Networks thrive in complexity

In complex environments, weak hierarchies and strong networks are the best organizing principle. One good example of complexity that we can try to fathom is nature itself. Networks thrive in nature. As Howard Bloom stated in a speech at Yale University:

One the many lessons bacteria teach with their colonies of trillions is this. When it comes to groups, Nature does not favor tribes, she favors size … She favors humongous social groups that network their information so well that they form a high-powered collective intelligence, a group brain.

The Internet has given us a glimpse of the power of networks. We are just beginning to realize how we can use networks as our primary form of living and working. David Ronfeldt has developed the TIMN framework to explain this – Tribal; Institutional; Markets; Networks. The TIMN framework shows how we have evolved as a civilisation. It has not been a clean progression from one organizing mode to the next but rather each new form built upon and changed the previous mode. He sees the network form not as a modifier of previous forms, but a form in itself that can address issues that the three other forms could not address. This point is very important when it comes to things like implementing social business (a network mode) within corporations (institutional + market modes). Real network models (e.g. wirearchy) are new modes, not modifications of the old ones.

Another key point of this framework is that Tribes exist within Institutions, Markets AND Networks. We never lose our affinity for community groups or family, but each mode brings new factors that influence our previous modes. For example, tribalism is alive and well in online social networks. It’s just not the same tribalism of several hundred years ago. Each transition also has its hazards. For instance, while tribal societies may result in nepotism, networked societies can lead to deception.

Ronfeldt states that the initial tribal form informs the other modes and can have a profound influence as they evolve.

Balanced combination is apparently imperative: Each form (and its realm) builds on its predecessor(s). In the progression from T through T+I+M+N, the rise of a new form depends on the successes (and failures) achieved through the earlier forms. For a society to progress optimally through the addition of new forms, no single form should be allowed to dominate any other, and none should be suppressed or eliminated. A society’s potential to function well at a given stage, and to evolve to a higher level of complexity, depends on its ability to integrate these inherently contradictory forms into a well-functioning whole. A society can constrain its prospects for evolutionary growth by elevating a single form to primacy — as appears to be a tendency at times in market-mad America.

Each form also seems to be triggered by major societal changes in communications. The written word enabled institutions, the printed word fostered regional and global markets, and the electric (digital) word is empowering worldwide networks.

Here is David Ronfeldt giving a 20-minute overview of TIMN.

12 Responses to “Networks thrive in complexity”

  1. mark lazen

    Great stuff Harold. And my favorite flavor of thinking as well.

    “A society can constrain its prospects for evolutionary growth by elevating a single form to primacy…”

    So true. Of course there are implicit challenges and conflict for those attempting to “plan” an environment that will be conducive to complexity. But it sure can’t hurt to at least know that that’s the goal.

    Would love to have you share some of these thoughts on Social Media Today.

  2. Timothy Williamson

    Very good! Though it may be difficult to ‘design’ CAS from the ground up, it is possible to influence emerging systems, as long as the plan is subtle, simple, long-term and visionary.


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