This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

‘If you take Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings and give him a mobile phone, the story ends very differently’: Social media, organisational cybernetics and non-hierarchical organisation’

Thomas Swann (School of Management, University of Leicester), trs6@le.ac.uk Paper presented at the 2nd Anarchist Studies Network conference: ‘Making Connections’ held at Loughborough University from the 3rd to the 5th of September 2012.

The title of this paper, ‘If you take Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings and give him a mobile phone, the story ends very differently’, comes from a tweet by the journalist Paul Mason. Now, I’ve not actually read or seen Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think you need to to get the point of the tweet: social media, in the form of mobile phones or otherwise, change the way people organise. I want to focus on the riots of last year as one example of how this works, and try to provide a framework that helps understand exactly what’s happening when people use social media to organise during protests and uprisings. One of the key points I want to argue for is for a connection between autonomist thinking on networks and anarchist ideas about organisation. The riots of last year, along with other uprisings in 2011, can be seen as an example of the new form that political action is taking. Rather than the hierarchical command form of traditional leftist political organisations, contemporary movements and uprisings are taking a more networked form. This is described by authors such as Manuel Castells (1997; 1999), Jeffrey Juris (2005), Walter W. Powell (1990) and Autonomist Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004) as a set of interconnected nodes with no centre. Slime Mould is a good example of how networks operate. Slime mould works as a network of cells which, at certain times, group together to form clusters which work as a single organism. These clusters are able to form without any special ‘founder’ or ‘pacemaker’ cells and are able to exhibit complex behaviours such as avoiding hazards and reaching nutrients through decentralised control. Networks, then, are characterised by decentralisation, an ability to work effectively without traditional leadership and the notion of emergence whereby a new form of

This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

organisation, the network, comes into existence when the nodes are connected and which has behaviours that are potentially dissimilar to those of the nodes. Social media is coming to be seen as central to the ways in which networks are organised. During the riots, people used BlackBerry Messenger especially to coordinate activities and avoid the police, and this was not the first case of such a tactical (as opposed to strategic) use of social media. In attempting to understand the exact form and structure of this social media networked organisation, I want to turn to organisational cybernetics. As a form of systems theory, organisational cybernetics was developed in the middle of the 20th century and focused on how effective organisation takes the form of networks with individual operating units having autonomy in line with the overall goals of the system or organisation. Anthony Stafford Beer, one of the founders of the theory, argues that in an organisation that successfully deals with the changes in its environment, these changes are in a sense mirrored in the organisation (Beer 1974). This is known as Ashby’s Law or the Law of Requisite Variety. The variety in the environment, the fluctuations of states is mirrored in the organisation, and so an effective organisation must have the ability to respond in a flexible manner to environmental changes. The way this manifests itself in the Viable Systems Model used by cybernetics theorists is as a tiered structure within a given organisation. The first of the five levels or sub-systems in the organisation is concerned with operations or implementation of a certain policy. Sub-system one units have the autonomy to decide how best to do this but must act within the restrictions of the overall goals of the organisation. The second sub-system monitors what happens with each sub-system one unit and transmits relevant information to other sub-system one units, so that in addition to having information over their own niche, they also have information about what is happening in other units’ niches, allowing them to better make decisions. The third sub-system also monitors the first’s units but to determine whether they are operating according to the goals of the organisation. Sub-system four has a complete picture of what is happening in the organisation trough monitoring the environment and information passed from sub-system three. This picture allows the fifth and final sub-system to determine the goals of the organisation and the overall policy. The crucial thing to note with this model is, firstly, the autonomy afforded to sub-system one units and, secondly, the importance of flows of information throughout the organisation that
This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

support this autonomy. How this relates to the riots should be apparent: individuals, armed with BlackBerry phones, were able to riot autonomously while being connected to the organisational network through the flow of information. People in one area were able to share information about their situation with others in the network which enabled them to act autonomously in an effective way. People could share information about police movements allowing others to move about safely, for example. One of the first things that should jump out at you about this account of networked organisation is that it is clearly structured around a form of hierarchy, something which is antithetical to not only autonomist ideas about networks but also about understandings of the riots. So why is this theory at all relevant? In the 1960s, there was some enthusiasm for organisational cybernetics within the more academic sections of the anarchist movement in the UK. Colin Ward, for example, argued (1966) that ‘Cybernetic theory with its emphasis on self-organising systems, and speculation about the ultimate social effects of automation, leads in a similar revolutionary direction (to anarchism).’ This is because there is a distinction, made by John McEwan, another post-war anarchist writer, between anatomical hierarchy and functional hierarchy (McEwan 1963). The former is what we normally understand by the word: hierarchical and stratified structures. The later, however, refers to forms of decision making that are hierarchical in terms of order but not in terms of structure. The hierarchy in the cybernetic model doesn’t exist in any material way and involves no formal or informal authority or fixed roles. It is instead a model of how at different times decisions will be made and processes will take place within the organisation which may be described as higher or lower to other decisions and processes in terms of how they impact on them. We can see this in operation in the use of social media during the riots. While there was no structural hierarchy, there was a level of the organisation which decided which information was important to be distributed and which was relevant. When a message was sent through one part of the network, it would be resent or ignored depending on how relevant it was to others in the organisation. Functionally, there was a level of organisation above the level of the individual rioters, although this only existed in individual rioters stepping outside of their role as rioters and into a role of information distributers, even if only for the few seconds it takes to read and resend a message. A federated model of organisation, which has a long tradition in anarchism, helps to explain how a cybernetic model of organisation could be consistent with a rejection of hierarchy and
This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

centralisation. Classical anarchists like Proudhon, Kropotkin and Bakunin argued for a form of organisation based on autonomy and self-organisation which would be organised from the bottom up rather than the top down. Bakunin, for example, writes the following (1871): ‘The future social organization should be carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with the associations, then going on to the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation.’ Elsewhere, Bakunin (1866) similarly argues that ‘all organizations must proceed by way of federation from the base to the summit, from the commune to the coordinating association of the country or nation.’ Here we have a picture of a federated form of organisation in which smaller local organisations, free associations or cooperatives, link up with one another at the level of the commune. Communes then link up in a regional council and so on to the level of an international council. The key feature of the model of organisation, according to Bakunin, is that every unit at a particular level of organisation is free to act autonomously and shall not be coerced or manipulated into following commands from higher levels of organisation. If a particular unit decides to act contrary to the decisions democratically made by the levels above it, it will be excluded from the benefits of the federation but will be maintained at a basic level so as to avoid covert coercion in the form of negative effects of acting autonomously. Outside of the decisions of higher levels, the individual units are able to act completely autonomously. Indeed, for Bakunin and other classical anarchists, the federation or, at the more local level, the cooperative or free association of individuals is in fact the condition for autonomy. In addition to proposing a recursive form of organisation, as Ward notes, anarchism prioritises diversity over unity and thus is in line with the account of harmony through complexity found in organisational cybernetics. Peter Kropotkin, for example, writes the following of complexity (1927, 76-7): in all production there arises daily thousands of difficulties which no government can solve or foresee. It is certainly impossible to foresee everything. Only the efforts of thousands of intelligences working on the problems can cooperate in the development of a new social system and find the best solution for the thousands of local needs. In terms of both the structure of a federated network and the privileging of diversity or complexity, then, anarchist ideas of organisation, of which I have only here provided the
This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

briefest sketch, converge with those of cyberneticians like Beer. Given this, and the account of functional hierarchy put forward by McEwan, it is possible to pick up where Ward and McEwan left off and develop a provisional model of a non-hierarchical anarchist form of organisational cybernetics: a networked mode of organisation that is attentive to the anarchist rejection of hierarchy promotion of autonomy, on the one hand, and to the requirement of efficient systems to cope with environmental variety by amplifying their own, on the other. To conclude, I want to suggest how this research can proceed. In attempting to view the riots within the framework of horizontal organisation and social media, and according to the model of organisational cybernetics, which it should be stressed is not to say that the system or model exists in the world but that it is analytically helpful to apply it to the world, one must perform a systems diagnostic using available data. This would involve identifying the individual parts of the organisation according to the VSM as well as the lines of communication that connected the individual nodes. By doing so, a potential model can be developed for non-hierarchical and effective organisation that builds on the insights of network theory and cybernetics and gives the autonomy of the parts of the organisation primacy. It is in this sense that this can be said to be a model for non-hierarchical organisation.

This is a draft of a paper currently in preparation. Please do not cite without the author’s permission.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful