History is on the side of people of Libya because ideas and networks know no boundaries

I always wanted to do this post ..  It is also a part of a forthcoming book .. Comments welcome

History is on the side of people of Libya because ideas and networks know no boundaries. Which means Gadaffi and others like him can never win no matter how many military gains they make .. Here’s why …

Hierarchies and networks

What exactly is a network? And why are networks so special?

Networks are all around us. But their effects are less well because  in our daily lives, we are used to hierarchies; for example, in the organization of offices and institutions, we still see hierarchical structures. Hierarchies are the opposite of networks. While hierarchies will not be replaced by networks in all cases, but  already, through the Internet, we are seeing networks assert their strength in many aspects of Life. Networks have a subtle but disruptive impact. Global warming is a good example of a network level change. Here, by ‘network level change’, we mean that events leading to global warming are interconnected, but their impact is felt only over a long period of time and is felt separately from the change that triggers it. For instance, you cannot know by how much exactly the ozone layer will change for every plastic bag that you fail to recycle, but most people would agree that the environment is impacted  for every such plastic bag that ends up on the ocean floor.

On first impression, networks are not special in any way. A network is simply a collection of links between units (also called nodes). Networks exist at multiple levels: global, societal (country), group (office), and individual.

Every unit within a network can be seen as a closed system. Closed systems interact in predetermined ways.

When a network connects more than two closed systems, their interaction is no longer predetermined.

This could be seen as ‘opening up’ the system. The system has now gone from a closed system to an open system. Open systems interact in unknown, radical ways. All closed systems have a natural propensity to find new connections which cause them to ‘open up’.

What happens when networks open up and how do networks evolve?

But what happens when systems open up? That is, how do networks evolve? This is a complex question.

You can study the propensity of a system to change in two ways: as a biological system or as a mathematical system. From a biological perspective, a system evolves to survive and to grow. First there is an initial interaction. From that interaction comes variation―the system changes and adapts. Over time, there is selection and retention―the best qualities are adopted and retained. This approach is basically along the lines of Darwin’s natural selection theories.

From a mathematical perspective, networks evolve by creating order out of chaos. How does order appear in a network? Without going into the mathematics, all parts of the system appear to communicate with all other parts purely by local interactions.

In general, a system comprises a set of interacting or independent entities that form an integrated whole.[1] When we speak of a system, we also define a boundary―the external context within which the system exists. Entities within a system interact with one another (within the boundaries of the system) but can also interact with entities from outside the system’s boundaries. An open system[2] continuously interacts with its environment. In doing so, it evolves and grows based on external input. In contrast, a closed system does not get external feedback and does not evolve. Breakdown of hierarchies are related to networks and open systems, which lead to connections, and more connections lead to more social interactions and to a “step change” in the body of knowledge.

Clustering: More than connecting friends – An amplification of ideas

When left to themselves, networks have a tendency to “cluster” because two elements connected to a common third element are more likely to establish links among themselves, leading to clusters. This leads to phenomena like six degrees of separation. “Six degrees of separation…refers to the idea that everyone is [at most] six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of ‘a friend of a friend’ statements can be made…to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.”[3] Thus, networks can potentially connect friends, and these human factors offer a bigger reason for the success of social networks.

But networks do more than ‘connecting friends’, networks propagate and amplify ideas. Places that lie at the crossroads are a hub of new ideas simply because they ‘connect people’.  Consider the case of the ancient mummies found in the Tarim Basin. The Tarim Basin[4] is located in the far western region of China. Surrounded by inhospitable mountains and deserts, the Tarim basin is a vast, arid micro-continent and may have been one of the last places in Asia to be inhabited because its aridity required that technology for water transport and storage be developed before people could live there. However, ancient DNA from mummies found there suggests that a culturally rich and interrelated population of Western, Eurasian, and Asian people had lived here since the early Bronze Age. If this region was so arid and inhospitable, why did people choose to live there, intermingle and thrive in such a hostile environment? Despite its bleakness, the proximity of the Tarim basin to the ancient Silk Road was the main reason for its cultural development. Thus, living at a crossroads is good for the creation of new ideas no matter how hostile  the surroundings.

With networks, we no longer need geographical hubs – we have social hubs and these social hubs are far more fluid, dynamic, global and disruptive to control by dictators like Gadaffi

So, why are networks important?

Simply because networks lead to Open systems. Open Systems lead to a breakdown of hierarchy and this impacts society broadly.  In a world in which hierarchies break down, we see  a phase of creative destruction which manifests itself in the liberalization of society.

The liberalization of society – The cultural impact of networks and social networks

The rise of networks and the liberalization of society go together. As networks proliferate, society becomes more liberal. Because ideas and networks know no boundaries and they have a tendency to open up closed ecosystems, their effects are global. The flow of information and connections breaks down hierarchies and questions the blind following of authority. As connections are formed globally and contradictory views are shared and discussed, we will question many forms of authority and structure in society that we have taken for granted in the past for instance, governance, religion, Identity(to which groups we affiliate ourselves and the creation of a global identity) and spirituality. Thus, networks have a disruptive effect. They topple existing frameworks most of which are based on existing hierarchies . In many cases, existing frameworks and hierarchies are often a result of an older power struggle that has played out, and the results of which are now  maintained often through force. Networks disrupt that status quo.

In this sense, networks can be good for humanity and we will see networks bring about even more creative destruction in future. The relationship is symbiotic. The more we use networks and grow, the more the network is enriched.

Dictators and guns will go the way of the Dodo ..

Why this matters – The creation of a global Identity

Why this matters? – I would very much urge you to listen to this brief, poignant recording from ‘Sara’ in Libya. Most people in free societies can relate to this young woman …  and that’s why liberalization of societies and evolution of networks matter at a human level. – We’re not living like humans I would even go so far as to say that the empathy and support at individual levels through social networks is far more significant than that from governments and that over time, as we relate to people like Sara and networks connect us, a new global Identity will emerge ..

With no colonels!

Image source: The rebel flag of Libya and also  Step by step: make your own flag to support a free Libya!

The ideas in this post are a part of a forthcoming book. Comments welcome

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_system_(systems_theory)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarim_Basin

The girl named Facebook: The Russians (and the Egyptians and the Libyans and the Tunisians and ..) love their children too .

There is a girl born in Egypt in the last few weeks .. named ‘facebook’ ..

Who would have thought that a girl would be named Facebook (in gratitude for Facebook’s capacity to bring about democracy in Egypt) .. and for that matter, who would have forseen the dramatic and historic transformation we are witnessing in the Middle East ..

The principles of how societies could move towards democracy through organic, non-violent techniques were described byGene Sharp a few decades ago in his insightful pamphlet called From dictatorship to democracy: A conceptual framework for liberation (pdf)

Originally published in Bangkok in 1993 by the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma in association with Khit Pyaing (The New Era Journal), Gene Sharp’s ‘From dictatorship to democracy’ has since been translated into at least thirty-one other languages and has been published in Serbia, Indonesia, and Thailand, among other countries.

Why is the impact of that document being felt only now after a few decades?

What happened between 1993 and 2011?

Even a school kid would be able to guess that the Internet is the single biggest change in that time. But more importantly, the impact of the Internet is only JUST being felt!

Wikipedia outlines an insightful analysis of Gene Sharp’s thinking:

Sharp’s key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organization – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.

In Sharp’s view all effective power structures have systems by which they encourage or extract obedience from their subjects. States have particularly complex systems for keeping subjects obedient. These systems include specific institutions (police, courts, regulatory bodies) but may also involve cultural dimensions that inspire obedience by implying that power is monolithic (the god cult of the Egyptian pharaohs, the dignity of the office of the President, moral or ethical norms and taboos). Through these systems, subjects are presented with a system of sanctions (imprisonment, fines, ostracism) and rewards (titles, wealth, fame) which influence the extent of their obedience.

Sharp identifies this hidden structure as providing a window of opportunity for a population to cause significant change in a state. Sharp cites the insight of Étienne de La Boétie, that if the subjects of a particular state recognize that they are the source of the state’s power they can refuse their obedience and their leader(s) will be left without power.

The ideas were known for decades but they needed an extra element before the ‘Smart Mobs’ could change regimes by non-violent means. That extra element was the ‘Technologies of co-operation (pdf)’ which acts as a kind of blueprint to identify common elements in social technologies

This report, Technologies of Cooperation (SR-897), maps the key concepts and choices associated with eight technology clusters and concludes with a set of seven strategic guidelines:

• Shift focus from designing systems to providing platforms
• Engage the community in designing rules to match their culture, objectives, and tools; encourage peer contracts in place of coercive sanctions by distant authority when possible
• Learn how to recognize untapped or invisible resources
• Identify key thresholds for achieving “phase shifts” in behaviour or performance
• Track and foster diverse and emergent feedback loops
• Look for ways to convert present knowledge into deep memory
• Support participatory identity

Conceptually, these technologies provide the ‘implementation’ for Gene Sharp’s ideas

And the results have been more interesting than anyone could have imagined.

Victor Hugo said that it is not possible to stop an idea whose time has come ..

-   Gadaffi’s son know that well when he laments  facing a ‘facebook revolution’ – one which is nebulous and hard to control.

-   The BBC has become a second hand reporting medium reporting on tweets and videos which we can all see on YouTube and

-   On one hand the United States applauds the spread of democracy but on the other hand worries about its 100 Billion USD armaments exports to the middle east

Meanwhile, the impact of the Internet and its collaborative technologies is just beginning.

So, I am hoping that more such babies named ‘Facebook’ will be born in other countries in the near future as democracy reaches them too!

One of my favourite songs Is from Sting called the Russians whose lyrics go

How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

i.e. in the cold war, when both sides could easily annihilate each other, the only hope was if the ‘Russians loved their children too’

So the last few weeks have shown us that Egyptians and the Libyans and the Tunisians and ..many more countries love their children too .. and that is a cause of hope and optimism for humanity.

Note: This article was originally posted at Howard Rheingold’s forthcoming Rheingold U for which I was privileged to be invited as an early student/participant. Here is Howard Rheingold’s blog about the experiment

Update:  also see The truth about Twitter, Facebook and the uprisings in the Arab world

Image source: NPR

RIP Charles Moore

Charles moore.jpg

Charles Moore died last week. To see his iconic work, see this slide show from the BBC about Charles Moore

Image source: CBS news

UK filesharers to be ‘cut off’ – Should we cut off repeat non payers of water bills from their water supply and drinking water as well?

UK file sharers to be ‘cut off’ – I thought I saw last of stupid regulation at EU: UK frees terroriststracks file sharers!

Don’t get me wrong ..I am opposed to file sharing. However, access to the Internet is a fundamental right .. and the French three strikes proposal was rightly rejected by the EU since the Internet is a fundamental right ..

As @Kerryritz says file sharers don’t have a yacht on which they can entertain mandelsohn

Stephen Timms, minister for Digital Britain, explained the change of heart. as per the BBC

“We’ve been listening carefully to responses to the consultation this far, and it’s become clear there are widespread concerns that the plans as they stand could delay action, impacting unfairly upon rights holders,” he said.

While it’s interesting to see that our government listens to people .. who has the time to respond to such ‘consultations’ in a recession? I would say – mostly lobbyists!

I don’t recollect a ‘consultation for the Iraq war?’ – i.e.governments ‘listen’ only when they choose to .. or they are ‘encouraged’ to by lobbyists ..

Again .. I am not pro file sharing .. But legislation like this will alienate even the moderates like me. It will achieve nothing ..

And I do see it as a breach of human rights ..

Let’s put it this way .. A person is poor .. they can’t pay their water bills. Their landlord chucks them out .. this happens again .. and again .. making the person a repeat offender for the water companies ..

So, now .. should we create laws to prevent this person from drinking water?


The telegraph reports that

The government’s new proposals come just days after Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, met David Geffen, the founder of Asylum Records and the man who set up DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg, at a private dinner when on holiday in Corfu.

Lord Mandelson is keen to adopt a tougher approach to internet piracy, estimated to cost the movie industry alone around £1.4 billion a year.

Seven million people – one in 12 of the population – regularly download music and films illicitly.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said there was no discussion of online piracy when Lord Mandelson met Geffen and there is no connection between that meeting and the Government’s new proposals on illegal filesharing.

I find that last statement hard to believe .. and I wonder how a government department spokesman can issue such a categorical statement on the contents of a private dinner on holiday .. I mean how can they prove one way or the other?

Delara Darabi

Delara Darabi execution – deplorable. More HERE

Girl with a one-track mind


I saw this post in Susan Mernit’s blog and after reading it a few times and looking at the links there in, I have decided to cross link her post here about (Please note the following links to a blog with some adult content) about Sunday Times acting news editor Nicholas Hellen

There are four reasons for doing this

a) An individual’s privacy should be respected – especially a journalist threatening to publish details about a person’s address, their mother’s profession etc is not acceptable. It is this sort of behaviour that gives journalism a bad name and victimises individuals(who have little resources against the might of big media).

b) Blogosphere can act as a counterpoint to big media – and I hope the Zoe Margolis, aka Abby Lee(the author of ‘The Girl with a one track mind’) will benefit from this

c) I respect Susan Mernit views as well. I see this as a form of activism from Susan’s side – and I support that

d) This blogger activism may be a part of a larger trend and I support want to support that trend ; for instance Robert Scoble’s involvement in the John Edwards campaign. By empowering blogosphere and bloggers at the expense of big media, lawyers, Governments etc, I believe society and individuals (who are often defenceless against onslaughts of media, government etc) can benefit. That’s the same reason for supporting Boing Boing (Xeni ofcourse does fine on her own – but it was still a means to show support!)

In fairness, If I see an official response from Sunday Times, I will link that here as well.

PS: I have not read the book Girl with a one track mind. I will probably not get coverage for my own book in the Sunday times (Mobile Web 2.0 ) after this! But still, the point needs to be made!