Army ants

Modelling the US military on the 'self-organisation' of insects could prove suicidal.

William Davies

Topics Science & Tech

The US Department of Defence recently carried out an $80million military experiment called Quantum Leap. The purpose of this somewhat elaborate war game was to test a model that the Pentagon’s top brass are staking their reputations on: ‘network-centric warfare.’

This is one of the six core principles behind Donald Rumsfeld’s proposal for a twenty-first century ‘Transformed Military’ (1). In the words of the Pentagon’s Paul Hoeper, network-centric warfare promises to ‘reduce the time between identifying a target and what the army calls “servicing the target”‘.

On the face of it, this programme represents a jargon-fuelled ruse to divert further Federal funds towards the Pentagon – in February 2002, Rumsfeld requested a cool $18.6billion for the project over a five-year period (2). The rhetoric could have been lifted straight from any MBA dissertation. The military apparently needs to become ‘flatter’, ‘less hierarchical’ and more ‘flexible’. It needs, to ‘devolve decision-making’ and ‘enable horizontal fusion’.

If nothing more, this talk of networks and flexibility brings Rumsfeld’s Cold War image kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century (or at least the 1990s). But its function is more insidious than this. The organisational theory that underlies this programme is a fast growing ideology, and the Pentagon is its latest and most powerful scalp: the theory of ‘self-organisation’.

‘Network-centric warfare’ is primarily a technological proposition, bound up in a new political orthodoxy about the social possibilities for networked-computing. The aim is to use state-of-the-art software systems to distribute intelligence directly to and around the frontline, which is what explains the huge budget hike. The benefits to anyone seeking to give their enemy a damn good ‘servicing’ are fairly obvious.

But it is the social assumptions about networked forms of organisation that mark out this programme. The Pentagon argues that this vast investment in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) will enable its troops to ‘self-organise’.

The idea is that a military with sophisticated frontline ICT networks should be able to take decisions and act without resort to the traditional, vertical lines of communication. Coordination between troops on the ground can occur purely through horizontal communication, cutting across formal divisions to create an ultra-nimble and non-hierarchical type of organisation. Using ICTs to devolve intelligence cuts out the need constantly to route everything via a single hub, and consequently speeds up the entire process.

As a political philosophy, the principles of self-organisation seem nobly democratic. As a military strategy, they sound terrifying. After all, if there is one thing more disconcerting than 40 percent of the world’s military capability being controlled by Pentagon neo-conservatives, surely it is the prospect of 40 percent of the world’s military capability being controlled by itself.

But perhaps self-organisation is more organised than it seems. Think of a ‘system’ in which a large number of independent bodies are autonomously, with each being somehow affected by the behaviour of all the others.

For example, if several billiard balls are bouncing round a table, and occasionally bumping into one another, their trajectories are independent, but affected by one another. The course of events on the table will not be explicable in terms of the behaviour of a single ball, but neither did the balls collectively plan how they would end up (of course, a decent billiard player may well plan how the balls are to end up, but that’s precisely the sort of issue that undermines every example of self-organisation).

By force of analogy, self-organisation is also discovered in other decentralised networks, such as the internet, urban neighbourhoods and ant colonies. Each, allegedly, demonstrates the possibilities for unplanned or ‘bottom-up’ collective behaviour.

Self-organisation has attracted enthusiastic intellectual endorsement from the likes of Steven Johnson, a popular American science writer, and Demos, one of the UK’s most influential centre-left think-tanks (3). And its political implications are indeed enticing. Where political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that even the most minimal social settlement requires the constant threat of force from a higher power, self-organisation theory suggests otherwise. A neighbourhood, for example, might reach a cultural and political settlement of its own accord. Often, as the Godmother of self-organisation Jane Jacobs argued, this settlement may be better than anything that town planners could ever achieve (4). But there are glaring problems here.

The intellectual shortcoming of this ideology lies in its tool of choice: analogy. Analogies do not simply add extra intellectual ballast here, but hold the entire argument together. Self-organisation was initially a phenomenon observed by biologists in organisms such as slime mould and ants. They noticed that ants create sophisticated social systems without any top-down organisation (of course, the Queen ant sits smugly at the centre of proceedings, but…oops, there I go again). Only inasmuch as we accept that we are a bit like ants or slime mould does any of this carry weight.

But we might do better to listen to the original biologist, Aristotle, who argued that human beings are nothing like ants, for the simple reason that human beings are political. They have an inbuilt tendency to create and debate political systems, and they do so deliberately, hierarchically and intelligently. In order to imagine a self-organising social group, we have to forget most of what we know to be true, namely, that organisers, leaders and visionaries inevitably arise, and start to exercise power over others.

Meanwhile, the practical shortcoming of self-organisation lies in the absence of any political process. Although self-organisation sounds like democracy, it can be nothing of the sort because it begins from the premise of lawlessness. Laws are precisely what enable democracy to occur – they establish the rules of elections, the civil rights of citizens and the constitutional limits of governing powers.

Moreover, history suggests that political systems that have rejected the rule-based or procedural model of democracy have forsaken any type of democracy altogether. Think of the nation states that inserted the word ‘People’s’ into their titles during the twentieth century. The attempt to bypass representative democracy in favour of the direct will of the people has always proved disastrous, because the process necessary to extract that will simply doesn’t exist. Quite how self-organising communities are supposed to represent themselves or change themselves should things go wrong, nobody knows.

So where does this leave our GI, sitting on a sand-dune, emailing his mate on the air-craft carrier with the latest intelligence gossip? Does Rumsfeld expect us to trust in the complex web of information flows, linking together tens of thousands of independent military personnel scattered around the world? Are we to assume that this complex adaptive system will produce the correct strategy, like one of those novelty shop ‘Magic 8 Balls’, which can be shaken in times of indecision so as to make a decision bubble up?

Of course not. A genuinely self-organising military would be lawless and chaotic. But the fact that the Pentagon is able to co-opt the idea of self-organisation shows what a slippery and duplicitous ideology it is. ‘Network-centric warfare’ is a misnomer, and – to use the rhetorical device du jour – about as network-centric as a school playground. Children may need freedom to interact with one another, learn independently, and be able to tie their own shoelaces. But to view this social phenomenon as ‘self-organising’ is to factor out the teachers, parents and authorities who planned it.

Every self-organising system has its organiser, be it a billiard player, a queen ant or the Pentagon. The question is whether we blind ourselves to this fact using biology, or set about interrogating it using politics.

William Davies works on the iSociety research project. He is the author of a You Don’t Know Me, but…: Social Capital and Social Software, Work Foundation, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 758 KB).

Read on:

The dangers of a risk-averse war, by Mick Hume

Computing communities, by Martyn Perks

(1) See Quantum leap tests network warfare, Frank Tiboni, Federal Computer Week, 27 August 2003

(2) Rumsfeld spells out six key defense goals to senate committee,, 6 February 2002

(3) Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Steven Johnson, Scribner, 2001

(4) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, Vintage Books, 1992

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Topics Science & Tech


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