Beyond Building: Networks as Constraints

“Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being”[1]. Marc Andreessen’s recent call to build as a means to regenerate American growth and reinvigorate ossifying institutions is an attempt to break through the latent stagnation in both American and wider Western growth patterns. A teleology of building to disrupt political deadlocks and move from neoliberalism or the California ideology (which has seen huge growth in software, financial engineering and logistics alongside a stagnation in productivity, wages and the “real” economy) to a state-led (or governance-led) post-Keynesian social order[2] with greater state-corporate partnership and a focus on infrastructure.

It also reveals the current constraints of modern governance and the prevailing organisational era. In the modelling of Perezian cycles, the 20th century witnessed a move from an industrial form of organisation (dominated by conglomerations and a strong intertwining of corporate-union-state interests) to a network form of organisation dominated by logistical dynamics and nodal governance. These cycles are defined by different techno-economic paradigms and infrastructures, as well as different methods of communication. For the industrial cycle, mass production and the centralised infrastructure of highways, railways and universal electricity are within a paradigm of economies of scale, hierarchical firms and functional specialisation. The network (age of information and telecommunications) cycle is defined by software, multiplicitous dialogic communication and “high-speed physical transport links” within a paradigm of globalisation and decentralised/distributed firms[3].

The network era is defined by its nodal points of connection, cities, airports and large hubs that are the central nodes for networked economic activity (supply chains, decentralised production routes, trade networks) to occur at global and temporally accelerative level. Virilio notes the phenomena of airports as the linkages of the global economy that enact polar inertia[4], or inertial speed (in the sense that as we move closer to absolute speed through the deterritorialising effects of globalisation, we reach a stage of non-movement, where speed has moved beyond movement into instantaneousness). Airports (“where the chrono-politics of jet travel collide with the remnants of national geo-politics. In other words, airports enact another way of thinking about global relationships. They quite literally operate through a ‘network logic’ that cuts across the categories of nation states and territory, humans and animals, products and machines, and material and informational modes of mobility and reconnects them in new relationships to each other”[5]) are a primary symbol of the network era, being both the point of departure (from the constraints of nation-states into networks of interconnected cities and away from landscapes toward time-scapes) and the development of new constraints, as the current economic cycle stagnates and a networked globalisation is open to vulnerabilities (nationalism, trade wars, pandemics, the move to extremely competitive[6] and destructive[7] forms of network, etc.).

In the cyclical movement of paradigms, this is the move from the logic of industriousness (that of building and constructing) to the logic of dialogue and the flow of information through networks of interconnectivity. Dialogue is a constraint then on the very nature of building, as it is fundamentally related to flow or circuitry, that that moves through buildings or between institutions. We can see this methodology in the movements of warfare, particularly that of the Iraq War and its related guerrilla insurgencies. “A new variation on an extremely old method of warfare has emerged. This new method is called systems disruption…It consists of simple attacks (using ad hoc weapons) on critical nodes of infrastructure — oil, gas, electricity, water, etc. These attacks, if properly targeted, can cause cascades of failure that sweep entire systems. The result is a paralyzed economy that produces costs that far outstrip the costs of the attack”[8]. Instead of head on confrontation, where forces are built up and resources planned for and excreted over distinct time phases and battlespaces, quick and stigmergic actions coalesce to destroy key infrastructure and cut across the planned space of the nation-state. In a similar manner social networks cut across and through the institutional facets of organisations, and the networked geography of globalisation cuts through the established spaces of states and national government.

It can also be seen in the developments of modern governance, “where ‘the state’ for many purposes has shrunk to little more than one ‘peak association’ among many”[9]. With the breakdown of industrial organisation with increasing globalisation and information flow that went beyond the control of nation-states, the centralised state as an economic planner and coordinator has been replaced by dialogic and associative governance, best exemplified through flexible treaty structures (within the UN and WTO) and transnational governmental frameworks like the EU. A new governing methodology of collibration has emerged, whereby the state is emplaced within the structures of governing associations, negotiating and influencing the direction of policy rather than centrally commanding and controlling it. This is governance defined by tweaks and shaping the larger playing field of which the state finds itself apart of so as to get their preferred policy into the mix. Here the neoliberal idea of setting ground rules and structuring the initial design of infrastructure comes to the fore. The development of quangos, the rise of NGOs in international development and the increasing influence of PMCs and non-state actors in matters of foreign policy and warfare are exemplary of a collibrative governance of competing/cooperating associations.

This cyclical movement presents constraints in each era, as the opportunities for growth in the established era become increasingly limited and the links between the stagnating present and yet-to-be established future decouple. Innovative investment flocks toward the new paradigm, yet with little in the way of direction, instead investing in anything linked with the future. Thus stories like Theranos and the debt-led growth of Uber, where in attempting to see where the network era ends and the next burgeoning era begins, investors see anything related to the sharing economy and the integration of software with the productive economy as money-makers. And this is where Marc Andreessen’s call to build falls down. It is an industrial ethos focused on large infrastructure projects, the maintenance and furtherance of higher education (“why can’t 100,000 or 1 million students a year attend Harvard?”[10]) and mass programmes around housebuilding and healthcare. These are very much the products of the early-mid 20th century industrial era, and they’re unlikely to return as the predominance of fluid communication, logistical and financial structures are maintained.

“Much of the literature about redesigning organizations for the information-age focuses on production—on improving productivity, or manufacturing something new like the Boeing 777 jetliner. Yet, does this not reflect a lingering industrial-age mentality? Production organizations remain a crucial part of the organizational ecology. However, we should also be thinking about ‘sensory organizations.’ Sensory functions are quite different from production functions, and require different modes of organization—e.g., more networks connected to the world outside an office’s boundaries. Determining appropriate designs for all manner of sensory organizations may become a good meta-theme for innovative research and development in the years ahead”[11]. As Ronfeldt notes, the focus on industrial organisation in a world of networks is misplaced and unlikely to reproduce anything. Far too many political and academic figures are convinced that if the growth of the network age can be harnessed by a strong state, a new consensus can emerge similar to the Keynesian state management of the post-war decades where finance, industry and the workforce are integrated into a holistic union.

Instead the stagnating consensus has produced a “’captured economy,’ in which everything from land-use rules, to exclusionary zoning, to occupational licensing, to ever-expanding intellectual-property protections, to corporate subsidies and tax breaks all converge to create an system that’s basically the worst of socialism and the worst of capitalism conjoined—plutocratic and sclerotic, overregulated and undertaxed, with an upper class enriching itself off rents rather than innovation and a service class that can’t advance beyond its station”[12]. As the prevailing mode of organisation remains, slowly wilting as investment opportunities dry up, a call to build will be nothing more than a shake up of the existing players in the game. It fails to recognise the prevailing method of governance and its potentially (r)evolutionary paths into the future.

The main methods of governance as already explained are dialogic and negotiated. The network organisational era is akin to Mintzberg’s professional association business archetype in that it is a dual move of social power, maintaining the hierarchy of status while instantiating meritocratic possibility and greater fluidity of membership and rank. It both hierarchises the network and networks the hierarchy. So we aren’t fully within a networked system as such, but instead within a system where networks predominate and bend other organisational forms around them centripetally. Hierarchy as a method of delineating social power becomes fluid, moving from the rigidity of the Fordist production form to the horizontal channels of the professional association, where membership is demarcated by qualifications and ideologies formed within educational-industrial networks.

This can be contrasted with the cultural tendency during the Progressive era to form committees and groups that could direct developments and infrastructure projects through building coalitional goodwill and involving all stakeholders. “In the America of the early 20th century, the default solution to any problem encountered was to assemble a coalition of Americans to defeat it. This was true regardless of the level of society in which the person operated. It was the default response in small towns and in large cities, at the federal center and at frontier’s edge, in the world of the businessman, the social reformer, the minister, and the politician. Americans had faith that building things worked. To be sure, politics and perverse incentives existed. They could and did lead to all sorts of disastrous outcomes. But the baseline assumption of the American people of that time was that free associations of Americans working towards a common goal could get hard things done—and that it was their responsibility to get those people associating”[13]. This is the defining characteristic of the industrial, behemothic era, the subsumption of dialogue under the necessity of building. The associationism of this era was about dislodging fragmented concerns and dichotomised interest groups in favour of positive action. In the realms of Hirschman’s voice, exit and loyalty schema, this was the promotion of loyalty (to citizenship and good governance) and through this the use of voice to make positive demands and negotiated circumstances.

The network era in contrast is about the possibility and demands of disruption and of a voice of dissociation and insularity in determining and negotiating group interests. This can be seen in the philosophy of Silicon Valley, to disrupt and break things. It can also be seen in the social movements of the network era. NGOs and established movements (such as Greenpeace, Oxfam or Red Cross) have been integrated into wider bureaucratic associations, attempting to embed their demands in a wider governance framework which is reliant on a disruptive negotiation, where there is constant competition over resources and a constant moving of positions as funding empowers one group or sector over another. As noted before, the nature of collibrative governance is the continuous cycling of demands and policies that come up against each other. “Manipulations and canalizations are like diplomacy, which cannot be routinised without risk to its purpose. Formalizing, the culturing of ‘peak’ associations in order to harvest for public policy purposes the self-regulation they engender, is subject to another kind of decay. As with the king and his dukes and barons of old, the problem becomes that of the sorcerer’s apprentice, how to keep in control of one’s creation, how to prevent interests designed to be at loggerheads from uniting together instead”[14]. This dialectic of deconstruction/reconstruction through a social field of negotiation and conflict is the predominant dialogic structure of the network paradigm. It is also a significant part of the reason for its increasing stagnation, as while the primary institutions of governance have been modified and/or curtailed, the various industrial complexes surrounding education (particularly higher education), employment and bureaucracy remain. Their growth laws remain constant within an unacknowledged standstill, furthering their internal ossification but not actually removing their intellectual or social capital.

Other calls to build or construct new institutions other than Andreessen’s seem to remain within the prevailing organisational paradigm. Take Jordan Hall’s call[15] for institutional renewal and re-creation. It focuses on principles of choice and subsidiarity, falling well within the network paradigm. This isn’t to say that these paradigms are teleological, rather that they delineate institutional possibilities and imaginaries such that it seems both Andreessen’s and Hall’s calls to build either hark back to American industrial greatness or attempt to rewrite the paradigm by moving within it. Neither look beyond or through the paradigm, instead attempting to retrace the steps of previous eras, combining the fluid potential of networks with the solidity of industrial institutions and a strong state.

The rising platform economy is a good example of the binding situation of dialogic networks in relation to Andreessen’s industrial building ethos. It’s not so much the alien dreadnoughts and crisp car factories of the futurist aesthetic but rather an undergirding infrastructure of communication technologies specifically geared toward exchange, disruption and heterogeneity. Andreessen’s focus on the big public works of the 50s and 60s and the cultures in East Asia of huge infrastructure projects fails to take account of the network era our organisational ecologies find themselves within. Our modern infrastructure is no longer just highway networks and cityscapes but broadband cabling, applications and platforms like Amazon Web Services.

However elements of the emerging platform economy also point in the direction of new potential growth opportunities, as well as new social models that can be grouped tentatively into a new post-network era. The development of the tactile internet, the zoning of economies beyond both states and networks, and the move from a smooth globalisation to a striated series of variable land and time-scapes represent an emerging paradigm. This moves beyond the dialogic nature of the Mintzbergian network to more adhocratic structures focused not on disruption and negotiation but on exit and subduction. It is the move from platforms-as-company to platforms-as-governance[16]. “We will be making choices in an inherently fluid and ever-changing environment shaped to some degree by unpredictable technical change and social reactions to these changes. Ultimately, the results will depend on how we believe markets should be structured”[17]. And not just markets, but also states, collibrated networks and governance mechanisms and structures yet to be seen as the post-network era emerges a series of infrastructural hybrids and hydras that are not legible to our current institutional era. As we begin to sit in the halfway house of the network and post-network eras, it will not be calls to build and turn back time that define potential trajectories, but the internecine conflict of evolving governance structures that patch and mould there way into the world.


[1] https://a16z.com/2020/04/18/its-time-to-build/

[2] Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism

[3] Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital

[4] Paul Virilio, Open Sky

[5] Gillian Fuller & Ross Harley, Anatomy of an Airport

[6] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2019/01/27/politics-of-nodes/

[7] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2020/06/20/notes-on-fractured-conflicts-autonomous-zones-and-siege-acc/

[8] https://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2005/12/systems_disrupt.html

[9] Andrew Dunsire , Manipulating Social Tensions: Collibration as an Alternative Mode of Government Intervention

[10] https://a16z.com/2020/04/18/its-time-to-build/

[11] David Ronfeldt, Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution

[12] Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society

[13] https://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2020/06/on-cultures-that-build.html

[14] Andrew Dunsire, Manipulating Social Tensions: Collibration as an Alternative Mode of Government Intervention

[15] https://medium.com/deep-code/defund-and-redesign-everything-d1b9d674a45d

[16] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2019/04/20/amazon-as-a-vector/

[17] https://issues.org/the-rise-of-the-platform-economy/

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