Networks vs. hierarchies is an old debate in computer science and communications. A hierarchy is a vertical structure that depends on top-down control. Hierarchies are centralised, with decision-making largely taken at the highest level and cascaded down. Networks are more distributed: decision-making can be localised, the topology, architecture and links in the network may emerge from individual decisions taken locally.
The Internet was the network approach to communications systems, distinct from the architecture of telephony. In that domain, networks have become dominant. Their benefits of resilience and decentralisation trump the control that hierarchies have rallied. Networks favour innovation and change, hierarchies the impermanent comfort of control.
By the mid-2000s, faced by the success of open source, theories about how networks could support productive self-organised efforts towards some defined goal were being explored. Consider Yochai Benkler’s seminal 2002 text on Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm or Eric Raymond’s analysis of open source in The Cathedral and the Bazaar. With the seeming success of such new styles of management, business thinkers began to evaluate the relative merits of networks vs. hierarchies.
Methods of American warfighting have evolved from the command-and-control approach used in most wars to Gulf War 1 towards a more network-centric doctrine, developed at the turn of the century. Americans were forced into more network-centric modes of battle when fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And yet, ultimately, the Americans were defeated, not by Al Qaeda, but the Taliban who adopted a network-centric approach to their resistance, both in terms of internal military mobilization and external funding and support.
The events of the Arab Spring provided hope for the prospects of using modern digital networks to foment political change. This they did, but without the long-term success of stabilising those countries (and, in some cases, directly leading to their destabilisation.)
For anyone interested in Internet culture, the debate of networks vs. hierarchies is a fundamental one. It is what infused many of the early thinkers about the Internet: the ability for nodes on the edge of a network to build applications without the permission of a telephone company or IT department.
By 2017, historian Niall Ferguson put this debate into a wider historical context as a way of framing the competition between two key political structures in his book The Square and the Tower. (Disclosure: I’ve read reviews of the book, but not the book itself. I’ve been in a discussion where Ferguson has presented some of these ideas in the context of the Covid pandemic.)
Ukrainian network; Russian hierarchy
In a recent discussion with members of the Exponential Do community (which all annual members can apply to join here), I described how I was using the lens of networks and hierarchies on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Can a hierarchy smash a network? It can cause deep problems. Hitting key nodes. In the case of this war, that means casualties. But networks are resilient: suppressing them takes time, attention and long-term will. To suppress a network requires overwhelming force and patience.
A quick analysis of the responses across a number of domains demonstrates that Russia has adopted a more hierarchical posture and Ukraine (and its allies) more of a network-based posture.
Many analysts have pointed to the massive equipment losses and poor performance of the Russian army. A large part of this seems to stem from traditional command and control systems that have pushed senior Russian commanders to the front line (and in the line of fire). Analysts have puzzled at how slowly the Russian military forces seem to be learning to adapt their behaviour (long may their slow learning continue).
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