Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #4: origins of the noosphere concept (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Vladimir Vernadsky, and Edouard Le Roy)


The noosphere: a concept about the world’s future evolution

For discussing information-based realms, the grandest, most abstract, and so far least favored term is the noosphere. This term, from the Greek word noos, meaning “the mind,” was coined — whether separately or collectively is unclear — by French theologian-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, along with French mathematician Edouard Le Roy, and visiting Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, in Paris in 1922. They were already familiar with the terms “geosphere” and “biosphere”, long in use, and innovatively decided that the planet would next evolve a noosphere. The idea spread in Europe and America following Teilhard’s posthumous publications in the 1950s-1960s, and in Russia following Vernadsky’s return there in the 1920s-1930s.

Our earlier writings credited only Teilhard. We did not know about Vernadsky (nor Le Roy, who left few writings behind). So we slightly expand here on our past discussion of Teilhard, then provide a long new discussion about Vernadsky, followed by some comparative remarks. We also add important points from Le Roy’s perspective. Most helpful for doing so was our finally reading David Pitt & Paul R. Samson (eds.),‎ The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society and Change (1998 — hereafter abbreviated as BNR). It contained extracts from Vernadsky’s and Le Roy’s writings that were previously unavailable to us.

Teilhard’s thinking about the noosphere: In Teilhard’s view — especially as expressed in The Phenomenon of Man ([1955] 1965) and The Future of Man ([1959] 1964) — the world first evolved a global geosphere and next a biosphere. Now that people are communicating on global scales, the world is starting to create a noosphere — what he variously describes as a globe-circling realm of “the mind,” a “thinking circuit,” “a new layer, the ‘thinking layer’,” a “stupendous thinking machine,” a “thinking envelope” full of fibers and networks, indeed a “planetary mind” and a planetary “consciousness”, where Earth “finds its soul.”

In the 1964 book’s Introduction, Julian Huxley further defines Teilhard’s concept as “web of living thought” and “a common pool of thought”. He also praises Teilhard for advancing “a threefold synthesis — of the material and physical world with the world of mind and spirit; of the past with the future; and of variety with unity, the many with the one.” And he clarifies that “we should consider inter-thinking humanity as a new type of organism, whose destiny it is to realise new possibilities for evolving life on this planet.”

According to Teilhard, then, forces of the mind — first “psychogenesis’ and then “noogenesis” — have gradually created pieces of the noosphere for ages, while increases in social complexity and human consciousness have laid further groundwork for the noosphere’s emergence. Now it is finally achieving a global presence, and its varied “compartments” and “cultural units” are beginning to fuse. As he puts it, equating cultures with species, “cultural units are for the noosphere the mere equivalent and the true successors of zoological species in the biosphere.” Eventually, a synthesis will occur in which peoples of different nations, races, and cultures will give rise to “unheard-of and unimaginable degrees of organised complexity and of reflexive consciousness” that is planetary in scope (a “mono-culturation”), without people losing their personal identity and individuality.

Fully realized, the noosphere will raise mankind to a high new evolutionary plane, one shaped by a collective coordination of psychosocial and spiritual energies and by a devotion to moral, ethical, religious, juridical, and aesthetic principles. However, he counsels, “No one would dare to picture to himself what the noosphere will be like in its final guise”. Moreover, he warns that the transition may not be smooth — a “paroxysm”, a global tremor and possibly an apocalypse may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere. (Sources: 1964, pp. 175–181, 200–4, 235, 303; 1965, pp. 287–290; 1998, p. 77)

Although Teilhard’s concept is essentially spiritual, and far less technological than cyberspace or the infosphere, he identified increased communications as a cause. Nothing like the Internet existed in his time. Yet he sensed (1964) that 1950s-era radio and television systems were already fostering “a sort of ‘etherized’ universal consciousness,” and someday “astonishing electronic computers” would give mankind new tools for thinking. Today, he is occasionally credited with anticipating the Internet, as well as the idea of the Anthropocene.

Vernadsky’s thinking about the noosphere: Vernadsky’s views parallel but also differ from Teilhard’s — Vernadsky’s are much more materialist, in spots more mystical, and always less spiritual (Vernadsky was an atheist). Like Teilhard, he too held that Earth first evolved a geosphere, then a biosphere — and a noosphere is next. Indeed, he wrote the first book on The Biosphere (1926), in which he treated the spread of life as an essentially geological force.

In his landmark paper, “New Scientific Knowledge and the Transition from the Biosphere to the Noösphere” (1938), Vernadky argues that increases and changes in the nature of “biogeophysical energy” — owing to a progression of inventions from fire-making, to agriculture, to modern communications technologies, etc. — explain the planetary spread of the biosphere and the coming emergence of a noosphere. In his words, “This new form of biogeochemical energy, which might be called the energy of human culture or cultural biogeochemical energy, is that form of biogeochemical energy, which creates at the present time the noösphere.” (p. 16) This kind of energy, he wrote, lay behind the development of the human mind and reason itself; and it will lead “ultimately to the transformation of the biosphere into the noösphere, first and foremost, through the creation and growth of the scientific understanding of our surroundings.” (p. 20)

Vernadsky goes on to say that the creation of the noosphere has “proceeded apace, ever increasing in tempo” during the “last five to seven thousand years” despite “interruptions continually diminishing in duration” (p. 29). He evidently expects “the unity of the noosphere” to bring “a planned unified activity for the mastery of nature and a just distribution of wealth associated with a consciousness of the unity and equality of all peoples”. But while it is “not possible to reverse this process”, he expects “the transitional stage” to be accompanied by “ruthless struggle” and “intense struggles” that may span several generations. Nonetheless, he doubts “there will be any protracted interruptions in the ongoing process of the transition from the biosphere to the noösphere.” (p. 30) Finally, as he conveys all this with confidence, he nonetheless seems to wonder whether it all “transcends the bounds of logic” and whether “we are entering into a realm still not fully grasped by science.” He even makes positive closing references to Hindu philosophy and to the role of art in man’s thinking (p. 31).

Later, despite his dismay about the destructiveness of WWII, Vernadsky clarified optimistically in an article based on translations of earlier writings, in “The Biosphere and the Noösphere” in the journal American Scientist in 1945 that:
“The historical process is being radically changed under our very eyes. For the first time in the history of mankind the interests of the masses on the one hand, and the free thought of individuals on the other, determine the course of life of mankind and provide standards for men’s ideas of justice. Mankind taken as a whole is becoming a mighty geological force. There arises the problem of the reconstruction of the biosphere in the interests of freely thinking humanity as a single totality. This new state of the biosphere, which we approach without our noticing it, is the noösphere. …
“Now we live in the period of a new geological evolutionary change in the biosphere. We are entering the noösphere. This new elemental geological process is taking place at a stormy time, in the epoch of a destructive world war. But the important fact is that our democratic ideals are in tune with the elemental geological processes, with the laws of nature, and with the noösphere. Therefore we may face the future with confidence. It is in our hands. We will not let it go.” (in BNR, p. 99)
Note that despite despair about WWII, he still identified the nascence of the noosphere with such values as freedom, justice, and democracy.

Throughout his varied writings about “the evolution of the biosphere into the noosphere,” Vernadsky extolled the emergence of reason as a powerful, even geological force tied to the development of science and scientific thinking. He thus mostly regarded the noosphere as the “sphere of reason”, the “realm of reason,” the “reign of reason,” and as “the way through which the noosphere manifests itself in the thinking process” — even as “life's domain ruled by reason.”

Vernadsky’s audience was mostly fellow scientists in Russia, not policy-makers. But he did occasionally argue that government administrators should attend to his findings, and that “Statesmen should be aware of the present elemental process of transition of the biosphere into the noosphere.” (in BNR, p. 38)

Teilhard and Vernadsky compared: Both Teilhard and Vernadsky shared a deep belief in our planet’s evolving a geosphere, then a biosphere, and next a noosphere. Yet their views about causes and consequences differ enough to be worth comparing. Teilhard’s views were far more spiritually-grounded than Vernadsky’s. He preferred to explain the noosphere’s emergence in terms of geological and technological forces. Yet, like Teilhard, he expected the noosphere to have wonderful ethical consequences for humanity — as he noted, “a just distribution of wealth” and “the unity and equality of all peoples”. Moreover, while both viewed the noosphere optimistically as a realm of collective consciousness, neither regarded it as a realm of uniformity. Both valued individualism and variety. Both favored a future built on democracy. And, seemingly contrary to Charles Darwin, both thought that evolution depended on cooperation as much as competition.

Both are quite unclear regarding what the transition to the noosphere will be like for people. They both make the transitional phase seem inevitable. At times, Teilhard even makes it seem alluringly smooth and peaceful. Yet, if they’d just offered comparisons (which neither evidently did) to the transitions to the geosphere and biosphere, they’d surely have noted that evolution of any kind is often far from smooth and peaceful; indeed, it is often chaotic, disjointed, and violent. Fortunately, Teilhard and Vernadsky at least allude to this prospect — Teilhard by noting that a global tremor if not an apocalypse may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere, Vernadsky by noting the likelihood of intense ruthless struggles spanning several generations. Both recognized humanity’s capacity for self-destruction.

Which raises another question about the nature of the transition: Teilhard and Vernadsky both see the noosphere as evolving piecemeal around the planet, much as did the geosphere and biosphere, with some parts arising here and then spreading there, other parts elsewhere, with interconnections and interactions increasing over time, until the entire planet is caught up in webs of creation and fusion. But neither Teilhard nor Vernadsky specifies exactly what parts and pieces may matter along the way. Teilhard at least mentions that “compartments” and “cultural units” will do the “fusing”. That isn’t much to go on, but it’s a bit helpful for thinking strategically, as we elucidate later.

Le Roy’s depiction of the transition: Concept co-founder Le Roy’s few writings offer further insight into how the transition may occur. In his book on The Origins of Humanity and the Evolution of Mind ([1928] in BNR, 1998), Le Roy turns to a “hydro-dynamical” metaphor for showing how the noosphere may emerge from the biosphere. It would not resemble the growth of a branching tree, but instead occur by way of spurts, jets, and spouts that finally link to form a layer. In his words,
“Take the biosphere. Let us imagine in it a few points here and there where spurts, strictly limited and hardly surpassing above the middle level, and where jets grow little by little, open up and finally link up their spouts, spreading a layer that covers the Earth.” According to his imagery, it is “the spurting points that [will] attach the noosphere to the biosphere.” (BNR, p. 66)
Those metaphors aside, LeRoy goes on to identify real-world factors that will drive creation of the noosphere: “division of work, game of association and habit, culture and training, exercise of all types; from where come social classes, types of mind, forms of activity, new powers”. And he says this will ultimately lead to a separation and spiritualization of the noosphere — “a disengagement of consciousness increasingly free and pure, and the constitution of a superior order of existence; the order of spirituality, reaching a point of perfection where the noosphere would strain to detach itself from the biosphere as a butterfly sheds its cocoon.” According to Le Roy, it is “this mysterious force of thought cohesion between individuals that allows the start of organised union in a unique layer”. (BNR, p. 67, 69)

In other words, Le Roy views the expansion of the mind and the creation of the noosphere as a planetary process that will lead to the noosphere’s separation from the biosphere:
“We are, in truth, confronting a phenomenon of planetary, perhaps cosmic, importance. This new force is human intelligence; the reflexive will of humankind. Through human action, the noosphere disengages itself, little by little, from the biosphere and becomes more and more independent, and all this with rapid acceleration and an amplification of effects which continue to grow. Correlatively however, by a sort of return shock, hominisation has introduced, in the course of life, some formidable risks.” (BNR, p. 5)
Quite a depiction.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

TIMN’s “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 3 of 4) — Fligstein & McAdam’s “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields” (2010)

Parts 1 and 2 in this series discussed “forms”, the concept TIMN is based on. Next up are two or three rival concepts, starting here with “strategic action fields”.

The best source for my purposes appears to be Neil Fligstein & Doug McAdam’s “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields” (2010). In it, they outline their “general theory of social change and stability rooted in a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields.” (p. 4)

I construct this Part 3 the way I did Part 2 on Levine: by excerpting numerous points about “fields” from their paper that resonate, more or less, with my usage of “forms”. Then I discuss whether their points overlap with TIMN and help validate it. (N.B.: Many of their sentences are dense with bibliographic references; I omit these from quotes I use.)

• Fligstein & McAdam propose a grand conceptual agenda for organizational studies — the study of “meso-level social orders” and “strategic action fields”. Their “radical view” is that all scholars of organizations, social movements, and institutional actors are “interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action.” This term refers to “the efforts of collective actors to vie for strategic advantage in and through interaction with other groups in what can be seen as meso-level social orders. We call these orders “strategic action fields” and use the terms interchangeably.” Thus they present “a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields.” (p. 4) They seek “a generic field approach” (p. 38).

I take this to mean that TIMN’s four forms of organization — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks — are all strategic actions fields (as well as meso-level orders). Thus, what I study as “forms” Fligstein & McAdam study as “fields”, in a framework where TIMN’s “forms” amount to subsumed varieties of “fields”. Well, maybe, but let’s see what else they mean before I start raising objections.

• To define their central concept, Fligstein & McAdam state up front that “strategic action fields (hereafter, SAFs) are the fundamental units of collective action in society.” These fields are
“ … where actors (who can be individual or collective) interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), the rules of the field, and a situation where actors have frames that produce an understanding of what other actors’ moves in the field mean.” (pp. 6-7)
Further clarifying their meaning, the authors state that “field processes are about who gets what” (p. 8). Moreover, in alternate phrasing, they define strategic action as “the attempt by social actors to create and maintain stable social worlds by securing the cooperation of others. Strategic action is about control in a given context.” So, the purpose of creating “identities, political coalitions, and interests is to promote the control of actors vis a vis other actors,” in and between particular fields. (p. 15)

That pretty much fits with TIMN. It’s forms are not exactly “the fundamental units of collective action”, but in their own way they’re pretty close, for they are the four fundamental forms of collective organization and endeavor that societies depend on using. And each form’s actors do indeed require “a set of common understandings about the purposes”, relationships, rules, and moves for assuring that form functions properly. This includes understandings about “who has power and why” as well as “who gets what” for each TIMN form. I’ve written as much.

Those are good ways to think about TIMN’s forms. Yet, as I write this, I sense that Fligstein and McAdam would not agree with me that TIMN’s four forms are the cardinal strategic action fields behind the organization and evolution of all societies. For they never make such a claim regarding any limited set of fields. Instead, they seem close to claiming that societies consist of unlimited plethoras of fields, though some (e.g., “states”) may be more cardinal than others.

And here’s another difference: Fligstein and McAdam repeatedly say that strategic action is about control. I find no mention of de-control. Yet, while each TIMN form is about a different kind of control, the TIMN progression depends on “de-control” — as a society becomes more complex, it’s crucial to let the next form’s actors and entities emerge to take over activities and address problems that the established forms are less suited to resolving. Here’s how I’ve written about this TIMN system dynamic before:
To advance through the TIMN progression, control must give way to decontrol: The evolution of complex societies is often said to involve increases in control (and coordination), partly so that all the differentiated parts work together. But social evolution does not revolve solely around ever-increasing capacities for control. Each transformational step in the TIMN progression requires some kind of decontrol — realizing that a new form and realm are taking hold, letting go of its activities, and allowing self-organization to develop around that form’s own rules. This is essential for the re-simplification and resynthesis process noted above. Over the long run, harmonious decontrol becomes as important as control; in advanced societies, power extends as much from decontrol as control. Thus, to refer back to the preceding proposition, the evolution of social complexity leads to increases in differentiation and control, but it also eventually requires some systemic de-differentiation and decontrol. Societies whose leaders exalt the tribal and hierarchical forms may have the hardest times with this.” (source)
Fligstein and McAdam’s approach involves so much contention and conflict, so much vying for control among strategic actors, that fields and their relations often give way to reorganization (see discussion below). But if I understand their approach correctly, this turmoil is explained solely in terms of shifts in power and control — not as transformative adaptations that may depend partly on deliberate attraction to de-control.

• Matters get complicated when Fligstein & McAdam begin arguing that SAFs are everywhere in society — so myriad that many are nested “like Russian dolls”, while others overlap and intermingle side-by-side, with new ones being created whenever two SAFs interact. Moreover, since they’re all SAFs, they’re all generically similar, despite specific differences from SAF to SAF. Here’s the pertinent quote:
“All collective actors (for example, organizations, extended families, clans, supply chains, social movements, and governmental systems) are themselves made up of SAFs. When they interact in a larger political, social, or economic field, that field also becomes an SAF. In this way, SAFs can look a lot like Russian dolls: open up an SAF and it contains a number of other SAFs. … Each of these SAFs constitutes a meso-level social order in the sense that it can be fruitfully analyzed as containing all of the elements of an order from the perspective we outline here.” (p. 7)
Does that benefit or contradict TIMN? I’m not sure. Their approach to “fields” seems more like Levine’s expansive approach to “forms” (see Part 2) than like TIMN’s delineated approach. It’s four forms do correspond to strategic action fields, or sets of fields. And the entities and actors that embody TIMN’s forms may well intermingle and interact in ways that create smaller (or bigger?) new fields of endeavor.

But so far I don’t find this illuminating for TIMN. Fligstein & McAdam’s “fields” offer a different way of looking at tribes, institutions, markets, and networks — but I don’t see that it’s better than the “forms” approach. Besides, it looks to me as though their approach, as it presently stands, risks descending into a hunt for micro-fields rather than helping identify grand system dynamics that apply across TIMN’s four forms.

• If I understand Fligstein & McAdam correctly, there are so many kinds of “strategic action fields”, in theory and practice, that only some can be mentioned, few can be typologized, and many are creatures unto themselves and unto others as well. Here’s what I mean by that:

> As they lay out their theoretical perspective, much of their paper critiques rival views about organizational theory, notably new institutional theory (including institutional-logics theory), network analysis, and social movement theory, plus Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus theory” and Anthony Giddens’ “structuration theory” (p. 5; p. 37ff). I skip over most of that, but must point out that they all get subsumed as ways to study SAFs.
> Indeed, as noted above, they treat “All collective actors (for example, organizations, extended families, clans, supply chains, social movements, and governmental systems)” as strategic action fields (p. 7). That’s further evidence that their SAF concept encompasses all four TIMN forms — those “extended families” and “clans” pertain to the T/tribal form, and “governmental systems” to the +I/institutional form.
> A little later, still writing in a theoretical sense, they use their “insight that action takes place in meso-level social order” to show that their SAF concept also encompasses what are variously called “sectors, organizational fields, games, fields, networks, or, in the case of the government, policy domains. In the economic realm, markets can be thought of as a specific kind of constructed order” (p. 7). Apropos TIMN, I see no mention of “forms” here, but at least “markets” and “networks” show up.
> Then, more concretely, when they apply their perspective to analyzing the civil rights revolution (1932-68), the five SAFs they highlight are: America’s competitive party politics; the Democratic Party; the cotton economy; the field of U.S. constitutional law; and the international system of nation states (p. 45ff). Wow, those are very very different kinds of “strategic action fields” than the ones mentioned elsewhere.
> Finally, in conclusion, they remark “ … it is clear that action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” They further note that “the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized. The modern world has created the “social movement”, the “organization”, and the idea that one can deploy networks to expand one’s power.” (p. 51) Again, apropos TIMN, notice the highlighting of “states” and “markets”, plus a nod to “networks”.
At least all of TIMN’s forms — tribes, institutions, markets, networks — get mentioned by them in some fashion. But I hesitate to say there’s much overlap with TIMN. It looks to me as though TIMN might get buried in their approach.

• Fligstein & McAdam’s aim (stated late in their paper) is “to account for field emergence, stability and transformation” by laying out a theory of strategic action fields “that allows us to understand how new meso-level social orders are produced, sustained, and come unraveled.” (p. 43) Thus they seek to offer “a much broader view of social change and conflict, one that grants attention to a much larger cast of characters and centers on the interplay of a good many state and non-state SAFs.” (p. 44)

This approach leads to several theoretical consequences (laid out earlier in their paper). One is that “fields are constructed on a situational basis, as shifting collections of actors come to define new issues and concerns as salient.” (p. 9) Another is that “All of the meanings in a field can break down including what the purpose of the field is, what positions the actors occupy, what the rules of the game are, and how actors come to understand what others are doing.” If so, then “the whole order of an SAF is up for grabs” — possibly leading to a “whole new order”. (p. 12)

In so saying, Fligstein & McAdam clarify that the key actors in these fields are “comprised of “incumbents, challengers, and sometimes governance units.” The authors also clarify that they view “all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields” — with relations depending on whether these other fields are distant or proximate, vertical or horizontal, and/or state or non-state. Moreover, states themselves amount to “dense collections of fields, whose relations can be described as either distant or proximate and if proximate, can be characterized by horizontal or vertical links.” (pp. 12, 16-17)

Quite a picture emerges from this analysis. Collective strategic action fields are characterized by so many links and ties, so much “connectedness”, that they become “embedded in one another”. Such high levels of interdependent interaction mean these fields are never really separate and settled — they don’t amount to “self-contained autonomous worlds.” As a result, these fields are open to “exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention”. They’re “in some flux” and “continuously contested” — often afflicted with “round after round of reactive struggle”. (pp. 6, 12, 20) All of which leads the authors to conclude as follows:
“The main theoretical implication of the interdependence of fields is that it is a source of a certain level of rolling turbulence in modern society. A significant change in any given SAF is like a stone thrown in a still pond, sending ripples outward to all proximate fields.” (p. 18)
Wow. All quite understandable from their “fields” perspective. Lots of overlaps with Levine’s “forms” perspective too (see my Part 2 installment). But I see only limited instructiveness for TIMN.

For one thing, “roiling turbulence” can be found somewhere in most societies, not just modern ones. Yet many systems afflicted with turbulence often do not change much for long periods of time, especially in societies that may be culturally too tribal or institutionally too hierarchical (from a TIMN perspective). In such societies, that roiling turbulence may be kept under control by deeply embedded, deliberately concerted rigidities. TIMN seems better suited to explaining this than does Fligstein & McAdam’s approach (though they/I will address that further in the next bulleted sub-section).

More to the point, TIMN is mostly about evolutionary change and stability over long periods of time. Fligstein & McAdam’s view seems directed at analyzing change (and stability) over much shorter periods of time. TIMN could be used to diagnose a society’s evolutionary status and potential at any given time, including short periods. But the picture that would emerge would be about how that society is using and combining TIMN’s four cardinal forms. I don’t see that TIMN could be improved by substituting a fields approach, especially in light of what appears to be its bias toward emphasizing turmoil, instability, even conflict.

• Nonetheless, Fligstein & McAdam turn to analyze “the conditions that make for stability and change in strategic action fields and the potential role of strategic actors in these processes.” Their view is that “SAFs tend toward one of three states: unorganized or emerging, organized and stable but changing, and organized and unstable and open to transformation.” (p. 22) [Hmm: note the presence of some kind of turbulence in each of those three states.]

So they pose a series of propositions about this. The ones that resonate with TIMN are as follows: “Proposition 2: Skilled social actors are pivotal for new fields to emerge. … Proposition 3: Skilled social actors can help produce entirely new cultural frames for fields. … Proposition 8: Emergent fields produce new forms of organizing.” (pp.24-26) I’d say all three apply to the rise of each TIMN form, for each requires “skilled social actors” who fashion “new cultural frames” and “new forms of organizing”. Those are good points — I’ve written as much, though not that way.

But I wonder about their Proposition 4, where they claim that “Initial resource allocations affect whether or not SAFs become organized hierarchically or cooperatively.” They claim that there are only two ways for SAFs to settle “the problem of order”: impose hierarchy, or form political coalitions. (p. 24) What I find unclear is whether Proposition 4 is about people settling the rules for managing a field, or about determining the very nature of the field. If the former, well, maybe so. But if the latter, no way — the hierarchy-coalition dichotomy is insufficient to capture the varied natures of TIMN’s four forms. Fligstein & McAdam’s field theory does not — cannot? — account for how and why the tribal form rises first, the institutional form next, then the market form, and now the network form. Nor can their theory account for why different problems of order lead to the rise of different forms (fields?) of order over the long course of social evolution.

I’d also comment on Proposition 11, which states that “Strategic action fields are generally destabilized by external shock originating from other strategic action fields, invasion by other groups of organizations, actions of the state, or large scale crises such as wars or depressions.” (p. 30) That makes sense, as does their follow-up point that “The more fields involved in these crises, the more likely the state is to become destabilized. To the degree that these crises reach epic proportions, the opportunities for collective action to transform the entire system may be present.” (p. 32) Yet, much as I appreciate these Proposition 11 points, they don’t strike me as unique or unusually insightful — they’re rather traditional points reiterated in SAF language. As I recall, Levine makes virtually identical points from a forms viewpoint (see Part 2 post), and I don’t see that their “fields” approach can outperform her (or my) “forms” approach.

I also think there is something valuable about Proposition 12, which posits that “The more connected an SAF is to other SAFs, the more stable that SAF is likely to be. Similarly, new SAFs or those with few connections will be unstable.” But a page later they also point out that “The "connectedness" of SAFs is a source of both strength and weakness.” (pp. 33-35) I could ask, so which is it? But I think a better point to make is that this disparity helps shows that, because of their fields orientation, they have spotted an important duality about connectivity — sometimes it strengthens and solidifies, and sometimes it weakens and disturbs relations. However, I can’t tell where they want to go with this observation. Yet, according to where I think TIMN is headed, but contrary to their Proposition 12, extreme levels of connectivity between forms is a bad sign. Too much connectivity — connectivity to the point of infestation, say between the tribal and institutional forms, or between the institutional and market forms — is likely to have all sorts of adverse effects that end up distorting and decreasing a society’s potential for next-step evolution.

From my TIMN perspective, then, Fligstein & McAdam have made a start at showing how their “fields” framework may help explain social stability and change, and whether, how, and why a society may become “open to transformation”. But from what I see, their fields approach isn’t designed to explain social evolution. TIMN’s “forms” approach is better designed for that.

• In concluding their overview, Fligstein & McAdam reiterate that they “have tried to sketch … the central animating principles of a theory of SAFs that we think makes sense of strategic collective action across these nominally distinct social realms.” But while their paper mostly treats all “collective strategic action as having similar theoretical underpinnings”, here at the end they finally observe “it is clear that action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” Which leads them to ask “if the modes of collective action are similar in markets and politics, then what makes them different?” They add that “It is also the case that the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized” — including “the idea that one can deploy networks to expand one’s power.” (pp. 50-51)

I’m pleased to see their closing recognition that “action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” That is almost TIMN-ish, even though it comes with a reiteration that all collective strategic action has “similar theoretical underpinnings”. But they leave unresolved how and why different dynamics arise in the fields of “markets and politics”, despite both being “fields” that are supposed to be theoretically similar. Which means they still have quite a research agenda ahead of them. Perhaps, I wonder, they will end up having to go in directions that TIMN is already going.

Also, here in closing, they suddenly note that “the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized”. Forms!? What do they mean by “forms” — a term they rarely use elsewhere? Don’t they mean “fields”? Or, here at last, is a conflation? I can’t tell. But I’d sure like to know how they see “forms” and “fields” as being different, and what they’d make of the differences they see.

In sum, I see no reason to switch from “forms” to “fields” as a basis for TIMN. Their theory is too filled with whirling swirling interactions in fights for power and control, and too lacking in long-range evolutionary structures and dynamics to warrant my switching. But I’ve benefitted from reading their work, and so may others whose focus is on “forms”.

To read Fligstein & McAdam’s paper for yourself, go here for easy access:
Next up, a look into another alternative for TIMN: “institutional logics”.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #3: finally getting ahold of The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader (1998)

Further evidence for the growth of interest in the noosphere concept across the decades is the impressive wide-ranging collection by David Pitt & Paul R. Samson (eds.),‎ The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society and Change (1998). As the editors state (on what appears to be the back cover or infold),
“The noosphere concept captures a number of key contemporary issues — social evolution, global ecology, Gaia, deep ecology and global environmental change — contributing to ongoing debates concerning the implications of emerging technologies such as human-created biospheres and the Internet.” 
Their book provides, in excerpts, “the central ideas and key writings of many prominent thinkers”, including Teilhard, Vernadsky, and LeRoy — the original coiners of the term — along with admirers and interpreters Henri Bergson, Julian Huxley, Arnold Toynbee, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Rafal Serafin, Marshall McLuhan, Theodosius Dobhzansky, Dorion Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Boulding, and Nikita Moiseev, among others. Plus Mikhail Gorbachev, who wrote the book’s Foreword.

I wish I’d seen it earlier. But unfortunately, this book was not out when we did our research and writing during 1997-1998. Today in 2018 I wish it could be updated with a second edition (but I can’t find any recent traces of the two editors).

Online download available here, fortunately:


Monday, February 26, 2018

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #2: draft of introduction to new paper

[UPDATE — MARCH 20, 2018: What follows is a preliminary draft introducing our likely new paper. I have deleted what was here before about the origins of the noosphere concept, and moved it — revised, expanded — to post #3 in this series]

The Continuing Promise of the Noösphere and Noöpolitik — Twenty Years After

 David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla

Twenty years ago we proposed noöpolitik (nü-oh-poh-li-teek) as a new approach for American information strategy (1999). According to our argument, strategists will have to rethink what is “information” and see that a new realm is emerging — the noosphere, a global “realm of the mind” — that will profoundly affect statecraft. The information age will continue to undermine the conditions for traditional strategies based on realpolitik and material “hard power,” and lead to new strategies based on noopolitik and its preference for ideational “soft power.” A rethinking is needed because the decisive factor in the new global wars of ideas will be “whose story wins” — the essence of noöpolitik.

The noosphere and noopolitik concepts relate to an organizational theme that has constantly figured in our work about the information revolution: the rise of network forms of organization that strengthen civil-society actors. Few state or market actors, by themselves, seem likely to have much interest in fostering the construction of a global noosphere, except in limited areas having to do with international law, or political and economic ideology. The impetus for fostering a global noosphere is more likely to emanate from activist NGOs, other civil-society actors (e.g., churches, schools), and individuals dedicated to freedom of information and communications and to the spread of ethical values and norms. We believe it is time for state actors to begin moving in this direction, too, particularly since power in the information age will stem, more than ever, from the ability of state and market actors to work conjointly with civil-society actors.

Ten years ago we provided an update on the promise of noopolitik for a handbook on public diplomacy (2007; 2008). In it, we summarized our 1999 report and added four new points: (1) Other new information-age concepts similar to noopolitik — notably, netpolitik, cyberpolitik, infopolitik — had appeared, but all (including noopolitik) were having difficulty gaining traction. (2) Instead, the concept of “soft power” had come to dominate strategic discourse in government, military, and think-tank circles, even though its definition was flawed and lacked operational clarity. (3) Meanwhile, in non-state arenas where noosphere-building ideas had taken hold, activist NGOs representing global civil society were becoming major practitioners of noopolitik — but the most effective practitioners were militant jihadis organized in global networks and outfitted with sophisticated media technologies. (4) Against this background, we argued that American public diplomacy would benefit from a course correction to head in the direction of noöpolitik. But we also cautioned that conditions for doing so were less favorable than when we first fielded the concept a decade earlier — and propitious conditions seemed unlikely to re–emerge anytime soon.

Today, another ten years later, as we prepare this new update, noopolitik remains a promising concept for American information strategy. However, it’s not alive and well here in the United States, where even “soft power” is lately in decline as a strategic concept. Instead, our major adversaries are the ones working on developing noopolitik — but in dark ways and by other names — and they’re using it against us. These new circumstances mean, paraphrasing Charles Dickens, that we are now living in not only the worst of times but also the best of times for revisiting the promise of the noosphere and noospolitik.

So, we’re doing this update differently. Our initial writings analyzed at length the importance of information in the information age and the nature and growth of three information-based realms — cyberspace, the infosphere, and the noosphere. We did so in order to recommend that strategists begin to prefer the noosphere concept. However, by now the importance of information and those three realms are conceptually more familiar to strategists. Thus, for this update, we are skipping over re-summarizing our initial analysis and diving straight into discussing the noosphere concept at length — its origins in the 1920s, and the spread of its influence through today, nearly a century later.

This update proceeds this new way partly because we have learned more about the concept. We have also found new implications for discussing the prospects for noopolitik. We then go on to provide a new assessment of noopolitik for America’s current strategic situation.

Notes about the noosphere and noopolitik — #1: Introductory comments about a new series of posts

As mentioned elsewhere, former co-author John Arquilla and I have been asked — and we’ve agreed — to update our ten-year-old chapter for a new revised edition of a 2009 handbook on public diplomacy. Our chapter back then was titled “Noopolitik: A New Framework for Public Diplomacy”. Not sure what our new title will be, but I do know we will do a major update and rewrite. I also know it might help keep me motivated if I post some draft pieces here as I go along, especially if comments ensue.

In brief, our argument is as follows: As the information age deepens, a globe–circling realm of the mind is being created — the “noosphere” that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (and others) identified ninety years ago. This will increasingly affect the nature of grand strategy and diplomacy. Traditional realpolitik, which ultimately relies on hard (principally military) power, will give way to the rise of noöpolitik (or noöspolitik), which relies on soft (principally ideational) power. Ultimately, noöpolitik is about whose story wins.

Our original RAND report, titled The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward An American Information Strategy (1999), is available here:
Our follow-up paper, “The promise of noöpolitik” (2007), which summarizes the RAND report and was edited down for the chapter in the public diplomacy handbook, is here:

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism in America — #27: Amy Chua on “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism”

This may be the last post in this series. It has served to make the point, over and over, that, as polarization has deepened, more and more Americans have reverted to tribal forms of organization, belief, and behavior — often in dark malignant ways. When I began the series, few analysts were noticing and writing about tribalism. But now I sense that trend is shifting, for more and more analysts are noticing and writing, showing they understand the systematic nature of the tribal form. For example, see the excellent articles I’ve posted in recent months by David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and Andrew Sullivan, not to mention others.

So I’m changing direction — away from harping on the dark-sides, toward looking for readings that try to identify ways to ease our dark-side reversions and restore the bright-sides of the tribal form. So far, I’ve not seen much about remedies and solutions, and what I have seen is slim and slow — e.g., improve civic education. But I’m going to try to refocus anyway, under a new series title. All this dwelling on the dark side is a distressing downer. I’ll still attend to some dark writings about tribalism, but more briefly, and under the “Brief blurts …” series heading .

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A strong-point of Yale professor Amy Chua’s “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism” (Feb 2018) is that it starts by observing, rather than concluding later, that “America is in the grip of political tribalism.” And she is troubled that we’ve fixated on its symptoms when we should be trying to identify its “root causes.” Then, more than anyone else I’ve posted, she blames capitalism — specifically, the presence of a “market-dominant minority” — for creating the socioeconomic conditions that lead to political tribalism. According to her analysis, political democracy has foundered “in virtually every country where there has been a market-dominant minority” (she names Indonesia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, the former Yugoslavia, and Venezuela).

Today, she argues, America is at risk of succumbing to the same dynamic, with our “coastal elites” acting as that market-dominant minority. Thus, we should worry, not that America will go the way of the developed European nations where right-wing ethno-nationalism is taking hold, but rather that America will go the way of the underdeveloped and developing countries she mentioned where “resentment toward a market-dominant minority” led to demagogues taking power.

Here’s an excerpt from up-front that lays out her argument:
“By now we all understand that America is in the grip of political tribalism. We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it. But by fixating on the symptoms, we remain blind to the root causes. America is being ravaged by predictable, destructive political dynamics that follow from the combination of democracy and a market-dominant minority.
“Most Americans assume that democracy and free markets go hand in hand, naturally working together to generate prosperity and freedom. For the United States, this has largely been true. But by their very nature, markets and democracy coexist in deep tension.
“Capitalism creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority resentful of that wealth. In the wrong conditions, that tension can set in motion intensely destructive politics. All over the world, one circumstance in particular has invariably had this effect: the presence of a market-dominant minority — a minority group, perceived by the rest of the population as outsiders, who control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth.”
Her research, presented more fully in her new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, leads to the following insight:
“Seeing coastal elites as a market-dominant minority is sobering. In my research, I’ve found no examples of countries successfully overcoming this problem. On the contrary, all over the world, when this dynamic takes hold of a nation’s politics, a result has been an erosion of trust in institutions and in electoral outcomes. Countries lurch toward authoritarianism, hate- mongering and an elite backlash against the popular side of democracy.”
She doesn’t offer much about remedies and solutions, but she sensibly observes that the “way out” will surely have to be “both economic and cultural”. In particular, “Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency.” Here’s her conclusion to this effect:
“ … If any way out exists, it will have to be both economic and cultural. Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency. Upward mobility is what made America different from developing countries that have disintegrated. Research shows that zero-sum political tribalism is worst under conditions of economic insecurity and lack of opportunity.
“But the emergence of coastal elites as an insular minority is also rooted squarely in the breakdown of national unity — in the fracturing of our country into two (or more) Americas in which people from one tribe see others not just as the political opposition, but as immoral, evil and un-American. America desperately needs leaders with the courage to break out of the tribalist cycle, but where are we going to find them?”
That final question is ever so daunting.

To read in whole, go here:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Readings on cognitive warfare at the societal level — #11: Molly McKew on “How Twitter Bots and Trump Fans Made #ReleaseTheMemo Go Viral” (Feb 2018)

This is the fifth article by Molly McKew I’ve included in this series. Her article’s sub-title sums it up: “Russian bots and their American allies gamed social media to put a flawed intelligence document atop the political agenda. That should alarm us.”

The article focuses on “a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers.” That gripping term “computational propaganda” refers to “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior”. Or, as an interviewee put it, “Computational propaganda serves to distort the political process and amplify fringe views in ways that no previous communication technology could.”

The article documents, in surprising detail, how the hashtag campaign #ReleaseTheMemo started small on Twitter, gained momentum, and became huge — increasingly amplified by automated bots and semi-automated cyborgs as well as by real people, including targeted pro-Trump lawmakers and media commentators. McKew discerns from her data that “The frenzy of activity spurred lawmakers and the White House to release the Nunes memo” — which, I’d add, is evidently what they aimed to do all along.

Posing the question “What does it all mean?”, McKew answers as follows:
“A year after it should have become an indisputable fact that Russia launched a sophisticated, lucky, daring, aggressive campaign against the American public, we’re as exposed and vulnerable as we ever were—if not more so, because now so many tools we might have sharpened to aid us in this fight seem blunted and discarded by the very people who should be honing their edge. There is no leadership. No one is building awareness of how these automated influence campaigns are being used against us. …
“A recent analysis from DFRLab mapped out how modern Russian propaganda is highly effective because so many diverse messaging elements are so highly integrated. Far-right elements in the United States have learned to emulate this strategy, and have used it effectively with their own computational propaganda tactics — as demonstrated by the “Twitter rooms” and documented alt-right bot-nets pushing a pro-Trump narrative. …
“So what are the lessons of #releasethememo? Regardless of how much of the campaign was American and how much was Russian, it’s clear there was a massive effort to game social media and put the Nunes memo squarely on the national agenda — and it worked to an astonishing degree. The bottom line is that the goals of the two overlapped, so the origin — human, machine or otherwise — doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that someone is trying to manipulate us, tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or—in the case of #releasethememo — are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own.”
Yikes! As I’ve noted before, back in the Cold War decades and before, we had to be wary of Soviets trying to be “in cahoots” with elements of the American Left — and vice-versa. Now it’s the reverse: we must be wary of Russians acting “in cahoots” with elements of the American Right — and vice-versa.

To read in full, go here: