For many non-state actors, the Internet has opened up a space for creativity, discovery, exploration and evolution. Unhindered by spatial, temporal or geographic boundaries, the new digital environment facilitates political debates, rallies and protests, and feeds digital grassroots movements and networks. Groups of actors have formed, adapted and evolved in this new space differently than any traditional international organization.
Despite their unconventional appearance, these networks are disrupting the monopoly of power previously held by traditional governance institutions and returning forcing the international community to rethink governance in the digital age.
“These actors form a new layer in the international system, one that does not fit comfortably in our traditional categories and theoretical models,” digital media expert and CIGI board member Taylor Owen told a public audience in Waterloo. “They are not nation states, not formal institutions or rogue individuals. Instead they are participants in digital networks bound by characteristics that are fundamentally technologically enabled.”
What makes this “new layer” of actors so disruptive to traditional power? In his CIGI Signature Lecture, “Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age,” Owen, an assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia, unpacked three common keys to these disruptive digital networks’ success, revealing unexpected characteristics that enable “otherwise disenfranchised groups [to] use technology to push back against established powers.”
For centuries, traditional Western societies have found a kind of comfort in hierarchies. Actors know both who is in charge and where they appear in the pecking order. This kind of format has come to seem natural – the only obvious solution to the problem of chaos. However, in the digital sphere, formlessness is crucial. Digital actors have successfully turned traditional structural hierarchy on its head – or rather, flattened it out altogether.
Without defined leadership or structures, groups can evolve quickly, recreating themselves and adapting to survive the next digital trend. When they fail, their formlessness allows them to bounce back quickly, unfettered by corporate turnover or restructuring.
The term instability often carries negative connotations. Used to describe teetering buildings, cracked foundations or even people suffering from mentally illness, “unstable” is rarely found on lists of virtues. Nonetheless, digital actors have made instability work in their favour.
In the age of the Internet, information is available with greater speed and abundance than it can be processed. As Owen said, “The evolution of ideas, ideals, beliefs and politics is happening in real time.” Traditional, stable institutions are not equipped to process information at this speed. Their hierarchies and chains of command are like heavy shackles restraining them from reacting quickly and efficiently. They require predictable information in order for their traditional actors to plan for the future. Therefore, the nature of the Internet favours a nimble, adaptable actor to keep up with its ever-growing repository of information.
In a flattened structure, digital networks rely on collaboration and collective action. Rather than waiting for a traditional organizational status to be bestowed on them, non-state networks acquire status, credibility and authority through their demonstrated actions and success. The legitimacy of the group is found in their accomplishments, which ultimately hail the attention of traditional power hubs. As the accomplishments of Anonymous and Telecomix attest, active collaboration is critical to the development and success of a disruptive digital network.
What do you think? Are traditional hierarchies obsolete in a digital space? Is collaboration possible without organizational structures? Will instability ultimately impede networks’ impact and longevity?
Watch the full, unedited video from Taylor Owen's lecture at livestream.com/cigionline/disruptive-power.