Monday, February 21, 2005

Left and Right Organization and Self-Organization: Round 2

by Tom Bozzo

Visiting from Althouse, Dave Ivers commented via e-mail on my blogosphere organization and self-organization post, offering another interesting perspective on the comparative left and right organization modes:
...[W]whether an organization is rational (designed) or natural (self-organizing) depends on, among other things, how it sees its external environment (resources and competitors).

If it believes it knows the environment pretty well and that the environment is fairly stable, then a rational organization is both effective and efficient. It is concerned mostly with becoming more efficient and maintaining its internal structures. And if it believes it knows its own goals, and knows the environment and the environment is relatively stable, then it is less open, because it doesn't need anything from the outside environment other than new resources. (Well, and to avoid or vanquish competitors.) This would be your left side of the blogosphere, maybe particularly Kos and DU.

If it believes it environment is more uncertain and/or less stable (think Virginia Postrel) then a natural org is relatively effective and relatively efficient and ready to alter its internal resources and/or behaviors to meet any change encountered in the external environment. It is concerned mainly with effectiveness (responding correctly to a dynamic environment) and survival. And, although it knows its goals, it expects to have to be ready to change either goals or strategies in the light of new evidence from the external environment, and thus tends to be more open. It is constantly searching for new resources and re-evaluating the status of competitors (who may in fact become allies or symbiotes). This sounds like the right side of the blogosphere, especially instapundit.

Anyway, no org can be completely closed or it will die (no new stuff from the external environment), and if it is totally open it would probably succumb to information overload and just twitch rather than behave.

Arguably then, the lefty blogs believe they *know* what the political environment is, and all they need to do is attract more voters (resources) or whatever. Sounds like the Democratic Party, huh? The environment may be dangerous, but it's stable and all they have to do is beat the competitor, the Republicans. The more lefty blogs go even further and resist any flow from the environment other than, I dunno -- winning elections or recounting votes or something?

The righty blogs (not including Instapundit who I don't see as righty --he's more libertarian) tend to believe that the political environment is more dynamic or less stable, and they're much more likely to be scanning the horizon for more information about new and/or available resources, the status of competitors/allies/symbiotes/enemies or whatever. They tend to accept any flow from the environment that seems to be likely to advance them toward their goal.

It's not that both don't do things in common. They do. It's more like one side is an oyster bed and the other is a school of barracuda. Same environment, different perceptions. I should point out that oysters have been around longer than barracuda.


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To amplify my reply to Brayden's comment on the original post, I think it would be both a useful and interesting project for an enterprising grad student to formally validate these characterizations (mine, Dave's, Tom Maguire's, etc. — I don't mean to hereby single out any party to this discussion). The whole business has just enough of an air of plausibility combined with little enough empirical foundation that the empiricist in me wants to subject it all to the purgatorial fires of data.

Subtletlies of purpose at the "central nodes" of the networks are, I suspect, very important. Daily Kos, in particular, has what looks like a unique position as a left-blog-microcosm, and its community can do a lot of information processing that quickly can be set before its enormous main readership. The longer term question is how that capability is marshaled.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't deny any averments from the right that the left blogosphere has any sort of monopoly on intellectual insularity. Regarding the politics of blog comments, my observation has been that large-readership righty blogs with comment functions are as good at recirculating their own ideas without making them any more palatable to the other side as their lefty counterparts. I would argue that there is a large class of blog comments, common on both sides, that could be freely exchanged between the hemispheres simply by replacing references to the one side's heroes with references to its villains.

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Getting back to Dave's comments, another important issue is the stability or instability of the modes of operation. One possibility, of course, is simply that "horizontal" information transfer can promote rapid adaptation on one side. As Charlie Stross puts it (discussing a Freeman Dyson article on the evolution of evolution):
We humans are a substrate for memes; the self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, intermediated and transcribed from brain to brain by the human language faculty. Memes don't obey strict Darwinism, because we can selectively acquire advantageous memes -- in this respect, they follow a Lamarckian evolutionary model. (Lamarckism has been pretty much debunked in terms of applicability to the DNA/RNA world, but is a good match for the acquisition of useful ideas.)

[...]

You've been trapped by last year's selfish memes. How are you going to survive in the new ecosystem?

Nothing fundamentally prevents the left from assimilating the modes of operation, and to some extent organization, that have successfully served the right. Nor is it necessarily the case that what's served the right will continue to do so.

From the left (and arguably also libertarian) perspective, for instance, the right appears to have sold out some of its core principles, a desire for smaller government most conspicuously, in the service of consolidating power — assuming Grover Norquist can't actually sell the Republicans on the self-deconstructing starvation part of the "starve the beast" project. The question becomes, if this eventually fractures their coalition, can they adapt their way out of the dilemma, or will some elements be trapped by the assumption that they "know" that, say, a majority of the electorate hates government as much as they do?

Also, in areas where the left has been, or looks to be, relatively successful — the Social Security privatization debate is my preferred example — elements of what might be considered the 'righty' mode is arguably in operation. We can see, via Josh Marshall's extensive blogging of the Social Security privatization politics, at least a sketch of an ad hoc coalition of most Democrats, the small remaining group of deficit-hawk Republicans, and a few other Republicans with bigger 'third rail' issues due to the demographics of their constituencies. Moreover, elements of the left and right economics blog forces have been extensively engaging each other on the economic merits; the anti-privatization case has been strengthened through careful consideration of the substantive pro-privatization arguments. With the political battle seemingly entering a new phase, the left's ability to stick to its guns should get a stern test.

An implication is that engagement is not incompatible with serving as an effective opposition.

In any event, I hope to give the organizational theory underpinnings some serious thought, and perhaps to come back with Round 3 soon.
Comments:
Tom - One strand of research you may want to look at is the network learning approach to organizational behavior. The following article would give you a good summary and get you started:

Beckman, Christine M., and Pamela R. Haunschild. 2002. "Network Learning: The Effect of Partners’ Heterogeneity of Experience on Corporate Acquisitions." Administrative Science Quarterly 47: 92-124.

I'm assuming you have access to this journal, but if not, let me know and I can send you a pdf file.
 
It's funny, I see the structure of the blogosphere as pretty much exactly opposite from how you describe it. I see the Right as top-down and the Left bottom-up. I know the Right side likes to portray itself as a struggling insurgency of "little guys" harnessing the power of network effects & fighting against the Mighty MSM, but the reality that I see is that it's more of an extension of the highly rigid, extremely well-funded top-down structure of the Right in general, which can be seen in everything from the control-freakish White House to the conservative think tanks to the BC04 re-election campaign which was modeled after multi-level marketing organizations like Amway.

The idea that the Right side of the blogosphere is self-organized is just an illusion, IMO. And the idea that the Left side is closed & insular is just bizarre to me, I don't even know where that comes from. From my perspective, the Right is about information control & the Left is about freedom of access.

Or maybe I read your post wrong. That is what you're saying, yes?

Tim
 
Thanks for your comment, Tim. My original post on the subject contended that the right blogosphere is more dependent on centralized organization and the left is more dependent on self-organization.

Dave Ivers' comment (i.e., the first part of this post to the first separator of dashes) does a couple main things. He suggests when organization vs. self-organization are effective modes of organization. Then, based on that, he also offers what is in arguably an opposite characterization to mine of the left and right sides.

I would note that Glenn Reynolds can be scanning the horizon for information, choosing not to punish non-orthodoxy when it shows up (see Ann Althouse on occasion), and so on, and that doesn't make the right blogosphere self-organized.

It also may be odd to consider the Democratic Party a "rational" top-down organization, though some particular problems with national party strategy a la the campaign consultant crisis may be symptomatic of that.

Last, I'll reiterate my point, from the middle of the post, that I "deny any averments from the right that the left blogosphere has any sort of monopoly on intellectual insularity."
 
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