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Swarming is “a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated, and strategic way to strike from all directions, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force,? (John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt)

"Swarming is the tactical (or, in some cases, operational) maneuver of converging of highly distributed forces at a single point to leverage the military principle of mass." (Jeff Vail)

Swarming is used in biology, to denote the collective intelligence and behaviour of social insects, in war, but also in political protest.


David de Ugarte:

“Swarming is the conflict mode in the network society, the way in which power is controlled in the new world, and at the same time the way in which the new world achieves the translation of the virtual into the material. How can action be thus organised in a distributed network world? How can civil swarming be achieved?

Firstly, by giving up organising. Movements arise through spontaneous selfaggregation, so planning who is going to do what makes no sense any more, as we won't know what the what will be until the who in question has acted.” (http://deugarte.com/gomi/the-power-of-networks.pdf)


How to Swarm

Jeff Vail at http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/01/swarming-open-source-warfare-and-black.html

Swarming depends on a few very simple principles: achieve them, and it will succeed, but deny these principles to a swarming force and it will be defeated:

1. Elusiveness, in the form of mobility or concealment

2. Standoff Firepower, relative to the opposing force

3. Situational awareness of the local environment, relative to the opposing force (http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/01/swarming-open-source-warfare-and-black.html)

The success of a rhizome swarm depends in large part on its ability to communicate and affect the “pulse” of swarm operations coherently. Hierarchal forces that utilize swarm tactics (i.e. most historical examples) utilize hierarchal command and control to decide and communicate when and where to swarm, to mass forces. However, dependence on such hierarchal methods presents a great risk to any rhizomatic structure: the potential to involuntarily transition to hierarchy. Even the clearly rhizomatic Black Block in Seattle relied upon the hierarchy of cellular phone networks to affect their rhizome command and control. Word of mouth networking and other rhizome means of communication are effective, but potentially too slow and exposed for use in swarm warfare. The dependence on existing hierarchal communications systems is, at present, the Achilles ’ heel of any rhizome swarm—I know from personal experience just how easy it is for hierarchal militaries to deny such communications networks at will. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to state that the future potential of rhizome militaries will rest on the need to identify and utilize a non-hierarchal communications vehicle… However, this need also represents an opportunity: due to the nature of swarm warfare, it is an ideal candidate for using a completely open communications network. It doesn’t matter if a hierarchal force intercepts the communications that result in the pulse of a swarming opponent—they will neither be able to process the rhizomatic nature of the information (i.e. flash mobs), nor will they be able to react fast enough to counter the pulse before it has disbursed." (http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/01/swarming-open-source-warfare-and-black.html)

On the influence of Deleuze and Guattari

Excerpted from http://www.metamute.org/?q=en/node/8192

It refers to the Israeli tactics mentioned below.

“Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute, which trains staff officers from the IDF and other militaries in ‘operational theory’ – defined in military jargon as somewhere between strategy and tactics. He summed up the mission of his institute, which was founded in 1996: ‘We are like the Jesuit Order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think. […] We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?; we read John Forester, and other architects. We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz. Not myself, but our soldiers, our generals are reflecting on these kinds of materials. We have established a school and developed a curriculum that trains “operational architects".’[4] In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari. War machines, according to the philosophers, are polymorphous; diffuse organizations characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis, made up of small groups that split up or merge with one another, depending on contingency and circumstances. (Deleuze and Guattari were aware that the state can willingly transform itself into a war machine. Similarly, in their discussion of ‘smooth space’ it is implied that this conception may lead to domination.)

I asked Naveh why Deleuze and Guattari were so popular with the Israeli military. He replied that ‘several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaux became instrumental for us […] allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise. It problematized our own paradigms. Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of “smooth" and “striated" space [which accordingly reflect] the organizational concepts of the “war machine" and the “state apparatus". In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space" when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. […] Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as “striated" in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roads blocks and so on.’[5] When I asked him if moving through walls was part of it, he explained that, ‘In Nablus the IDF understood urban fighting as a spatial problem. […] Travelling through walls is a simple mechanical solution that connects theory and practice.’"

Other critical theory influences:

“Critical theory has become crucial for Nave’s teaching and training. He explained: ‘we employ critical theory primarily in order to critique the military institution itself – its fixed and heavy conceptual foundations. Theory is important for us in order to articulate the gap between the existing paradigm and where we want to go. Without theory we could not make sense of the different events that happen around us and that would otherwise seem disconnected. […] At present the Institute has a tremendous impact on the military; [it has] become a subversive node within it. By training several high-ranking officers we filled the system [IDF] with subversive agents […] who ask questions; […] some of the top brass are not embarrassed to talk about Deleuze or [Bernard] Tschumi.’[10] I asked him, ‘Why Tschumi?’ He replied: ‘The idea of disjunction embodied in Tschumi’s book Architecture and Disjunction (1994) became relevant for us […] Tschumi had another approach to epistemology; he wanted to break with single-perspective knowledge and centralized thinking. He saw the world through a variety of different social practices, from a constantly shifting point of view. [Tschumi] created a new grammar; he formed the ideas that compose our thinking. I then asked him, why not Derrida and Deconstruction? He answered, ‘Derrida may be a little too opaque for our crowd. We share more with architects; we combine theory and practice. We can read, but we know as well how to build and destroy, and sometimes kill.’

In addition to these theoretical positions, Naveh references such canonical elements of urban theory as the Situationist practices of dérive (a method of drifting through a city based on what the Situationists referred to as ‘psycho-geography’) and détournement (the adaptation of abandoned buildings for purposes other than those they were designed to perform). These ideas were, of course, conceived by Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International to challenge the built hierarchy of the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, use and function, replacing private space with a ‘borderless’ public surface. References to the work of Georges Bataille, either directly or as cited in the writings of Tschumi, also speak of a desire to attack architecture and to dismantle the rigid rationalism of a postwar order, to escape ‘the architectural strait-jacket’ and to liberate repressed human desires."

Conclusions about the use of theory:

“Although you do not need Deleuze to attack Nablus, theory helped the military reorganize by providing a new language in which to speak to itself and others. A ‘smart weapon’ theory has both a practical and a discursive function in redefining urban warfare. The practical or tactical function, the extent to which Deleuzian theory influences military tactics and manoeuvres, raises questions about the relation between theory and practice. Theory obviously has the power to stimulate new sensibilities, but it may also help to explain, develop or even justify ideas that emerged independently within disparate fields of knowledge and with quite different ethical bases. In discursive terms, war – if it is not a total war of annihilation – constitutes a form of discourse between enemies. Every military action is meant to communicate something to the enemy. Talk of ‘swarming’, ‘targeted killings’ and ‘smart destruction’ help the military communicate to its enemies that it has the capacity to effect far greater destruction. Raids can thus be projected as the more moderate alternative to the devastating capacity that the military actually possesses and will unleash if the enemy exceeds the ‘acceptable’ level of violence or breaches some unspoken agreement. In terms of military operational theory it is essential never to use one’s full destructive capacity but rather to maintain the potential to escalate the level of atrocity. Otherwise threats become meaningless.

When the military talks theory to itself, it seems to be about changing its organizational structure and hierarchies. When it invokes theory in communications with the public – in lectures, broadcasts and publications – it seems to be about projecting an image of a civilized and sophisticated military. And when the military ‘talks’ (as every military does) to the enemy, theory could be understood as a particularly intimidating weapon of ‘shock and awe’, the message being: ‘You will never even understand that which kills you.’: " (http://www.metamute.org/?q=en/node/8192)

Swarming is not enough

An essay by Brian Holmes, which argues that swarming is not enough to explain self-organized emergent human behaviours, and that a set of additional factors are needed:

URL = http://multitudes.samizdat.net/Network-swarm-microstructure.html

1 - The Necessity of a Shared Horizon

"I am beginning to think that there are two fundamental factors that help to explain the consistency of self-organized human activity. The first is the existence of a shared horizon - aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, and/or metaphysical - which is patiently and deliberately built up over time, and which gives the members of a group the capacity to recognize each other as existing within the same referential universe, even when they are dispersed and mobile. You can think of this as "making worlds." The second is the capacity for temporal coordination at a distance : the exchange among a dispersed group of information, but also of affect, about unique events that are continuously unfolding in specific locations. This exchange of information and affect then becomes a set of constantly changing, constantly reinterpreted clues about how to act in the shared world. The flow aspect of the exchange means that the group is constantly evolving, and it is in this sense that it is an "ecology," a set of complex and changing inter-relations ; but this dynamic ecology has consistency and durability, it becomes recognizable and distinctive within the larger evironment of the earth and its populations, because of the shared horizon that links the participants together in what appears as a world (or indeed as a cosmos, when metaphysical or religious beliefs are at work)."

2 - Global Complex Microstructures

Brian Holmes then cites sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina:

""Modern, industrial society created ’complex’ forms of organizations that managed uncertainty and task fulfillment through interiorized systems of control and expertise. But complexity was institutional complexity ; it meant sophisticated multi-level mechanisms of coordination, authority and compensation that assured orderly functioning and performance. A global society leans towards a different form of complexity ; one emanating from more microstructural arrangements and the rise of mechanisms of coordination akin to those found in interaction systems.... The basic intuition that motivates the concept of a global microstructure is that genuinely global forms, by which I mean fields of practice that link up and stretch across all time zones (or have the potential to do so), need not imply further expansions of social institutional complexity. In fact, they may become feasible only if they avoid complex institutional structures. Global financial markets for example, where microstructures have been found, simply outrun the capacity of such structures. These markets are too fast, and change too quickly to be ’contained’ by institutional orders. Global systems based on microstructural principles do not exhibit institutional complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction patterns ; a complexity that results, in John Urry ?s terms, from a situation where order is not the outcome of purified social processes and is always intertwined with chaos. More concretely, these systems manifest an observational and temporal dynamics that is fundamental to their connectivity, auto-affective principles of self-motivation, forms of ’outsourcing’, and principles of content that substitute for the principles and mechanisms of the modern, complex organization." (http://multitudes.samizdat.net/Network-swarm-microstructure.html)

3 - From Pipes to Scopes

"Knorr Cetina stresses the creation of shared horizons in much the way that I described it above, focusing for this particular article on the religious horizon of a shared orientation to "transcendent time" (eschatology). As in previous articles on the microstructures of global finance, she also shows how networked ITCs allow participants of the microstructure to see and recognize each other, and to achieve cohesion by coordinating with each other in time, observing and commenting on the same events, even though the microstructure is very dispersed and not all the participants or even a majority of them are necessarily living anywhere near the particular event in question at any given moment. Cetina very suggestively reinterprets the usual idea of networks as a system of pipes conveying contents, to insist instead on the visual or scopic aspect of contemporary ICTs : from "pipes" to "scopes." Information is important for coordinating action ; but it is the image that maintains the shared horizon and insists on the urgency of action within it (especially through what Barthes called the "punctum" : the part that sticks out from the general dull flatness of the image and affectively touches you)." (http://multitudes.samizdat.net/Network-swarm-microstructure.html)

Difference between Swarming and Collective Intelligence

George Por at http://www.community-intelligence.com/blogs/public/archives/000270.html

Swarming is not CI because it lacks awareness and intentionality.

"Self-awareness is definirtely a requirement and antecedent of CI. That's exactly why I doubt that humans have a lot to learn from the frequently cited "CI" of bee hives, ant colonies, schools of fish, flock of birds, etc. Their coordinative mechanisms are great innovations of natural evolution that we need to study and understand but the quality of CI possible in human communities is quite different from, for instance, the "CI" of social insects. They have consciousness but unlike us, they are not conscious of having consciousness, therefore their available scenarios limited to the ones programmed by nature. We can change our future and that makes all the difference.

The negative impact of limited self-awareness is very visible in the Borg, and in real-life, authoritarian communities. Only evolved human beings who have chosen to realize their highest potential--being free from the limitations imposed by ego--will be capable to reach new peaks of collective intelligence demonstrated by the higher and sustained levels of shared-attention, harmony, joy, integration and collective performance. Personal evolution and collective intelligence are co-arising." (http://www.community-intelligence.com/blogs/public/archives/000270.html)


Military Swarming

"Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing—swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse." (Arquila and Ronfeldt cited in http://multitudes.samizdat.net/Network-swarm-microstructure.html)

"Swarming is a concept that owes its existence not just to Howard Rheingold’s “smart mob? but also to RAND’s John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. These RAND theorists have made the curious discovery that swarming tactics, which they describe as “a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated, and strategic way to strike from all directions, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force,? have often defeated larger, more advanced militaries (“Swarming and the Future of Conflict?, pg 45). This is true historically: many different armies have organized themselves into a swarm. Because swarming necessitates a shared information network, it is a developing military theory that evokes not only classic historical studies such as “Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future? but also the post-structuralist theory of “The Emergence of the Noopolitick?. Notice that the inspiration behind their work on the noosphere comes not from generals, but philosophers: Teilhard de Chardin, Foucault and Derrida. It is Gene Sharp that has given the movement an insight necessary for us to have even come to this discussion of swarming by way of the military." (http://www.why-war.com/features/read.php?id=4)

Swarming by the Israeli Army in Lebanon

Mute magazine reports on the use of swarming, and other ideas especially inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, at http://www.metamute.org/?q=en/node/8192

"On the use of swarming tactics: “During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of ‘overground tunnels’ carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manoeuvring simultaneously in the city, they were so ‘saturated’ into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux."

“The traditional manoeuvre paradigm, characterized by the simplified geometry of Euclidean order, is transformed, according to the military, into a complex fractal-like geometry. The narrative of the battle plan is replaced by what the military, using a Foucaultian term, calls the ‘toolbox approach’, according to which units receive the tools they need to deal with several given situations and scenarios but cannot predict the order in which these events would actually occur.[7] Naveh: ‘Operative and tactical commanders depend on one another and learn the problems through constructing the battle narrative; […] action becomes knowledge, and knowledge becomes action. […] Without a decisive result possible, the main benefit of operation is the very improvement of the system as a system.’" (http://www.metamute.org/?q=en/node/8192)

Swarming in Politics

The Seattle anti-WTO protests

From: Netwar in the Emerald City, Paul de Armond, at http://nwcitizen.com/publicgood/reports/wto/

"The Direct Action Network planned more effectively, and in the end more realistically, with a "Peoples Convergence" consisting of three waves of blockaders enclosing the WTO conference site. The first wave consisted of "affinity groups" who had opted for non-violent civil disobedience and arrest. Their job was to penetrate the area close to the conference site, seize the dozen strategic intersections which controlled movement in the protest target and hang on until reinforcements arrived. The second wave comprised protesters who had opted for non-violent demonstration and not being arrested. Their task was to protect the first wave from police violence and plug up the streets by sheer numbers and passive resistance. The third wave was a march by the People's Assembly, composed mostly of environmental and human rights groups who elected to participated in the street protests instead of the labor parade. This group entered downtown from the south at about 1 p.m. and marched to the Paramount Theatre inside the protest zone. The first and second waves were loosely organized into a dozen simultaneously converging affinity groups, swarming the protest target from all directions. Each affinity group blockaded a specific intersection. The blockade would be maintained as long as possible until police had arrested sufficient demonstrators to regain control of the streets.

The Direct Action Network's strategy is a classic example of "netwar" conflict. Netwar is a concept introduced in the early 1990's by two researchers at the RAND corporation, a government-funded think tank which began under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force. In a now-seminal paper titled "Cyberwar is Coming!", RAND analysts David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla proposed a new framework for viewing conflict in the information age. The essence of netwar is the emerging forms of conflict in which one or more of the major participants consist of networks, rather than institutions. The central feature of informational conflicts is the struggle for understanding and knowledge, as opposed to more traditional conflicts which focus on controlling territories or resources.

Netwar is inherently less violent than other forms of conflict, particularly when it involves non-governmental organizations dedicated to human rights and peace causes. One of the first full-blown manifestations of netwar was the Zapatista conflict in Chiapas. The networked intervention of international groups placed very real limits on the use of violence by the Mexican government in supressing the insurrection.

In the case of the Direct Action Network, the central prize consisted of the understanding that the WTO multi-lateral trade agreements are intensely corrosive to democracy, at least that form of democracy which entails a knowledgeable public participating in policy formation in meaningful ways.

Netwars are fought by networks; collections of groups and organizations guided by non-hierarchical command structures which communicate through "all-points" communications channels of considerable bandwidth and complexity. The DAN communications channels blanketed the Seattle area and had global reach via the internet. Institutions, such as corporate media, police and the AFL-CIO, tend to depend on narrow communications channels which are highly centralized and hierarchical.

Networks operate by "swarming" their opponents like bees or white blood cells -- more like organisms than machines. They approach stealthily and from many directions in offense. In defense, they can react like anti-bodies moving towards points of attack. Netwar's line between offense and defense can be blurred, leaving opponents unclear about what is occurring and how to respond. Throughout the protests, the Direct Action Network were able to offensively swarm their opponents repeatedly, as shown by the seizure of key intersections on Tuesday and the easy penetration of the "no-protest" zone on Wednesday. The anti-body defense was shown when crowds moved towards police attacks or mass arrests. The swarming action was also apparent when numerous groups within the AFL-CIO rally and parade successfully resisted efforts by the union leadership to keep them from supporting the DAN blockade of the WTO convention site.

The network form of organization is particularly robust and resilient in the face of adversity. The decentralized command and control structure allows rapid shifts of strategic targeting. It is highly resistant to "decapitation" (attacks which target leadership), and the disruption of communication channels. All three of these feature were present during the WTO protests. The diffuse communications network allowed protesters to continuously adapt to changing conditions. The consultative form of decision-making enhanced the ability to coordinate large-scale actions. The police attempts to arrest "ringleaders" on Wednesday were fruitless, since leadership was widely shared throughout the network of protest groups. The communications network was continuously being expanded and modified. On Tuesday, police cut off many of the Direct Action Network communications channels, but in a few hours a new and larger network based on cell phones was functioning." (http://nwcitizen.com/publicgood/reports/wto/)

More Information

Analysis by Jeff Vail at http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/01/swarming-open-source-warfare-and-black.html

Good article called Swarming Theory at the National Geographic, at http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0707/feature5/


Compiled by Joel Dietz [1]:

"Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial"


Arquilla, John., and Ronfeld, David. Swarming & the Future of Conflict, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005.

Bonabeau, Eric; Doringo, Marco; Theraulax, Guy. Swarm Intelligence: from Natural to Artificial Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Falkvinge, Rick. Swarmwise: The tactical manual to changing the world. CreateSpace, 2013.

Godlin, Seth. Tribes: We need you to lead us. Penguin. 2008.

Edwards, Sean J. A., Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future,Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin, 2008.

Surowiecki, James. Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor, 2005.

Van Creveld, Martin, The Transformation of War,New York: Free Press, 1991.

Wilson, Edward O., The Insect Societies, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rolling Jr, James Haywood, Swarm Intelligence; what nature teaches us about shaping creative leadership, 2013