Warning: This post is not about journalism, Portland, my job or even me. Well, not really, anyway.
So, little known fact about me: My senior anthropology capstone at the University of Maine was a 27-page paper about network theory, the strength of weak ties and grassroots political organizing. For the paper, I did fieldwork and research on network theory, which is really fascinating. Promise.
Anyway, Eryk Salvaggio shared with me today a link to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Manifesto. He said he was reminded of my capstone and asked what I thought of the manifesto. Below is a slightly modified e-mail response. I think these things are interesting to think about. I promise I won’t blog about these things often, so if this isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry.
(A note on terminology: What Assange calls “nails” are referred to in network theory as “nodes.” Similarly, “strings” are “links” and “weight” of a link is not really mentioned, so far as I’ve seen. Instead “fitness” is discussed, which relates to the efficacy and utility of individual nodes. If I’ve done my writing well, you shouldn’t have to know anything else about network theory a priori to read on. You do, however, need to read the WikiLeaks Manifesto, linked above.)
Assange’s manifest covers a lot of the same ground as my capstone. The big difference is where I was concerned with constructing the most efficient networks for action, he’s concerned with dismantling efficient networks. But the same principles should apply.
One of the things I’m surprised Assange didn’t get to is the relationship of hubs to conspiratorial networks, or action sets. (Action sets are networks with purpose). I would imagine that in a conspiratorial action set as he’s describing it, the model is one that theorists call “scale-free.”
A scale-free network is one that contains many nodes, and links that are not evenly distributed. Efficiency is created through a small number of hubs, which are really well-connected links through which most communications or actions must go if it wants to reach all parts of the network.
I’m not familiar with whatever network he’s talking about, but I would imagine state department communication networks are scale-free ones. I doubt most memos from Burundi about diplomatic relations there end up at the embassy in Rio. Most memos are probably between the individual embassy, the Secretary of State’s office and maybe a few other embassies with a pressing interest, thought I don’t really know. Similarly, the embassies in hotbed areas are probably also hubs, albeit smaller than the Clinton hub (Think Jerusalem, Baghdad, Beijing, Tokyo, London; but not Quito, Sofia, or probably even Prague).
If that’s the case, and I think it is, I don’t know why Assange is so focused on splitting networks into equal halves. In constructing an efficient action set, you should be looking to link with those well-connected hubs. In the same way, I’d imagine, if you want to destroy an action set, you target the hubs. In abstract terms, when you destroy the hub you should, theoretically, render many nodes completely isolated because they were only tapped into the network through the hub. (Imagine how many fewer people would find their way to our blog posts if you were able to target Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr).
At any rate, the point is his theory seems sound and in practice has worked well to his ends. But his manifesto doesn’t really outline what I would think was the best strategy for dismantling a conspiratorial action set.