Friday, October 31, 2003

The power of distributed networks

There is a fascinating post over on Escapable Logic that talks about the power of distributed networks to disrupt more centrally organized structures. These distributed networks are composed of self-organizing entities that can disrupt of more traditional centralized organizations because the latter have problems comprehending where the next attack will come from. The post identifies two such examples of disruptive networks: Al-Qaeda and the Howard Dean campaign(*).

Both are, to a limited extent, focused around specific individuals (Osama bin Laden and Howard Dean), but the networks that surround them rely more on their own initiative to engage the opposition rather than relying on directives from the head office. The result are organizations that are much harder to predict and defend against because the traditional approach of disrupting an organization at key choke-points simply won't work if you can't identify those choke points.

This harkens back to the core principle behind the internet: rather than wasting resources trying to correct a problem, a distributed network simple "routes around it". How does it do this? By leaving the responsibility for making those routing decisions with the low-level functionaries in the network.

I've often felt that those who are convinced that Dean will fail are focused to much on the particulars of the candidate while missing the larger picture of what Dean's campaign represents. Yes, Dean is vulnerable on several fronts, but so is any candidate (Bush could have been brought down in 2000 by any number of means). The way to deal with this problem is not simply to find a better candidate but to find a way to "route around the problem".

This is not to say that distributed networks are the answer to all of our problems. They have problems of their own (as any experienced network engineer will be more than happy to tell you). Nor is it impossible that Dean's vulnerabilities won't eventually bring him down. But any honest assessment of his chances has to look beyond the simplistic analysis of his stands on the issues and look at the broader picture of how his campaign operates.

It could be argued that the GOP machine is also a distributed network what with its interlocking network of think-tanks, media operations and grassroots evangelicals. Perhaps that is why the Democrats have had such a tough time beating it in recent times. They have tried repeatedly to bring them down through traditional campaigning and have been stymied at nearly ever juncture.

Maybe, in 2004, we will need our own distributed network to beat them back and restore parity to our political system.


(*) The fact that this concept can be applied to both negative and positive forces (Al-Qaeda and the Dean campaign) indicates that it is a structure that is amoral in its application.


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