflict. Netwar works so well because it “tends to defy and cut across standard spatial boundaries, jurisdictions, and distinctions between state and society, public and private, war and crime, civilian and military, police and military, and legal and illegal. A netwar actor is likely to operate in the cracks and gray areas of the society.” [6]
Network actors seem, now, to be working strikingly effectively to do some things: with two regimes overthrown and dramatic stories from elsewhere: for example, barely-armed Libyan protesters reportedly defeating elite troops.

Writing about the protests, Hardt and Negri argue that:

the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre – that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously.

Networks and connectivity seem likely to offer populations valuable tools with which to organise and to campaign for social change. As the project of globalisation develops, it is increasingly unclear where its impacts will project to: these networks bring significant inherent unpredictability. Networks and connectivity offer powerful tools, though, for those seeking to express grievances or drive social change – and, to repeat the Ani di Franco quote which is used as an epigraph for Empire, “Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right”.

1: I appreciate that it’s rather navel-gazing to be quoting myself at such length here. I’m (selfishly) interested, though, in looking at how some of my ideas around networks and connectivity might usefully be applied in other contexts. I understand that others may not share this interest, however.

2: J. D. Sidaway, ‘Sovereign Excesses? Portraying Postcolonial Sovereigntyscapes’, Political
22/2 (2003), p. 16

3: J. Painter, ‘Territoire et Réseau: Une Fausse Dichotomie?’, in M. Vanier (ed.), Territoires,
Territorialité, Territorialisation: Controverses et Perspectives
(Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes

4: In the article, I use the example of Al Qaeda. I should make very clear that I am in no way suggesting that current protest movements are in any way linked to Al Qaeda nor that they use the same type of violence. What is of interest, though, is the use of networks by very different movements.

5: N. Smith, The Endgame of Globalization (New York: Routledge 2005), p. 51

6: J. Arquilla and D. F. Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar (Santa Monica: RAND 1996), p. 13

Posted by jon_mendel at March 2, 2011 06:40 PM

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