Steven Weber Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power in the 
    Information Age: Conversation with Steven Weber, Professor of Political Science, 
    UC Berkeley, April 28, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 5

Implications for Power in the Post-9/11 World

What is your intuition about what happens in this intersection between hierarchical organizations and network organizations? Without knowing much about it, one would think that power would lie on the side of the hierarchy. This is a superficial look, a conventional wisdom, that the power lies on the side of a Microsoft versus Linux. How do you respond to that?

The way in which we measure power has been derived from our understanding of what makes hierarchies capable of doing things in the world. In the traditional definition of power, the answer to your question is yes, of course power lies on the side of the hierarchy, because we've defined power as that which makes hierarchies capable.

In the best traditions of empirical study, you need to understand what characteristics allow different organizations to influence the environment and to influence each other, and that may lead to a redefinition of power. We learned very dramatically here in the United States on September 11th that the power to disrupt the operations of a tightly organized hierarchical system creates a great deal of influence in the world, and can make people in the classic definition of power do things they otherwise would not do. That's one destructive or disruptive form of power.

It's also a form of power to be able to undermine the capability to provide goods in a competitive market. Those could be political goods or they could be material goods, or knowledge goods that are organized to be made by another kind of organization less efficiently. There's a power in that as well.

So what you see Linux doing, in effect, or other open source programs -- they're not fighting with Microsoft, what they're simply doing is offering a set of solutions that is competitive, at a lower price in many cases, and more efficient to upgrade, and they are taking market share away. Microsoft is using its capabilities to try to damage that hierarchy, but those capabilities don't play well against [a network]. You can't buy up Linux the way you can buy up a company, and you can't take Linux to court in a simple way. There is a set of laws that you could pass to get in the way of open source code, and we can come back to that, if you want -- it's sort of detailed stuff. But traditional tools of power don't operate terribly well across that interface. It's like trying to fight somebody who doesn't look like you. It's very difficult to understand where their vulnerabilities are, because you're looking for them where you think your [own] vulnerabilities are. John Arquilla and others have talked about this. There are advantages hierarchy have in fighting with networks, as well as in cooperating with networks. But there are advantages on the other side as well.

I get the sense that networks and open source modalities score higher on what we might call the morale or motivation of the participants. Is that fair?

Not always. But in this one case, what you are able to see -- and people both inside and outside the open source movement would recognize this -- is that if hierarchical organizations are able to tap into some percentage of what it is that drives human beings to get up in the morning and do stuff, the network communities have been able to tap into a slightly greater percentage, and they're able to motivate people in a slightly stronger way.

Why that is exactly goes to the point that human motivation is so extraordinarily granular, and people do things for such different reasons, that a coercive organization is never able to maximize its ability to appeal to people across a very broad range of personalities, cultures, languages, and so on and so forth. When people are able to self-identify and pick the jobs that they feel most suited for, and choose what it is they want to put their energy into, for all sorts of reasons, they're likely to put a greater degree of energy into it.

It's the same kind of rationale that underlies the notion of giving academics tenure, which is that once you free people to do what they really want to do, they're likely to be a little bit more creative. They're likely to stay up a little bit later at night, or work a little bit harder to generate new findings and new ideas about the stuff that really motivates them.

And at the core of this is what you call "distributed innovation."

Right.

A point-to-point innovation, so that the breakthroughs can occur at all points in the system, and not just following the orders from the top.

Everybody knows that in any complicated product, the real knowledge about how that product gets used -- whether it's a car, or a piece of software, or a textbook -- lies out on the periphery with the users, people who use it. This was what, in a sense, the Internet enabled. I have a car that I like, and there's one thing I really don't like about it because I use it on a day-to-day basis: it has a terrible cup-holder. Now, that kind of innovation is happening: people out on the periphery know that they want this, or they get this bug, or they want to fix this problem. In the case of the car, I'm not empowered in any way to fix that cup-holder. In fact, [it's impossible] for me to even tell Saab what I think is wrong with the cup-holder; there's no channel in the institution for me to transfer that information efficiently to an organization which could go about and change it.

Open source has twisted that whole thing around, and has recognized the fact that the real knowledge of how software gets used is with the people who use it. The best way to innovate is to empower those people to make the changes and then find the way -- and this is the trick -- to make sure that only the best of those innovations, the ones that really work, get pulled back up into the center and redistributed out into the periphery. Because out on the periphery, as we know -- I mean, you look at the worldwide web, it has enabled everybody to put their opinions and their ideas, and their literature, and whatever they write up on the web: 99.9 percent of that stuff is nonsense; .1 percent of it is brilliant.

The empowerment of the individuals to create: that is important. The ability of a production system, a political system, a society, to filter and to select from that innovation out on the edges that which is really useful, that which is really valuable, is the trick. If you don't do that -- and this is always the fear with end-to-end innovation systems -- the rate of error introduction from the periphery could exceed the rate of error correction on the periphery, and as a result, the value of the whole thing might decline over time. It's a kind of a John Stuart Mill nightmare, which is that by arguing with each other instead of battling our way to truth, we just increase the amount of nonsense in the world.

This is one of the core questions about the impact of Internet technology on society and politics. On one hand, we have the ability of everyone to speak, in some sense, equally. If we believe that John Stuart Mill's style or prophecy scales, then that's a great thing. On the other hand, we have info-babble and we have the ability of everyone to say anything they want without any kind of check, any kind of editorial function, any kind of responsibility for verity or truth. And if we believe that John Stuart Mill doesn't scale, then we're in big trouble, because then the future holds a variety of voices, none of whom can be said to be any more valuable than any other.

What you're saying seems to have important consequences for international politics. You've already suggested that. In your book, you referred to Kissinger's remark about Europe made ten or twenty years ago, "I'd be happy to deal with them, if I knew their address." I guess, as you've already suggested in other of your writings, that the events of 9/11 have brought to the fore our sense that the way states do business and organize their notion of power may no longer be adequate, and that this open-source discussion can inform our understanding of what's going on.

I hope so. I hope [it can] at the generic level of trying to understand how differently structured institutions relate to each other. Kissinger's quote was something like, "When I call Europe, who picks up the phone?" which in some ways is easy to lampoon; but in another sense, he was tapping into something very profound, which is that the United States is a state bureaucracy, organized with certain institutions -- ambassadors, a State Department, a Bureau of Labor Statistics that publishes a certain set of criteria that are measurements of what the American economy is doing vis-?-vis the world. These are all the trappings of an institution that we call the state and sovereignty as it is practiced at the end of the twentieth century. Kissinger was saying that there is this presence in the world which is this weird thing called, at that time, the European Community. It's not exactly a state. It doesn't have the administrative powers of the state. And it's not exactly an international institution. What do I do with it? How do I relate to it? If I need to make an agreement with it, whom do I bargain with? If I need to fight a war against it, whom do I negotiate with to end that war?

This is a generic problem. States, as you know, have been around for a long time; but in the modern sense, they are a creature of the twentieth century. They've had a hundred years or so to perfect a repertoire of strategies and tactics for dealing with each other. There's a game that we know how to play; the academic field of international relations studies that game: what are the rules, who are the players, what kinds of things do they do to each other, and how they could do it better. That's what Morgenthau wanted to understand. And so it's a very valid thing to see.

But as you move into a world with all sorts of different actors that are empowered in different ways -- NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), international institutions, networks of terrorists, networks of Internet-enabled productive engineers who write software that isn't licensed in any particular country -- then, in fact, you have a set of different games in which states are trying to relate to all these other institutions that aren't structured the way they are, and don't have ambassadors, and don't have generals, and don't have people you can negotiate with. And, actually, nobody will pick up the phone, and that's just the way it is.

An early generation of scholars in my field still is trying to make a statement to the international relations academic profession that those other actors matter in the world. They are trying to prove that non-state actors are important. I accept it; I feel like I'm passed that. I think they're important and I'm interested in studying what happens at those interactions between non-state actors and state actors. Frankly, I would like to drop that phrase, because it's a way of saying what they are not rather than what they are. At a level of study, one ought to say, "What is the generic problem of institutions trying to relate to each other, both in a cooperative and competitive manner? What could we learn about that from looking at these different examples?" We're figuring this out on the fly.

The United States has been fighting an undeclared war against terrorism for fifteen years -- against Osama bin Laden for ten -- and now we've really got to figure it out. It's not self-evident whom we negotiate with. It's not self-evident that we can negotiate. It's not clear to us that the terrorist network, as it were, has a set of goals that are familiar to us that we can trade against and make a deal with. So all those problems have to be rethought. People are actively looking for models in other parts of the world, and I'm hoping that this open source thing will be a piece of that discussion.

Now, the empire strikes back -- Microsoft strikes back. A doctrine such as preemption is the Bush administration's way of saying, "We're going to deal with terrorists by going after their home base in a state." And the danger of weapons of mass destruction says we must do that, even if we change the rules of the game, and now we've clearly done that with Iraq. What's wrong with that kind of strategy?

It may not be wrong. In fact, if you don't know how to deal with the institution that you think is actually causing your problem, you go after the institution that you believe supports it that is familiar to you. Essentially, George Bush stood up, I guess it was a week after September 11th, and he was speaking to state leaders, to the people who were in the same institutional configuration that he is in: "You are either with us or you are against us in this war." And so what we did was, we went after Afghanistan. We went after Iraq. We're going after what we think are the state foundations of these institutions. That may or may not work. It's yet to be seen whether or not we can actually undermine enough potential state sponsors of terrorism that we can weaken the sources of resources that keep terrorist networks alive.

One of the interesting and, frankly, confusing things about the Afghanistan war, for me, was how traditional it was. One of the things we found out, as we uncovered the links between al Qaeda and the Taliban was that, actually, al Qaeda had a state. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were very closely interconnected. In some ways, al Qaeda may not be as much of a network organization or a different presence in world politics as we thought it was. It seems, at least -- one should never speak in advance of the future -- but it seems as if our attempt to undermine the links between al Qaeda and statist organizations, international finance, and other such things, have at least slowed them down considerably.

It's striking to me that over the course of the last six months leading up to the Iraq war and during the Iraq war, there was not even an effort, a substantial effort, by al Qaeda to do anything in the United States, or at least not that we know of, that wasn't undermined. So in the short term, at least, it looks like we've had some remarkable successes in undermining the coherence of the organization. I mean, we don't know. We don't know. The preemption doctrine is dangerous and difficult -- risky, let me say -- for lots of other reasons. Whether or not it will work to undermine this generation of terrorists, we don't know. In the long run, it's probably not plausible.

You strike me as a person who is concerned about the problem of legitimacy. And as we, the United States, try to define a new international order, many people are already excluded from that order because of the inequality that the economic dimension of globalization is creating. As futurologist, what does that perspective tell us about what we should think about with regard to the future, and how we might build new institutions?

I don't think you have to be or want to be labeled a futurologist to say that we've been extremely unsuccessful in spreading the benefits of the global economy and globalization to the vast majority of people on this planet. We occasionally can soothe ourselves with statistics that tell us that, actually, much of the world is better off than it was a hundred years ago. But there's a lot of world that is not better off than it was a hundred years ago. And, in fact, we don't even understand what "better off" means for many people in the world.

Clearly, the evolution of a global economy, which has been going on for two hundred or three hundred years, has had inordinate benefits to a fairly small percentage of people on this planet. It's also created, as we know, the capabilities and the structures for many people to disrupt that continued prosperity advance. It's self-evident that the balance of interest and power will become such that people who have nothing to hope for in the future will do lots of things to try to disrupt and destroy that which they see as keeping them oppressed.

Sometimes, I say it this way -- it's kind of a tag line -- but I think it's not incorrect to say that there are at least three and a half or four billion people on this planet who believe that they have nothing to lose from the decline of the West. Osama bin Laden is a piece of that puzzle. He is a piece of that puzzle that's a little too easy to dismiss, because he wraps himself up in Islamic revolutionary ideology and this crazy stuff that will ultimately attract only a very small percentage of people in the world.

But what if there were an effective man or woman with an ideology that could actually motivate some reasonable percentage, 10 percent, of those four billion? Then we'd be in trouble. And to believe that that ideology is not going to emerge, that that person is not going to be born in the next twenty years, I think is a little naïve. So we have a window of time in which we can think very constructively about what kind of a world we want to build, not just for ourselves but for all those other people who are deeply connected to us, not only by the fact that they're human, but by telecommunications, airplane travel, the atmosphere, etc., etc. As you know, we live now at a period of time in which we see ourselves and the world sees us, the United States, as being uniquely powerful and with an extraordinary imbalance of capabilities, and an energy and a commitment to do things in the world. So I think we have a window of time. Is it two years? Is it five years? Is it fifteen years? I don't know.

Now is the time at which we need to stand up and say what we think that world ought to look like for all those other people, as well as ourselves, five or seven years out, and start building institutions that move things in that direction in a way that people see as being honest, an honest effort and a willingness to experiment, and a willingness to bear costs for those experiments, because most of them will fail. And a willingness to call them a failure and move on to the next experiment, in which case we can probably maintain some hope for ourselves and everyone else. But if we don't do that, if we keep postponing that vision, then we're fighting a losing battle and it will only get more expensive over time.

What is the problem here in terms of politics? What is required to make that leap? Is it leadership? Is it the vision? Is it the two of those together? Is it public opinion, or what?

I think it's leadership and vision. I think public opinion is smarter and has a longer timeframe than most politicians give it credit for. We've learned a lot about the maturity of the American public over the last couple of years. I have a personal experience with this, having been stuck in New York on September 11th. I had a week to just talk to people and stare at my navel, and wonder about what was going on, and breathe in the sense of how human beings respond -- your average human being on the street, the guy who's living in New York, who was reacting to this unbelievably shocking event. I came away from that with one clear lesson, which is that the citizens of this country and the people that we live with and know are much more sophisticated than politicians in Washington give them credit for, and are willing and able to understand the long-term ramifications of the decisions they make for themselves and their children, and for people in the rest of the world.

I think there's a willingness for someone to articulate that vision. People are willing to go along with that game and invest themselves, their energies, their tax dollars, their time, their children, their commitment, as long as they believe that there is a fairness mechanism built in, and a sense that we can call our mistakes for what they are, write them off, move on to the next experiment, try again, and try to do better next time. It really is up to the political leadership to articulate that. It's an amazing opportunity.

We'll see.

Next page: Conclusion

See also: John Arquilla interview, International Relations in the Information Age (March 2003)

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