[This is a new section I've added to Chapter Three of my forthcoming book The Desktop Regulatory State. I gotta say it was pretty cosmically mind-blowing reading the passages below from Earl and Kimford, and mentally collating them with material in my manuscript that dovetailed with them.]
Think back to our discussion in Chapter One of distributed infrastructure [itself based on an earlier post here]. Now let’s consider networked resistance in light of the principles we discussed there. A conventional, old-style activist movement had to maintain an ongoing organizational apparatus with at least a minimal permanent infrastructure and staff, regardless of the actual level of activity. It was just another example of centralized infrastructure that had to be scaled to peak load, even though peak loads occurred only a tiny fraction of the time. It was an illustration of the 20/80 rule, with 80% of costs coming from the infrastructure required to handle the last 20% of the load. As we saw the authors of Natural Capitalism argue, by designing a central heating or cooling system to handle only the first 80% of the load, and addressing the other 20% through spot heating/cooling, one can reduce costs to an enormous degree.
A distributed infrastructure that’s embedded mainly at end-points, likewise, is much more ephemeral and can operate on a much leaner basis. The classic example of ephemeralization was Bucky Fuller’s: a few tons of communications satellites replacing thousands of tons of transoceanic cable. Or in more recent times, a local wireless meshwork (in which the endpoints themselves are routers) replacing a last-mile fiber-optic infrastructure.
Now read this passage from Digitally Enabled Social Change, by Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport:
As we have shown, flash activism… is not about a steady and long stream of contention. Instead, it is about the effectiveness of overwhelming, rapid, but short-lived contention….
On the participant’s side, there has never before been an opportunity to be a five-minute activist who navigates between participating in an e-tactic, checking Facebook, and doing job-related work on a computer. There have only been opportunities to spend hours or more coming together with people and put oneself in harm’s way…
We expect that the ease of participation,, then, could produce quick rushes of participation when a call for participation is made. Further, these rushes of participation don’t require high relative participation rates…. Given that this is true, it is possible to have both flash-style activism and varying levels of activity by any given potential participant. If potential participants have time one day and not the next, mobilizations can go forward as long as some people have some time each day….
…[S]ince the central tools needed to create e-tactics are usually software routines and databases, not the knowledge inside long-term activists’ minds, e-tactic organizing is easy to shut off and restart later, unlike traditional organizing…. Instead of SMOs [Social Movement Organizations], flash drives might hold the organizing blueprints (through archived Web pages and software) that allow online protest actions to be remounted in the future…. [S]tarting a second petition is no harder years after a first one than it would be the next day…. [W]hy not just shut off a movement and turn it back on later? Why not organize around something that is short term? Why not organize whenever the time seems right and not organize when it doesn’t seem so? Without social movement activists to support, there can be real on and off switches that perhaps have fewer repercussions to a campaign’s ability to mobilize.
So just as a lean, distributed manufacturing system on the Emilia-Romagna model makes it possible to scale production to spot demand without the imperative to full capacity utilization and push distribution to amortize the high ongoing overhead from expensive mass production machinery, distributed/networked activism can scale particular actions to the needs of the moment without the need to maintain permanent, high-overhead infrastructure between actions and tailor the action to the needs of the movement infrastructure (which is exactly what the establishment Left is demanding from Occupy: to remake it in their image).
In military terms, the principle of mass can be achieved through coordination of fire from widely dispersed forces, rather than the slow and costly physical massing of forces in a single spatial formation (the basis of military theories from Airland Battle to Fourth Generation Warfare). In this schema, the Second Generation Warfare of mass formations was an industrial age (in Mumford’s terms, paleotechnic) equivalent of Sloanism. Third Generation Warfare (Blitzkrieg, maneuver warfare) was an early form of paleotechnic warfare in which mass was achieved both by physical swarming and concentration of fire, and more recent ALB and 4GW doctrines were full realizations of the same principle (entirely supplanting physical swarming with concentration of fire or simply simultaneously coordinated swarming attacks by widely separated actors).
The reference to “organizing blueprints” being held on hard drives to “allow online protest actions to be remounted in the future” is relevant to our discussion in Chapter Two of the module—platform basis of network organization. The basic toolkit of techniques, software and templates of a networked movement—many of them developed through the experience of many local nodes—is available as a platform to the entire movement, or even to a meta-movement (like the complex of Arab Spring/M15/Syntagma/Occupy movements, Wikileaks, Anonymous, etc.), for individual nodes to use when and how they see fit.
In The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, I argued (or rather quoted Eric Hunting’s argument) that open source, module/platform designs are a way of minimizing R&D unit costs by spreading them out over an entire product ecology. A common, open-source library of techniques based on the past collective experiences of a wide body of local movements and nodes of movements enables the experience of any one node to become the common property of all—the same way an mp3 stripped of DRM by one geek and hosted on a torrent site becomes the freely-available property of every non-tech-savvy grandma who wants to hear the song. It’s the same basic principle—as we saw in Chapter One—that Eric Raymond described in the free software movement, John Robb described in Open Source Insurgency, and Cory Doctorow described in the file-sharing movement. “In the modern repertoire, tactics are in fact thought to be modular so that multiple movements could benefit from the same tactical form.”
The “short tail” in conventional activism, as we saw in the previous section of this chapter—which, with apologies to Berlin’s hedgehog, does a few big things—results from the high cost of doing anything. When the basic infrastructure of activism is distributed and available for any movement or node to piggyback off of free of charge, it becomes possible to create new movements suited to “niche markets” at virtually zero marginal cost. As Earl and Kimport argue, social movements have traditionally been about “weighty issues” because
they have been expensive to create and grow, leading people to only attempt to create (and likely only succeed in creating) a movement when the stakes are high enough to justify the costs. But when the stakes are much lower, can the stakes be lower, too?
This last—the lessening of stakes as overhead costs become lower—is the same principle I described for the economic and industrial realm in Homebrew Industrial Revolution: the lower the capital outlays and other sources of overhead or fixed costs, the lower the revenue stream required to service them; hence the greater the ability of an enterprise to weather slow periods without going in the hole, and the larger the portion of the revenue stream that’s free and clear in good periods.