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issue 05/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.



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nodal politics

Nodal Politics

by Jon Lebkowsky

Nodal Politics is the first in a series of essays that led to the creation of Jon Lebkowsky's upcoming book, Virtual Bonfire. He invites feedback - please send to

"Organizing at a deeper level, however, is more difficult. While the internet gives us the tool to do this, it does not solve the underlying problems that have historically made organizing difficult: different concerns, inter-group rivalries and competition for scarce resources, mistrust, etc. Still, I for one am very hopeful."

-- Margarita Lacabe of Derechos, to Global Internet Liberty Campaign's email List, 1/26/98

The Grassroots

Grassroots organizing is about networking to build political presence, creating influence in the democratic sense, where sheer numbers are assumed to have relevance. Virtual politics adds a new dimension to this kind of networking. Organizing efforts are mediated by technology, as organizers employ computer networks to facilitate the instantaneous flow of information to diverse, broadly distributed nodes.

Does computer-mediated communication truly enhance our ability to organize? Enhance, yes. Any medium that allows you to collect 115,00 signatures on a petition over a relatively short period of time with almost no legwork or expenditure of money is clearly an enhancement. However much of the presumed value of the Internet is in the cheap and relatively easy distribution of alerts and updates through email, newsgroups, and web pages. The value added here is limited: you can push information to thousands of constituents without appreciable effect, if the receivers do nothing more than acknowledge without acting. The technology is no clear plus without a set of 'best practices' to facilitate complementary virtual and physical organization. It's important to recognize that your virtual organization's worthwhile only if you have people on the ground. And there are still the inherent issues of rivalry and resource, which were mentioned in the quote that opens this chapter.

Electronic networks do have an impact on power structures. I would argue that in business, in politics, and within the growing number of non-government organizations formed to influence policy, we are evolving away from traditional top-down organizational structures to information-saturated laterally distributed organizations which are flatter, more distributed, and potentially more inclusive. The change in prevalent organizational structure follows a change in the way information flows.

The traditional flow of information within an organization follows rigid lines of authority from the top down. At the top of the hierarchy is a president or CEO who gathers information from various formal and informal sources, performs validation, makes decisions, and assumes authority over the organization. In larger organizations viable span of control is an issue, so through delegation the "top" becomes more distributed...the boss shares info and interpretation with his assistants, and delegates some of his power and authority. Knowledge is a political commodity, closely held at the top, and shared downward after filtering and "spin control" according to the goals of the powers that be.

Distributed communication, compulsory education, and evolving democratization are changing this topography, influencing the structure of power and the application of authority. An evolving sense of individual empowerment is an inherent characteristic of net-based political thinking; I argue that this is related to the Internet's open, distributed knowledge-sharing environment.

Today's typical citizen has access to information from thousands of formal and informal sources, and sufficient education to make at least a reasonable interpretation of the signal-noise jam. This late 20th century knowledge revolution is a major force in producing a widely acknowledged paradigm shift, or change in the fundamental model of sociopolitical reality. Other factors include changes in scientific and sociological perspective, and an increasing democratic tendency in developed nations.

On the face of it, these developments sound inherently positive, but they create a complex environment for creating consensus and establishing policy. Where there are many voices in the conversation that precedes decision, and where these voice express diverse viewpoints and experience, it is significantly more difficult to establish a clear sense of direction. There is also the potential for backlash from those who place a higher value on social order than on inclusive consensus. And there is the fact that a majority of the peoples of the world live in underdeveloped countries that derive little benefit from new technologies.


Computer networks route information laterally through nodes or routing points. This makes for a distribution of information that is from many to many with no single, established point of origination. Information can originate from any point in the network, and virtually explode in all directions.

This ultimately changes the way that we experience information, and a change in the distribution or flow of information has a clear impact on power structures and the way that those structures work. The nodal model acknowledges and facilitates complexity. It allows for an accelerated "word of mouth": a single email message can be replicated to thousands of recipients in a matter of minutes. Each recipient in turn can replicate to thousands more. Given effective networks you can quickly reach millions through email and Web technologies.

(A down side of this capability is the proliferation of bulk email programs that facilitate the distribution of unsolicited commercial email, commonly called "spam." Junk email is a significant problem, and for some users any unsolicited mail is suspect. Activist messages could become another form of junk email if distributed too broadly using the bulk email approach. Activists should take time and care to establish email networks to ensure that message streams are reaching only those who are voluntary participants.)


Activism is the focused and active support of a social or political agenda, the success of which depends either on an ability to use power directly, or to influence the powerful indirectly. A change in the configuration of power structures holds both danger and opportunity for the activist; so much depends on a thorough understanding of the social and political environment before and after the change.

An activist's role is to influence policy at whatever level is relevant (local, state, national). To do this it is important to understand the policy-making environment: how legislatures work, how the administrative and political aspects of governing differ, how the interests of individuals and groups are expressed and how they are served by existing political institutions. It is also important to facilitate the public conversation. We arrive at consensus by getting to know one another, talking about our problems, finding shared understanding, debating issues over which we can't seem to agree. Participatory democracy succeeds or fails on the conversation that precedes decision. A vote is meaningless if it is not preceded by meaningful, vital social interaction.

Interactive discussions of politics and social issues appear in various forms on the Internet. There are discussion groups, online communities, conferences and forums, email lists, and chat sessions. It's problematic that these tools are not more widely accessible, true, but that's another activist issue. Proponents of universal access and community networking are working to make Internet-based tools accessible to "underserved" populations.

There are many ways to reach what Wired Magazine calls netizens. The ability to get a political message into many hands very quickly is a plus, but a down side is the inability to ensure that the message is clearly understood by all recipients. There are barriers to understanding that are inherent in the technology: online we tend to read fast or scan, and avoid finishing messages longer than a paragraph or two. There's only so much understanding you can pack into a brief message, and (so often said about online text-based communications) visual cues and feedback loops are missing. What's needed on the receiving end is someone to interpret and explain, to establish a context for understanding the messages. Distributed "nodes" are focal points for contextual development, functioning not only as routers but as interpreters, and this is an essential point.

Nodes and Chapters

A "chapters" organizational model provides a structure for the dissemination of information, the demonstration of an effective show of support for the organization's agenda, and the facilitation of a deeper understanding of the organization's goals and issues through face to face meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club are offline examples.

Chapters and the "nodes" that I have described are similar, however chapters relate to a centralized organization, whereas nodes are more decentralized, and are networked with other nodes, sharing information laterally rather than hierarchically.

Within nodal networks, the information flow is diffuse, a disadvantage where more focused communication is required. Committed membership is replaced by ad hoc advocacy with no particular loyalty to the group. In periods of adversity and disagreement a splintering effect is probable.


It may seem strange to ask whether an organization should have members, but Voters Telecommunication Watch (VTW) was quite successful in organizing support for its agenda with no formal membership structure. VTW was operated by a small, dedicated group of activists based in New York. They saw that no online group was organizing registered voters to influence policy decisions. VTW built a strong base of support without members.

At a recent Board of Directors meeting EFF-Austin, an organization I helped found, discussed the membership model vs. the VTW model. Membership organizations must track member participation, bill for dues, and provide member services. Did we want to create a larger membership organization, and be more democratic and inclusive, involving our members more in our operations? Or did we want to focus more on operating as a small core group, retaining a membership base but keeping the dues low and not doing outreach or maintenance? More recently EFF-Austin dissolved and a new statewide group, EF-Texas, was formed. EF-Texas will be a member organization, but without the overhead of membership maintenance. Interested participants will become members by signing onto an email list. They will not be required to pay dues, and they will not receive physical paraphernalia associated with membership.

EFF-Austin and similar groups can be content generators, and at the same time function as nodes for routing information disseminated by groups like VTW. A network is evolving with groups like VTW, EPIC, CDT, and EFF at the conceptual center, generating content and distributing it through various distribution nodes using email, usenet newsgroups, and the World Wide Web. That information is forwarded to organizations and individuals, who forward to their own respective lists, so that ultimately thousands of people are exposed to these communications. Many make active responses, such as the 50,000+ who signed onto the CIEC petition. (CIEC stands for Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, formed using an intake form on CDT's web page to gather names for a petition opposing the Communications Decency Act.)

I should re-emphasize, however, that this is a scattergun approach. We know that messages from the above sources reach many mailboxes, however we can't ensure that they're read and understood. In an information-saturated environment, it's essential to contextualize and explain information so that it is meaningful to those who receive it. Real understanding of a subject is best facilitated by face-to-face interaction, give-and-take discussion with a full set of visual cues. It is crucial to form local groups with physical meetings at least monthly. Chapters organizations like ACLU and the Sierra Club have always done this. Each chapter of these and similar organizations is a satellite that extends the primary group's organizational wisdom into its surrounding community. Had EFF become a chapters organization, this is how it would likely have worked.

To summarize, nodal politics means decentralized organization wherein individual groups can establish or participate in networks but retain full autonomy, distributing organizational wisdom through coalitions that are not dominated by any one organization's world-view. Any individual in any community, using this model, may be empowered to create a group dedicated to online civil liberties and other issues according to local mandate, without having to satisfy the requirements of a central authority. When many such groups have formed, networked formally and informally, and established ad hoc coalitions, we have a structure for popular conversation and debate with broader participation than ever before.

Such a model has pros and cons. As Winn Schwartau, the Infowar specialist, once noted, flattened hierarchies create a two-dimensional structure, and the lack of hierarchy can mean a lack of leadership. Decisions are more difficult to make. Democratic consensus is more difficult and time-consuming than oligarchic mandate, and as Robert D. Kaplan wrote (The Atlantic, December 1997), "...the differences between oligarchy and democracy and between ancient democracy and our own could be far subtler than we think" and "...productive anarchy will require the supervision of tyrannies - or else there will be no justice for anyone" because democracy, an expression of majority will, does not inherently support fairness or minority rights.

Consensus Governance

Working from consensus or general agreement, the group can acknowledge and respect minority opinion in the decision-making process. My definition of 'consensus' is a process in which everyone is heard, and no decision is final without a everyone's commitment of support. This is not to say that everyone agrees what's the best decision, but that everyone has contributed to a decision that all can accept.

Resolutions and decisions that are made by consensus can take much longer than arbitrary individual decisions. However by the time a decision is reached, all stakeholders' perspectives have been accorded a hearing, and have been discussed at length. A consensus decision is an informed decision modified along the way to accommodate diverse concerns within the group. I have worked with global activists preparing action alerts on specific issues, and the process of consensus has been a process of discovery. It's difficult enough dealing with different perspectives within the same culture, but a whole magnitude of difference more difficult when you're working across cultures. However a document resulting from consensus within a group like this has been filtered through multiple cultural perspectives, therefore transcends individual cultural biases in favor of a more universal approach. Though there are clear disadvantages in working toward a broad consensus among numerous diverse stakeholders, it is the one way to ensure that complex differences have been acknowledged and addressed. The process can be slow and frustrating, can lead to internal conflicts within the group, and can result in loss of focus if not managed well.

b i o :
Jon Lebkowsky
, Director of Web Technology for, was Whole Foods Market's "Internet Guy" (Internet Projects Manager) from June 1997 through September 1998. He's been soaking in Internet culture and community for the last decade. He has served as an online host for the WELL, Electric Minds, and HotWired. He has written articles for Wired Magazine, Whole Earth Review, The Austin Chronicle, 21C, Factsheet Five, Mondo 2000, and other publications, and was the "consciousness" sub-domain editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. As co-founder and former CEO of FringeWare, Inc., he was a pioneer in electronic commerce and its relationship to online community. He has two grown children and three boisterous grandchildren.


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