Hierarchy in Distributed Networks

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  • Article: Hierarchy in Distributed Networks. By David de Ugarte.

Excerpted from the book: The Power of Networks


David de Ugarte:

“The capacity to transmit is the capacity to bring people together, to summon up the collective will, to act. The capacity to transmit is a precondition for political action.

And in every decentralised structure, such a capacity really is exclusive to very few nodes. In distributed networks, by definition, nobody depends exclusively on anyone else in order to send his message to a third party. There are no unique filters. In both kinds of network “everything is connected to everything,” but in distributed networks the difference lies in the fact that any transmitter doesn't have to always go necessarily through the same nodes in order to reach others. A local newspaper doesn't have to sell its version of an event to an agency journalist who has just come to the area, and a local politician in a village doesn't need to convince all his regional and provincial colleagues in order to reach his fellow party members in other parts of the country. Don't distributed networks have political forms of organisation then? The thing is that we have become so used to living within decentralised power networks that we tend to confuse the organisation of representation with the organisation of collective action. The perversion of decentralisation has reached such a degree that “democracy” has become synonymous with electing representatives – that is, filter nodes.

What defines a distributed network is, as Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist say, that every individual agent decides for himself, but lacks the capacity and opportunity to decide for any of the other agents.

In this sense, every distributed network is a network between equals, even though some nodes may be better connected than others. But what is important is that, within such a system, decision making is not binary. It's not a matter of “yes” or “no”. It's a matter of “to a greater or lesser degree.”

Someone makes a proposal and everyone who wishes to join in can do so. The range of the action in question will depend on the degree to which the proposal is accepted. This system is called a pluriarchy, and, according to the same authors, it makes it impossible to maintain the fundamental notion of democracy, where the majority decide for the minority whenever there are disagreements. Even if the majority not only disagreed with a proposal, but also acted against it, it wouldn't be able to prevent the proposal from being carried out. Democracy is in this sense a scarcity system: the collective must face an either/or choice, between one filter and another, between one representative and another.

It is easy to see why there is no conventional “direction” within pluriarchic networks. But you can also see that it is inevitable that groups will arise whose aim will be to bring about a greater ease of flow within networks. These are groups that specialise in proposing and facilitating group action. They are usually inwards rather than outwards-oriented, although in the end they are inevitably taken for representatives of the whole of the network or, at least, for an embodiment of the identity that defines them. Members of these groups are netocrats within each network – in a certain sense, network leaders, as they cannot make decisions but can use their own careers, their prestige, and their identification with the values of the whole or a part of the network to call for group action.

What happens when a distributed structure clashes with a decentralised one?

The decentralised structure has the upper hand when it comes to mobilisation capabilities and speed. In recent years, there have been plenty of examples of rulers who have thought that controlling traditional filters (i.e. press and TV) would be enough to condition the citizenship by ensuring that only the most convenient pieces of news reached them. However, the emergence of the new information networks led them to come up against thousand of citizens who had taken to the streets. In some cases (Philippines, Spain, etc.), it has led them to resign. But what matters most is not so much the result of those demonstrations as what they were symptoms of.

Thousands of pages have been written trying to fathom where the power of text messages, the electronic “word of mouth”, lies, but that is really only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that these cyberthrongs would have been unthinkable in the absence of a new distributed mode of communication.” (http://deugarte.com/gomi/the-power-of-networks.pdf)