Belmont Club

Networks and hierarchies, secrets and disclosure, power and privacy

Networks and hierarchies, secrets and disclosure, power and privacy
The Boss (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

One of the problems in writing commentary is the old frameworks have fallen down and many of the standard prisms through which pundits formerly viewed the scene have fogged up. Though the mist cannot be entirely dispelled it is possible to describe the the biggest shapes looming in the murk.

Social networks have damaged the uniparty hierarchies in Washington to where sham game between the Generals and the Trotters is over.  Despite their past history of conflict avoidance there are now two distinct “sides” in mute hostility trying to beat each other. Both are strongly clustered, bound together with agendas of grievance, each suspecting the other of trying to conquer it.

Neither is much willing to listen to the other side.  The old centrist figures who could act as links between viewpoints and serve starting points for deals have diminished in stature.  Europe is struggling with economic stagnation and radical demographic change as migrants flood in. The resulting tensions have not only raised fears of a fascist revival, it has called into question the post-war European Big Government consensus. America is divided.  For the first time observers are truly worried about a civil war. “Japan will not escape the socio-economic collapse of the US unscathed,” one article warned. The old Western order is manifestly going through a crisis. What’s left is a world with no apparent ideological center of gravity (at least not the old ones) as each region struggles with its own particular challenges.

Russia, fighting an adverse economic and demographic trends, is desperately trying to remain relevant but unlikely with its diminishing resources to succeed. But unlike Europe, Russia has wagered on the continuing utility of “hard power” in a world where economic and technological are deemed to have supplanted it. Europe has abandoned hard power. “The reality is the European Union cannot protect Europe by itself,” NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said.  The other entrant into the hard power game is China. China is returning to authoritarianism on the back of a burgeoning economy.  Unlike Europe it is determined to have hard power and money, too. Xi Jinping, in removing term limits on his office, has effectively declared himself the strongman of China.  The Emperor has returned and is marching west on the Silk Road.

Yet despite this apparent breakdown in world order everything seems just fine. Nobody in the post-WW2 world apparently wants to risk the real material and technological progress of the last 70 years.  There is no appetite for cross border war, nor any desire to endanger world trade or communications networks. Governments, even aggressive ones, seem content to let technical and economic progress continue.  While regional strongmen may pursue limited aggression they rapidly lose legitimacy if they pose an overt threat to global networks.  There is an appetite for limited war, but not general conflagration.  This prompted Steven Pinker to observe that things have never been better,  a situation neither Brexit, nor Trump nor the so-called Eastern European illiberalism seems to have modified.  Pinker says:

It’s just a simple matter of arithmetic. You can’t look at how much there is right now and say that it is increasing or decreasing until you compare it with how much took place in the past. When you look at how much took place in the past you realise how much worse things were in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We don’t appreciate it now when we concentrate on the remaining horrors, but there were horrific wars such as the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam, the partition of India, the Bangladesh war of independence, the Korean War, which killed far more people than even the brutal wars of today. And if we only focus on the present, we ought to be aware of the suffering that continues to exist, but we can’t take that as evidence that things have gotten worse unless we remember what happened in the past.

But how could this be?  How despite the breakdown of hierarchies is the world doing so well unless it is networks rather than hierarchy that is largely providing stability.  Perhaps we have arrived at the point where financial systems, logistic networks and world trade mean more to the average person than government program.  If you asked an average person in Africa what he would miss most, the power grid or his nation’s current president, it is not inconceivable he would prefer the power plant.

Nowhere is this paradox more marked than in the United States where according to the press a barely literate, ex-reality TV show host pretending to be president sits in the White House. Yet it hardly seems to make a difference. The US economy is forecast to grow at 5.4% in the first quarter of 2018 , “double the typical annualized growth during the period”. And despite numerous warnings since 2017 that Donald Trump would set off Armageddon he has yet to start a war.  How this “look ma, hands!” effect occurs has no obvious explanation.

One possible explanation is that hierarchies now matter only insofar as they enable networks. The relative importance of the two has shifted. It is now the job of sovereigns to protect the global infrastructure, not the other way round.  In Venezuela where Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro replaced the regular networks with state planning, things went to pot.  By contrast the relative inactivity of the current occupant of the White House may be far more benign.  Perhaps the best advice the World Bank can give any developing nation today is: enforce the rule of law, respect contracts and otherwise do nothing.

The ability of the world to operate in network mode was questioned by Niall Ferguson his fascinating book The Square and the Tower.  In his survey of the long running collision between networks and hierarchies networks from the dawn of history, he concluded that while that networks can supply innovation they can rarely provide stability.  As he wrote “to put the question more simply: can a networked world have order? … In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it.”

The currently benign situation does not disprove Ferguson’s thesis because the most important hierarchy, the American military guarantee of the Global Commons, still mans the walls.  It doubtful if the free use of the oceans, outer space and the security of undersea fiber optic cables could long be guaranteed without it.  Yet if hierarchies are still needed, they are needed i smaller doses than formerly.  Perhaps Ferguson is correct to say networks alone cannot guarantee order — but neither can hierarchy alone provide stability.

While technology, especially social media, has disrupted governance, it is by no means clear that the reimposition of hierarchy can bring back the good old days. China’s approach to networks has been to try and control them.  China has turned the northwestern region of Xinjiang into a vast experiment in domestic surveillance, complete with facial recognition, data fusion and artificial intelligence. Internet users in China expect to be tracked. The combination of data fusion and surveillance devices was recently featured in a WSJ video: Twelve Days in Xinjiang: How China’s Surveillance State Overwhelms Daily Life.

But that is unlikely to bring back anything but the Gulag,  “made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Diane Feinstein’s demand for network self-censorship ““You created these platforms … and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it — or we will,” may not be as menacing as Xi Jingping’s, but it is in the same vein.

But if not that more hierarchy, what then? One alternative is to try and build governance into networks themselves.  This was the approach I took in the paper Open Curtains, co-authored with George Spix.  The basic idea is to use property rights to protect privacy and value information.

Information technology is expected to fulfill contradictory requirements: protect privacy and promote transparency; keep the secrets and move information. This process is often managed through regulation. … Markets and abstraction make a more creative solution possible. Pushing information through a curtain via a preview offered through the interface makes it possible to sell different kinds of transparency and to different degrees. Crawford and Annany recognizes that transparency, far from being a commodity, is a customizable product. …

The Open Curtains system is based on the idea that privacy is best protected by property and the true value of information lies in its application and exchange.

It tries to answer some of the questions Ferguson’s remarkable book raises in a technically feasible way.  It is definitely an important problem to solve.  The successor to the post-War2 won’t be just another re-jigged international governance structure, with newer versions of multilateral organizations.  It will be a system of governance intimately intertwined with the networks that run civilization.  The most freedom friendly outcome would be if the networks were governed by markets and the hierarchies chosen by election.

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For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, In this book, bestselling historian Max Boot chronicles the life of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale and reframes our understanding of the Vietnam War. Lansdale pioneered a “hearts and minds” diplomacy, first in the Philippines, then in Vietnam, a visionary policy that was ultimately crushed by America’s giant military bureaucracy. With interviews and newly available documents, Boot rescues Lansdale from historical ignominy and suggests that Vietnam could have been different had we only listened.

The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, Retracing his own spiritual journey from atheism to faith, author Lee Strobel, former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, cross-examines a dozen experts who are recognized authorities in their own fields. He challenges them with questions like, How reliable is the New Testament? Does evidence for Jesus exist outside the Bible? Is there any reason to believe the resurrection was an actual event? The book reads like a captivating, fast-paced novel but it’s not fiction. It’s a riveting quest for the truth about history’s most compelling figure.

Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, by Hampton Sides. On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March 30 rugged miles to rescue 513 POWs languishing in a hellish camp, among them the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March. This book vividly re-creates this daring raid, offering a minute-by-minute narration that unfolds alongside intimate portraits of the prisoners and their lives in the camp.

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, by Niall Ferguson. The 21st century has been hailed as the Networked Age. But in this book, Ferguson argues that social networks are nothing new. From the printers and preachers who made the Reformation to the freemasons who led the American Revolution, it was the networkers who disrupted the old order of popes and kings. Far from being novel, our era is the Second Networked Age, with the computer in the role of the printing press. Once we understand this, both the past and the future start to look very different indeed. Ferguson offers a whole new way of imagining the world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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