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Someone is in charge

by Ricardo Pachon
15 minutes read

Making progress in society without the need for hierarchical and centralised structures can seem very strange, almost unnatural. But for a few decades now, we have seen the emergence of alternatives to traditional production models based on collaboration and decentralisation.

In the 21st century, I wish to see more of these efforts, hopefully enough to bring an existential challenge to many of those venerable institutions that hold all power and where the Leviathan lives.

Vladimir reminds us that horror does not need surprise.

After having his troops, tanks and helicopters parked for weeks on the Ukrainian borders, Putin’s insane invasion took no one by surprise. As if we were reenacting a warfare version of “Waiting for Godot”, each passing day at the beginning of the year seemed stuck in time, everyone’s raison d’être on this planet determined by the agonising wait of one man’s boot stepping on the other side of a line drawn on the ground. Until that Thursday, when we wake up and read that the wait is over. The rampage of the Russian army begins, its cruelty spreads across the frozen steppes, everything to the east of Mount Goverla is covered in blood. It is a horror, but it is no surprise.

It is a triumph of military intelligence that the Russian invasion was heralded with clockwork precision, something that the New York Times noticed: “They got the timing of [Putin’s] invasion right almost to the hour”, the American daily wrote in a lengthy front-page article the day after the war began, with the bittersweet title “Accurate US intelligence did not stop Putin, but gave Biden big advantages”. A glass with a drop of water was also a glass half full.

But I am not a cynic. It was definitely an upside that the chronicle of this death was at least foretold. And that the intelligence was effective on this occasion, not like in those other times when it was conspicuous for its absence (9/11, 11M, 7/7,…) or its complicity (Iraq, Afghanistan,…).

In this matter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the success of intelligence was not exclusive to the NATO armies but also to civilian observers. For months, journalists, academics, researchers, activists, and even amateurs, analysed a growing pile of information that outlined Putin’s diabolical plans day by day. The peculiarity, in this case, is that this information was in the public domain, obtained by civilian individuals and organisations, often collected organically.

On some occasions, the sources came from ordinary people who, amazed to see, for example, that a formation of tanks advanced along a highway or that a squadron of helicopters crossed the skies at dawn, recorded videos on their cell phones and posted them in Twitter or TikTok. On other occasions, the sources came from private sector companies that took satellite images of remote regions in Ukraine and Russia and offered them to the media, universities or think tanks. This digital maelstrom was then collected, analysed, and reinterpreted by thousands of people who followed the conflict worldwide, reinjecting their findings into the public conversation.

Who coordinated all these efforts? Who decided what terrain to monitor, satellite photos to take, and military vehicles to focus on? Or just simply, who was in charge?

The obvious and surprising answer is that no one was. If traditionally it is the head of the CIA or MI6 or Mossad who ultimately depends on the collection and generation of intelligence, now the responsibility fell on everyone without ultimately depending on anyone.

This way of doing military intelligence is known as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), and for years it has been bringing together collective efforts and demonstrating its capabilities. The Economist highlighted in its article “A new era of transparent warfare beckons” how OSINT has turned the invasion in Ukraine into the most transparent war conflict of all that has occurred on this planet so far. And it conceded that, although OSINT can only shed light on a small fraction of the conflict, this was a fraction free from the whims of governments and their war machines, a completely novel situation on the battlefield.

“Open-source” refers to the movement of the same name, which was born around the goal of developing software collectively, but which has evolved into a general production philosophy based on decentralised and collaborative work. In open-source, the network of collaborators organises itself to produce, review and evaluate the contents simultaneously. Although there is no one in charge, individual efforts manage to align and move in the same direction.

It might seem that this alternative to the way we usually do things is not sustainable, and that sooner or later the decentralised organisation will end up collapsing. You might think that the open-source movement and the likes are ephemeral and have no future. Such assessment, however, could not be more wrong: The rise of decentralised collectives that oppose classical structures of centralised production may be one of the most fundamental revolutions to occur in a long time, one that may shape the world in the 21st century.

Open source everywhere.

It would never have crossed my mind that military intelligence was an activity that could be decentralised. By its very nature, intelligence benefits from the shadows and secrecy, its collection is dangerous, its analysis requires expertise, skill and experience. The spies in John Le Carré’s novels are the heroes called to unravel the enemy’s secrets, not the ordinary people.

But the emergence of OSINT is just another example of the global trend to decentralise production processes in recent decades. This trend is reversing those traditional structures in which we organise ourselves and which, having been anchored in our societies since time immemorial, have acquired an aura of being inevitable. When solving problems collectively, it is most natural for us to establish a centralised and hierarchical architecture. A central unit concentrates the resources to make decisions and has the authority to coordinate the subordinate units’ work.

It’s no whim that we like such a centralised arrangement to organise ourselves, after all, the executive branches of governments, armies, and corporations have long demonstrated that this is a configuration with tangible benefits. A series of precise and measurable objectives incorporated within a clear hierarchy determines the responsibility of each member of the group. When an individual or unit makes a mistake, this system sets off alarms that, in theory, should allow it to be quickly identified and corrected. In a world inhabited by angels, this system should be able to transmit the error through the chain of responsibility to the ultimate decision-maker – the president, the general, the CEO – even if it means their removal.

Until twenty years ago, the publication of an encyclopedia could only be conceived within a centralised and hierarchical organisation, as was the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica Inc, a company founded in Edinburgh in 1768. But the advent of Wikipedia, with its decentralised network of authors, brought a fundamental rethinking of the business of encapsulating and transmitting scholarly knowledge to the masses. Something similar and with different degrees of impact occurred with software production, music distribution, entertainment content generation, scientific research development, the trade of second-hand goods, and the communication services industry. And the list just keeps growing, day by day.

Our societies are built around all sorts of public and private institutions that serve as gatekeepers for many of the activities taking place within – many, but not all. Two exceptions stand out for their ubiquity and dominance: the market and the Internet. The ongoing efforts to decentralise our modes of production challenge the institutions that concentrate other instances of power, a revolution in the strict sense of the word.

In the end, it is a matter of politics.

The political spectrum is essentially a coordinate system that allows us to locate our preferences on how to organise society with respect to the preferences of others. On this spectrum, the political left and right have been regarded since the French Revolution as the two opposite directions of its fundamental axis, one on which both governments and citizens are projected.

During the 20th century, the distinction between left and right was the most appropriate to describe political projects, but in our times, thinking everything exclusively in that dimension is insufficient. The psychologist Hans Eysenck proposed to complement the political spectrum with an axis that today is represented as “authoritarianism-libertarianism”, based on people’s preferences about obedience to authority vs personal freedoms. Armies of political scientists have proposed a host of additional categories.

I believe that our preference for the social architectures that we use to solve problems offers an additional dimension to complement that spectrum, helping to clarify our political thinking and that of others. I believe that our preference for centralised or decentralised structures captures more clearly our genuine positions on various economic and social issues.

There is something paradoxical in how the left and the right perceive centralisation. On the one hand, the left emphasises social equality but has traditionally favoured centralised structures to achieve its goals. The Soviet Union, perhaps the society that most advanced in implementing a socialist program on the planet, revolved around its five-year plans and its Gosplan. And even today, one recognises the illusion that many leftist parties have to develop centralised institutions and structures that organise society. This affinity for centralism is no coincidence: the achievement of equality implies having in some way a global vision of society and the ability to intervene in any aspect to correct deviations.

On the other hand, with its emphasis on hierarchical societies, nationalism, and tradition, the right would seem to contradict itself when favouring lesser interventionist governments and elevating the market as the archetype of social organisation. But it is the invasive character of a central state that collides with the freedom of the individual, that supreme ideal that – in theory – should characterise the right-wing parties.

Despite these alignments, it would be wrong to equate left-right with centralisation-decentralisation. The ideals of the left and the right can be pursued in principle with either of the two social architectures, after all, what is the ultimate goal – to maximise equality or freedom – is a different question than what social configuration we use to achieve it.

Perhaps what many on the left find unsympathetic about the market is not that it inherently leads to inequality but rather that there is no one in charge and, ultimately, no one to blame when things go wrong. And perhaps what is hateful about big government to many on the right is not that it necessarily curtails individual freedoms, but rather that, as it holds central power, it is easily prone to be captured by particular interests that are not those of society in general.

Thus, the preference for centralisation or decentralisation is not a matter of left or right but instead opens up a different dimension of preferences based on mistrust. While some are wary of being adrift without a captain, others are wary that the captain himself ends up sinking the ship.

The Leviathan and the CEO.

Perhaps it sounds like a technical consideration only, but I think that the preference we have for centralised or decentralised architectures reveals at the same time a more profound personal belief, one related to how we see human nature.

For Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher of the 17th century, it is not that human nature is intrinsically evil but simply incompatible with the needs and sacrifices required at an individual level, so we can all live in large societies. Left unrestrained, humans would seek to compete instead of cooperating, limited by a short-term vision and the self-benefit desire. Therefore, human nature had to be subjugated to a Leviathan, a mortal god to whom we owed “our peace and defence.” To the Leviathan, we surrounder some of our freedoms in exchange for him organising society.

Although on a practical level, what Hobbes was doing was defending the crown and Charles II around the years of the English Civil War, his thought transcends the issue of the monarchy. More generally, you can recognise in his thought a plea for someone to be in charge and organise society. The alternative is to be trapped in the chaos produced by millions of individuals, each seeking to satisfy their own appetites, leaving to all “a constant fear and danger of violent death, the life of man [becoming] lonely, poor, dirty, brutish, and short.”

A subtle but definitive aspect that makes the Leviathan so unique is its global vision that enables him to take action and solve problems. Even before enacting the first law, a crucial transfer of liberties occurs as he reorganises society to make an invasive reading of his subjects. This point is made brilliantly by James Scott in his book “Seeing Like a State”, which observes how a myriad of social phenomena corresponds to various ways in which the state simplifies the rich local information to achieve a centralised vision. The creation of surnames, the standardisation of weights and measures, the unification of languages under the same set of rules, and the design of cities are all examples of arbitrary impositions made by the state in order to understand society globally.

Hobbes not only warns us about the chaotic human nature but also prescribes an antidote for it: Centralism and hierarchy. And although in our times we no longer live under the yoke of an all-powerful monarch, we do live in essentially Hobbesian societies, dominated by centralised and hierarchical structures – governments, armies, corporations – to which we surrender part of our freedoms in exchange for organising our collective existence.

For Hobbes, open-source might be an impossible phenomenon, one condemned to devour itself. How can a social activity be coordinated and thus freed from brutality if there is no Leviathan in charge?

No one will be in charge.

A quick rule of thumb to determine whether or not a system is centralised is to ask who is in charge. Two well-known episodes, which are comical in retrospect, illustrate this point. The first anecdote is that of the Russian bureaucrat who, visiting England after the collapse of the Soviet Union and seeking to understand the economic model of a Western country, bewilderedly asked the economist Paul Seabright who was in charge of the London bread supply. That there was no Office for Pastry Affairs in Whitehall was utterly disturbing to the visitor.

The second is the one told by American CEO David Garrison about his business trip to France in 1995, when he was raising capital for Netcom, an internet service provider. Potential investors were impressed with the nascent technology, but a natural question arose: Who was the president of this Internet? When Garrison replied that no one, the French were left confused and outraged. Was there something lost in the translation? Or perhaps was this a joke? What followed then was a long and insufferable interrogation by the investors, who could not understand anymore what the businessman was talking about. Finally, when Garrison realised that there was no way for him to make his point, he conceded exhausted: “Okay, okay, … I am the president of the internet!” – giving the French a sense of awe and jubilation.

The market and the Internet are two fascinating technologies that show the power of decentralisation. Although some characters play prominent roles in both, their fate is not decided by a Leviathan or a centralised committee at the end of the day. This absence of gatekeepers, of central nodes that make all the decisions, gives decentralised systems their distinctive robustness. When there is a collapse in a decentralised system, the whole can suffer, but it does not crumble completely, its very architecture allowing it to rebuild itself and move forward.

The same does not necessarily happen with centralised structures, so easily seized by petty interests of the few. I find this fragility distressing. And though I know that decentralised structures are not the solution to every problem, I am optimistic about these efforts that seek to alter the status quo, in which monolithic and centralised institutions concentrate all power — total and unique power that sometimes allows a Leviathan to invade Ukraine on any given Thursday.

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