Balaji N. Srinivasan’s Network Union concept will be discussed. Concerns from leadership and community building perspectives will be elaborated.
Why review the Network Union?
Being a leader and an entrepreneur who is constantly on the quest of improving my toolkit. I feel drawn to test and try on or play with the mechanics of this modus operandi. Some possibilities have been reflected in my imagination while reading Srinivasan’s new blog post, The Network Union. I wanted to dive deeper and play with them.
Balaji Srinivanasan had portrayed the concepts of Network Cities and Network States. He claims that the demand for a new city or a new state stems from “the same reason we want a bare plot of earth, a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup, or a clean slate. Because we want to build something new without historical constraint.”
He goes on and claims that “The societal value of a clean slate is also clear. In the technology sector alone, the ability to form new companies has created literally trillions of dollars in wealth over the past few decades. Indeed, if we imagine a world where you couldn't just obtain a blank sheet of paper but had to erase an older one, where you couldn't just acquire bare land but had to knock down a standing building, where you couldn't just create a new company but had to reform an existing firm, we imagine endless conflict over scarce resources.”
The cause I see for Srinivasan’s new concepts, stems from my disappointment with the forms of human, community, business and national collaboration. Especially the fusion between the democratic nation-state and capitalism as an organizing idea. I am keen to scout new ways for organizing, collaborating and creating together. Hoping that some might be of good use, once we all decide that the current state of affairs has totally gone wrong. Once we are, as a society, willing to let go of the popular and attempt the promising new.
In this regard, I see the “Black Flags” political protest movement, born and active in Israel’s last year, as a perfect use case for Srinivasan’s concepts, once they mature. The “Black Flags” are a coalition of some 7-14 different communities or organizations. Each of these is a soverign protest entity, with it’s own leadership, strategy, branding, finances, fundraising, spokemanship and last but not least – grassroots activists. Still these groups manage to concert a massive joint protest for more than a year now. Their ability to collaborate en masse is inspiring, mobilizing, and creating real social and political change.
Groups like “Black Flags” magnetize my curiosity. I am a veteren of some protest and social change movements. I find great importance in sharing my experience and consulting businesses, communities and organizations that want to bring about social change. And it is in this regard that I am compelled to try and experiment with Srinivasan’s ideas.
Introduction: Network Union – Why, how and what.
It appears as an attempt to sneek-peek and research into the future. Srinivasan’s Network Union is a construct that is a little evasive. It looks like an exotic recipe, all of it’s ingredients are already here, but where is the completed dish? We still can’t sense into it’s being and characteristics from a witness’ point of view. Just like the Blackberry phone, that emerged just a little before the Iphone did – it’s probably already here, but it’s manifestation is not incarnated enough to be seen as something noteworthy, nor to be comprehended. So it appears like Srinivasan is writing his text from this point of interest, of materializing a future vision into a prototype. For us to look at it and feel and taste and touch it now.
Srinivasan’s interest in these unique forms of organizing stems from his quest to formalize an instruction set, a recipe, for creating a new kind of cities and countries. He has described this recipe and the qualities of these cities and countries in his former blog post, The Network State.
Before digging into this new concept, Srinivasan decision to recycle the state, city and worker union concepts deserve a critique. These have been taken almost carelessly “from the shelf”, and it is a bit of a downer. Others have argued that these sociological constructs have been here for some time, and have already been found quite problematic. In this regard, I would like to reference The Non-State Administration of Rojava, a unique, innovative and inspiring form of social organizing, that does learn from the past experience and does, at least attempt to, fix what's already known to be broken.
How does a Network Union work? In the most simplistic form, Network Union is:
- a leader and a group of people,
- having a shared purpose,
- having the leader mobilizing the group and bargaining on behalf of it and it’s members,
- in a shared presence with a cryptocurrency.
So how do these unions, groups or organizations work? It’s yet to be sensed into. While we might claim that there are some implementations that already exist, Srinivansan did not state any. This is a challenge in his text. But it’s also a magical quality that allows our imagination to flourish. Could example A or B that pops into our mind be a qualified Network Union?
He did, however, detail the ways in which a Network Union might act. In a behaviourist fashion Srinivasan is looking “from the outside” on the behaviour such an entity might have. A Network Union might imitate the way companies like Amazon act when they deal or negotiate with other companies or with nation states.
Also, A Network Union might use any of the aspects that a cryptocurrency might enable. To list a few – having a “wallet” (a balanced funds account), crowdfunding, signing messages cryptographically and so on.
In his list of cryptocurrency-powered capabilities, he states an innovative new concept: Login. Login is a public record of how much resources any community member is willing to hodl, meaning, to keep unused and saved, untraded, off of the market. Hodling, a concept lended from the cryptocurrency trading slang, means to keep a liquid asset untraded, regardless of its current market price. Hodling can be a personal attempt to contribute to the health of the collective. It could also be greedy attempt to gain access to any of the group resources, if any of these had been set to be allocated or rewarded to hodlers, in accordance with that public record.
Some of these capabilities are common use cases that are possible also with fiat money, centralized management or other non-blockchain methods. Srinivasan does not state the importance of the decentralization of blockchains in this blog post. In his previous talks, however, he regards cryptography and decentralization as the new Leviathans. They are the strongest new power, one that outperforms the ability of nation states and armies. Cryptocurrency and decentralisation provide groups and individuals the ability to function and persist, even in the face of aggressive opposition. The Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, for example, says about bitcoin: “Bitcoin is designed to function as an open censorship-resistant value transfer system that anyone can access without requiring permission”. Using Cryptocurrency and decentralization is therefore a means of sovereignty, allowing freedom to act without permission or even against permission of a hosting nation state(s).
In this regard, we can allow for Srinivasan’s lingering on the old power structures of the nation state, the polis or city, and the worker union. He wants to stress the sovereignty of these new ways of organizing.
a. from a leadership or organizational point of view
We compare the Network Union model with a familiar example, the contemporary worker union. The first relevant addition that the Network Union suggests, is a worker union based on digital communication. This element is widely used in current worker unions. And yet, there are reasons to believe that the power of digital communications hasn’t yet been used to it’s best possibility.
A second relevant addition is the common purpose of a worker union. It is agreeable that a union’s leadership that consents to a shared purpose works better. On the contrary, disagreement in the leadership may paralyse resources and will. Similarly, a wide consent of a critical mass or maybe even the majority of the union’s members, can energize and speed up any initiative or campaign.
Srinivasan gives the example of Amazon , where the CEO Jeff Bezos is a formal leader in his organization. Instead of using the well known concept of formal hierarchy that is very common in business management, he coined a new term: Social Tree. We can try to interpret this as a mathematical graph theory tree. We’ll define each worker in amazon as a node on the graph. Each “I give orders to” relation would be marked by a directed edge, just like an arrow. It is easy to see that navigating from each Amazon worker (or node), in a reversed-arrow route (“I get orders from” instead of “I give orders to”), would finally lead us to the CEO.
If this definition for a social tree is correct, then the difference from the well-known hierarchy isn’t clear . Are these differences significant and essential to the Network Union’s function?
Yes, you can use digital means and even a blockchain to record the structure of a social tree. You can even create it on the fly from repertoire or carma points in a social network. You can use back-links to quantify those edges in a social network. Back links count how many times one member has quoted, referenced another member’s public work, or just “shared” or “liked” his public posts.
The real promise of Social Trees lies in their assumed ability to upgrade social mobs; to instantly allow them to act together in a willful and coordinated way together. This was not specifically noted in Srinivasan’s text, but can be assumed from the “work” qualities he seems to be lending from the Amazon example here:
“All of the people under Jeff Bezos are organized in a functional hierarchy under a single CEO, and all of them have explicitly opted into being there. This combines the competency of the startup with the legitimacy of the state, and gives us a taste of what's possible. The backlinks are like girders, forming a base of social support.”
This is a step on thin ice, since this concept of Social Trees or their alleged mob-upgrading capabilities are not a widely seen phenomena, if seen at all. Srinivanasan hasn't yet pointed out even a single organisation that is “people organized in a hierarchical structure for a common purpose outside of work”. And even if he did specify such example organization, still something is missing. There is still a need to show the causality between the Social Tree or the backlink quality, and the aforementioned instant mob upgrading capabilities.
Yes there are plentiful organizations that are “outside of work” and are organized hierarchically. Worker unions, parents-teachers associations, festivals and fundraisers, to name a few. The thing is, those organizations usually focus around a shared purpose more than on a registry of quantified social support.
These organizations exhibit another common characteristic. In a worker union for example, you do have a core of highly linked individuals. They are not 100% of the workers. You just don’t need to sign up 100% of the workers to start a union. Having 100% representation power is also not a required quality when seeking effectiveness in a worker‘s union. When worker unions need their power the most, in negotiating with the management or strikes, there is a lot of value in acting together, even if we don't have 100% linked workers.
If so, why does a Network Union need 100% participation? Why do you need everyone to backlink at least one other member? Most of these “outside of work” communities and organizations, practice the 80-20 pareto principle. Only a thin layer of the people involved are really taking responsibility and action.
The Amazon example shows a very rigid hierarchy of power and control. Is that how we must be, as organizations and communities, to work effectively? Is it really crucial for a Network Union that each new member would have to be assigned a “boss” to report to, an edge to an existing member? Can’t the structure of a Network Union allow for joiners to contribute without first plugging into the “girders of social support”?
In his revolutionary research “Reinventing Organizations”, Fredric Lalux shows that other than hierarchies, new ways of organizing are thriving and offering better workplace experience and better products and services. Do we really search for hierarchies again? Or is it just the function and effectiveness that Network Unions seek?
In Amazon, every worker knows his boss. But maybe he doesn't know a lot of other people besides his boss. One could argue that the Network Union, while focusing on the Social Tree, is missing a bigger picture, the effect of human connectedness. It might be more difficult to quantify and measure, but doubtful if it is any less efficient in promoting willful and coordinated community effort.
Some new platform organizations such as Airbnb, Volt or Uber, highly-rewarded members or “workers” might do “work outside work” without any social links at all. Coordinating their efforts against the software and databases with no other human to talk to. Yet, they do manage to create, as a herd of “workers”, a combined effect that is consenting to the platform’s leadership, and promotes the collective. This, again, questions the need for 100% Social Tree membership in the Network Union.
b. from an awareness point of view
In the 2011 Eygptian Tahrir revolution, we saw how a mob of 50,000 participants can dethrow a dictator, almost nonviolently. Their power comes from being purposeful, first; and willing to try and adopt new ways of being and new ways of communicating as a society, second. The Tahrir square demonstrators decided to accept radical change – they started living in the street. More than that, they were invited to the protest by opposition organisations, by leaflets, by a Facebook group with some 80,000 participants, and by video blogging. But 48 hours into the demonstration, the Eygptian government had shut down internet access to the surrounding area. So these channels for digital communications were lost. It was up to the demonstrators to reinvent new ways of communicating, using hotspots, bluetooth and other creative means. Being purposeful is not enough. Willing to embrace and accept change, individually and as a collective, is a critical component in leading major changes.
Srinivasan did specify the importance of being purposeful. He also noted that this community or group is having a “daily call to action”. Still, this quality of embracing and accepting change is a bold missing part in the Network Union. Having a blockchain would not suffice in a situation where ISP’s are shut down. And being an internally-linked group, or a social tree, does not suffice either.
What is it, that allows groups to be so willing to accept change? One could claim that having nothing to lose is a key. But in Scharmer’s view, the key is clear:
“You cannot understand a system unless you change it (Kurt Lewin).
You cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness.
You cannot transform consciousness unless the system senses and sees itself.”
In other words, groups need a consciousness transformation in order to provide systemic change. But the Network Union model, albeit referencing the classic worker union, does not reference the radical viewpoint of the labor movement. It does hint systemic change but does not put it as a main agenda. It does not regard awareness of participants or of the group as a system at large. And lastly, it does not specify how to access deeper ways of listening, being, knowing, communicating or organizing.
Fostering a Scharmer-like Social Field, or Koenig and Nixon’s Creative Field, can allow organizations and communities a state of flow, and the holding space that can host meaningful conversations. These can allow the group to create increasing returns.
b. from a membership point of view
If you take part in a Network Union – are you a User or a Member? It seems natural to assume that choosing the word Union will imply the membership paradigm. But looking at Srinivansan’s blog, the words user and member are interchanged regularly. This calls for drastic introspection.
Membership is more about taking part in the Ownership process or owenership-state-of-mind. Just like they see it in BurningMan:
“‘No Spectators’ is a long-standing saying on Playa. You are encouraged to fully participate. It’s all about being there, being fully present, and not just observing. Two of the ten principles of Burning Man are radical participation and radical inclusivity, meaning that there are no outsiders. Everyone is part of the experience.” – Nora Atkinson
Whereas being a user implies consent to being in a lower hierarchical position. Users are always dominated by a Supplier-Owner who is hosting the user’s presence.
Can there be a union of users? Can little gremlins work together, as their host and owner above directs them and tells them what to do? Is this what a Network Union is about? If the union seeks to provide service to its users, but does not allow them a share of its governance, maybe it should be unworthy of being called a union.
Speaking of 2011, there seems to be a new player in the room. Lin Haluzin Dovrat (in Hebrew) calls it The Tahrir formation:
“The Tahrir [political configuration] is special in expressing a will to be together, to reclaim the public space and stay in it, to be in solidarity in the struggle – to cast new content to the political. […] rise up against the differentiating definitions between what is of the “economy” and what is of the “politics”, a desire to drop the class, ethnic and national boundaries, and to fight together, in solidarity, for a new national agenda. In other words: the People demand to be together in the struggle for better life for all; the People demand to redefine the political, that common thing that makes “People” from out of all those who live here.” (free translation)
Haluzin Dovrat isn’t the only one noticing it. Heimans and Timms are trying to define the “New Power”:
“Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.
“New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.
“What if there were an Occupy-style movement directed at you? Imagine a large group of aggrieved people, camped in the heart of your organization, able to observe everything that you do. What would they think of the distribution of power in your organization and its legitimacy? What would they resent and try to subvert? Figure it out, and then Occupy yourself. This level of introspection has to precede any investment in new power mechanisms.”
So we can see that the new power lies in new ways of being as a group or organisation, and also new ways of being as a member. All this is new territory, way out of the technical specifications of the Network Union. Contrary to being a worker in a firm, as in the Amazon example – membership in an effective group for “work outside work”, requires more. Hierarchies or Social Trees are not sufficient.
c. from a source point of view
Let’s try to tap into the mind of a person who see himself a source for initiating a new Network Union, an entrepreneur, or a person that holds a vision for an initiative or a community. Would he insist on using cryptocurrency? He would probably ask himself about the pros and cons of using it. How important is the cryptocurrency part to the Network Union model?
Srinivasan’s blog post itself does not elaborate on the importance of the cryptocurrency to the model. This importance is doubted, especially in a world that has yet to declare cryptocurrencies legitimate or legal. This unstable and uncertain regulatory environment for cryptocurrencies, and the unclear legitimation for the use of them, pushes the need to understand why the cryptocurrencies are needed in this model.
Having a cryptocurrency as a mandatory inclusion criteria to the group, is a hurdle and is a limiting factor on growth. Quoting the words of Michael, a blogger: “as a member of multiple DAOs, a user of metamask, a crypto investor, a tech startup founder, and a hodlr from 2015. I feel intimidated and unwanted in most DAOs because I am not technical enough, nor am I able to commit myself to them full time. This is a real limiting factor in the growth of any DAO and it has a strong negative effect on the wider social legitimacy of the organization.”
Again at 2011, this time with the occupy protests in Israel. We knew we wanted independent and resilient communication networks, serving us in the moment. In “the long disaster”, Nick Farr agrees with the need for resilient alternative electronic communication. And so we did. We have installed an email listserver to allow email communication. It was useful and inspiring, although pretty rough and rigid. Yet, this independent email server did not prove to be easily adoptable. Most people are accustomed to the public, commercial listserver provider. They did not manage to easily add or remove themselves from a custum system. And besides, setting a rubust system of our own, did prove itself unsustainable in the long run. There was just no good reason for building it. Nobody was trying to disrupt our communications. Still, the resources we invested in building this infrastructure, were needed in other places. Nor did the listserver prove to be efficient in assisting the movent in its real issues – dealing with creating a culture of shared governance and agreed/ opted in membership across a 88% of the population of israel.
One of the main benefits of cryptocurrency over traditional finance, if not the only benefit, is the censorship-resistance and the permission-less nature of crypto systems. Thus, it is interesting to see how entities that are facing the heat now, with censorship, embargoes, or governmental restrictions – how these entities treat and make use of cryptocurrencies.
It is pretty difficult to traffic fiat money and expensive substances such as gold, diamonds or drugs. Some of them are easily detectable with cheap metal detectors or other extensively used security apparatus. The international monetary transfer systems are already highly regulated and screened to comply with the interests of most nation states. Cryptocurrencies, on the contrary, should have been way more freely transportable. The promise cryptocurrencies carry, is one of easy and surveillance-resistant methods to transfer funds.
As the Colonial Pipline ransome hack happend just this week, we are obliged to start with cyber ransome attacks. These attacks are seen usually as stories that comprise of a commercial company and an unvisible hacker group. But as any comparative political scientist would guess, under the smoke it’s the government again. It’s highly probable, if not almost given, that Colonial Pipline’s decision to pay the ransome was in fact a marionette’s decision in a game for two nation states – the USA and Russia:
“There’s no chance this decision wasn’t made at the highest levels of the US government. Colonial Pipeline is certainly a private company, but when half the gasoline supply of the US East Coast is hijacked by foreign hackers (from Russia, no less), it becomes an all-hands-on-deck national security crisis.”
And from one item on last week’s news, to another one. Israel has just declared a ceasefire with the Hamas administration in Gaza. Banks in Israel and around the world are ristricting bussiness with Gaza. Yet, the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas administration in Gaza, is reportedly receiving some 4,000-12,000$ donations a year in cryptocurrencies, and also operates mining equipment which is assumed to generate 200,000$ a year. The main channels for funds, albeit at odds with the attempts of Isreal and the International Monetery Fund, flows to Gaza from tranitional finances. One example specified is funds transfer via Westren Union bank accounts in the West Bank. Moreover, during the latest crisis in Gaza, there were no major changes in the volume of usage of cryptocurrency dealers or peer-to-peer exchanges. To conclude, cryptocurrency is not acting as a major mean of embargo-bypassing for Gazans or their administration.
In Iran, "The Iranian state is therefore effectively selling its energy reserves on the global markets, using the Bitcoin mining process to bypass trade embargoes,""Iran-based miners are paid directly in Bitcoin, which can then be used to pay for imports – allowing sanctions on payments through Iranian financial institutions to be circumvented.” Other way to say it: the Iranian government is using bitcoin exactly for its ability to be embargo-bypassing.
A key takeaway from these three examples, is that state actors can and will use cryptocurrencies for whatever interest or purpose they can see. They are Leviathans, they can do whatever they want.
But Can Network Unions enjoy the same privilege? Would they be allowed by nation state actors to use crypto in the same way? Can crypto be their shield against the nation state power? There is just no example that comes to mind. So this is yet to be tested and seen. There is a need to give more case studies or examples where it did work. Cases in which cryptocurrency was a strategy that allowed the freedom from censorship or from a hostile nation state. At least, a case where such a strategy did benefit a group or community in a better way than could have been done with fiat money or traditional finances. Examples like those can be a basis for claiming that cryptocurrency is an essential part of the Network Union.
Building on the same perspective of a Network Union designer or entrepreneur, some additional questions arise. Does there really need to be only one leader? What about shared leadership, like the concept of male and female co-directors for each power position, applied by the Non-State Administration of Rojava, which we noted before? What about new forms of organizing, whether that be dynamic governance models of Holacracy, Sociocracy, concensus or Fredric Lalux’s Teal ideas? We know that there are some cryptocurrency projects that adopted a distributed shared-governance model, similar to the one used by shareholders of publicly traded companies. Are we unlisting all these forms of governance from the Network Union concept?
And last but not least, let’s discuss the leadership role in holding space for maybe the most powerful and important human force: meaning. Like in Victor Frenkel’s “Man's Search for Meaning”, Shimon Azulay is offering the suggestion that human actions stem from the Game of Meaning – the personal quest for meaning of life. In Azulay’s book, "the End of Happiness – Philosophy and the Meaning of Life" (Hebrew), he is elaborating 3 leadership roles that nourish the Game of Meaning. Thus, leadership that follows these guidelines, allows community members to feel meaningful, and become active participants. In other words, following these guidelines can make the difference between a mob, and a purposeful community, or in Srinivasan’s words – “a tree-like structure with … a daily call-to-action”.
- Performance – the leader should keep providing opportunities for community members to perform. To counter the default human preference of being passive.
- Feedback – the leader is responsible for the flow of authentic feedback on performances in the community. Without feedback gauging, a performance regresses to a meaningless contribution. And worse – no feedback is interpreted as ignoring and underestimation.
- Publicity – turning performance into social capital, leaving a mark, making a difference, building a legacy.
As we can see, the Network Union fails to tend to the Game of Meaning. This implies that the recipe that Srinivasan is offering lacks a key ingredient.
The concept of Network Union is interesting, and worth a further study. As well as an improved and advanced version. It appears that the conditions for forming a Network Union Srinivasan is specifying are passing in important neighborhoods. But for this model to become a powerful tool for social change, these conditions still need to find the right house addresses.
How does a Network Union work? After this lengthy discussion, Network Union is:
- a leader or a leadership structure, and a group of people,
- having a shared purpose,
- with leadership that is willing to dive into Awareness-Based System Change,
- with leadership that is willing to play the Game of Meaning,
- having the leader mobilizing the group and bargaining on behalf of it and it’s members,
- possibly, with a shared presence with a cryptocurrency, or not.
Having a critical mass of the community being “a Social Tree”, Being purposeful and action-oriented, these are seen as required conditions. Like Michael, I think that the cryptocurrency condition can be reconsidered, or at least have it’s reasoning elaborated. It can add a lot, but we yet to see an example in which the cryptocurrency was crucial to the way things turned
Still, tending to awareness and meaning is the crucial key. If we are aiming to build fascinating initiatives and organizations, if we wish for blissful systemic change, we need to let go of the techno-anarchism standpoint, and agree to focus deep into the human part of each of us and of us as a collective. I believe this is the responsible way to respond to Albert Einstein’s 1934 plea for world peace:
"What the inventive genius of mankind has bestowed upon us in the last hundred years could have made human life care free and happy if the development of the organizing power of man had been able to keep step with his technical advances."
Baroch Oren, Hatribuna for Participative Leadership,
25 May 2021