How to Achieve Peace? Digitally Driven Asymmetric Conflict via Self-Assembling Dynamic Networks

London, UK - 23rd January 2011, 20:55 GMT

Dear ATCA Open & Philanthropia Friends

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

Sovereign Individual versus Sovereign Nation State

We forecast in late December last month, that 2011 will be about self-assembling dynamic networks. Little did we realise that our forecast would come true in less than three weeks in the context of Tunisia. [ATCA: 2011: Self-Assembling Dynamic Networks and Boundary-less Tribalism, 29th December 2010]

What we are witnessing in the 21st century is the empowerment of sovereign individuals to confront the legitimacy and authority of a sovereign nation state's government via digitally driven means. As witnessed in Tunisia, revolution has been attempted and achieved via digitally driven leaderless groups. [ATCA: Tunisia: A Digitally Driven Leaderless Revolution, 15th January 2011]

Revolutionaries are leveraging digital technology to self-organise, to learn and to proliferate. Incumbent leaderships struggle to keep up because their thinking is generationally out-of-step and based on traditional forms of centralised hierarchical control and resource allocation.

Self-Assembling Dynamic Networks


The pre-conditions within which the Tunisian digitally driven revolution spread are becoming more common worldwide and include:

. Extreme inflation in the price of basic commodities including food and fuel;
. Abnormally high unemployment especially amongst the youth;
. Self-evident corruption as some leaderships appropriate national wealth and advance favoured businesses or multi-national syndicates;
. Willingness of individuals to take personal risks out of desperation -- relates to the self-immolation theme;
. Connectivity and empowerment via digital mobile phones, broad band internet connections, wire-less computers as well as proliferation of social networks.

At the same time, both the global and sovereign systems are:

1. Underpinned by highly volatile and unstable global financial markets because of extreme leverage, high frequency computerised trading, concentration of power in the hands of a few intermediaries, tight coupling across different geographies etc; and

2. Operating within a weak control system -- hollowed out highly indebted nation-states, complicated risk instruments, suspect rating agency models, toothless regulators, arbitrary values, eroding principles and morality etc.

Without mechanisms to mitigate excesses, we may witness many more digitally driven revolutions like Tunisia in the near future. Inevitably, the chain reaction follows a similar sequence:

Sudden eruption >> Flash bang demonstrations >> Government and establishment shake out >> Old guard in exile

What are mechanisms to mitigate excesses? In the case of Tunisia, the self-assembling dynamic networks became the mechanism to unravel the police state which had lost its legitimacy to govern because of excesses. Another excess is sponsoring nation states' support of such regimes. After a few decades of "doing business", these regimes more often than not break up chaotically and leave sponsoring nation states with greater headaches than the ones they sought to cure in the first place.

Small Groups versus Law Enforcement Agencies and Military

As events are now making it painfully clear, traditional confrontation is being transformed from a closed, state-sponsored affair to one where the means and the know-how to mount an insurrection are readily found on the world wide web. Self-assembling dynamic man-power can be galvanised via digital mobile telephones and social media networks including Blogs, Facebook (590 million users), Twitter (125 million users) and Youtube. This unprecedented global access to increasingly powerful digital technology and tools is, in effect, allowing "small groups" to confront large barricades of police and army battalions in an asymmetric and agile way. Knowingly or unknowingly, almost all sovereign nations are drifting towards asymmetric conflict.

Common Vision as Invisible Glue

We call this new type of confrontation "Digitally Driven Asymmetric Conflict" manifest via "Self-Assembling Dynamic Networks" because the manner in which insurgent groups organise themselves, share information, and adapt their strategies relies heavily on digitally driven technologies as catalysts and accelerants. Insurgent groups, like software hackers, tend to form loose and non-hierarchical networks to pursue a common vision. That common vision is the invisible glue that bonds the protesting citizens and the digital networks provide the framework to do so. United by that common vision, they exchange information and work collaboratively on tasks of mutual interest. Upon achieving their objective, they disband automatically leaving limited traces of their existence.

Non-Duality: Need for Belonging

We are NOT looking at a polarity between the state and individuals as witnessed in the 18th, 19th and 20th century ideological confrontations and radicalism. Digitally empowered human beings retain, even more than before, the desire to combine and to work in groups -- in short, to 'belong'! The new feature of digitally driven societies is that they can now do so with amazing speed and effectiveness in defiance of flawed yet established authority.

In an age where the internet may seem to have caused ties to the local community to weaken, the digitally driven society allows individuals a non-duality where they can be part of their local community and at the same time reach out regionally, nationally, and globally to find other groups with which they share common ground. In fact, the love-of-Earth is emerging, the love-of-nation or responsible nationalism is not obsolete; love-of-group, faith-based or otherwise, is proliferating; and love of family and neighbourhood is amplifying. All these different levels of love have all become magnified by the internet age and the communications revolution. This is not just taking place at a local or national level, but at a trans-national level, making all of us more global citizens with shared values with every passing day.

A nation state that prohibits physical assembly of groups forces people to adopt digital interconnections faster and to participate in self-assembling dynamic networks that the internet now makes viable. This forced adoption of virtual assembly among disparate groups within a diffuse organisation becomes critical to a movement's brand, growth and survival and puts a technological advantage in the hands of the adopters.

Currency and Relevance

The biggest task for nation states and their law enforcement agencies is staying current and relevant. Reliance on digital technologies also enables self-assembling dynamic groups to identify and to respond to problems much more rapidly than a more structured, top-down entity ever could -- be it the leadership of a nation state, police, army or a syndicate of multi-nationals. According to some estimates, it now takes insurgents a few minutes to adapt their methods of confrontation, much faster than police forces or army troops can respond via their centralised control rooms, classic handbook strategies and blue-prints. For every move the law enforcement agencies make, the sovereign individuals can make several. The insurgents are able to change techniques, tactics, and procedures as frequently as they deem necessary.

The traditional police and army processes, which dictate how the nation state defines and develops new approaches to dealing with conflict, are simply not designed to operate on such a fast moving timescale. Worse, the vast majority of the technologies now making their way through the acquisition bureaucracy were intended to fight old style battles, not digitally driven guerrilla or insurgent conflict.

Time and Cost

Time is on the digitally driven insurgents' side. Since the start of the world wide web in the mid-1990s, the consumer-grade products on which they rely have undergone several generations of improvement. Microprocessor speeds, for instance, have leaped by a factor of at least four in that time, while cost has dropped by roughly 70 percent.


There is a serious mismatch between the nation state's industrial-age approach to control, confrontation and conflict and the digitally driven insurgents' more fluid and adaptive style. Given this schism, the nation state is likely to face much more digitally driven asymmetric conflict in the years and decades ahead.

How to Achieve Peace?


We have to wave good bye to old style battles and intense searches for primary leaders or organisers. The fluidity of the digitally driven insurgents' style needs to be emulated, whilst searching for common ground. Negotiating towards a position of compromise must be part of the answer, and swiftness or timeliness is critical.


Self-assembling dynamic networks are highly compatible with distributed democracies and free markets -- and less so with other economic and political systems. The key comparison lies between distributed centres of democratic power, with free flowing information and free markets, versus centrally controlled nation state responses to crises. Simply put, empowered individuals respond more quickly than cumbersome, bureaucratic, centralised authorities almost anywhere in the world.

Détente versus Rollback and Containment

Détente is about de-escalation. The objectives may include moderation, mitigation, diffusion or adaptation. Although the demands are not uniform for self-assembling dynamic networks with multiple nodes, nonetheless, it is necessary to identify common ground and via the possibility of a plausible promise, begin to concede some ground on points of contention. This, by far, is one of the most significant ways to achieve de-escalation of tensions and addressing digitally driven asymmetric conflict via self-assembling dynamic networks.

Détente is an alternative strategy to rollback, the strategy of suppressing or destroying a perceived "enemy". This cannot be done effectively by a government if the "enemy" is none other than its own massive middle-class of citizens. Détente is also better than containment, which means preventing the expansion of the perceived enemy's power. In the context of digitally driven asymmetric conflict within a nation state, containment may require:

1. Censorship;
2. Restricting access;
3. Isolating troubled areas;
4. Deploying "Big Brother" technologies and tactics including the total monitoring of information flows; and
5. Constant surveillance plus reconnaissance as well as incarceration or execution of activists.

This may work for a while, as it has to varying degrees in China, Russia and many Islamic countries. However, it may also back-fire as this modus operandi enhances discontent and eventually leads to pent-up frustrations, pressures for action, and explosion of disorder. Note the case of the digitally driven leaderless revolution in Tunisia and the exile of its former ruler in less than 48 hours, once the gasket had blown.

Strong Leadership

Détente recognises the only immediately creative solution absolutely. Historically, détente as a strategy has required strong and thoughtful leadership and leaders. Examples include Charles de Gaulle arranging for an independent Algeria; Menachem Begin, President of Israel, inviting Anwar Sadat President of Egypt to the Knesset to discuss peace; Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher working together to end the cold war.

However, in digitally driven asymmetric conflict the leaders of a nation state are greatly weakened. At the same time, there may not be any agreed or authoritative spokesperson(s) for the demonstrators to nurture and to hold accountable for a smooth and safe transition to the required result. Therefore, such forms of leaderless revolution may inevitably lead either to chaos immediately or in the short term. Inevitably there is compromise, an attempted unsustainable solution, and then chaos again, until a new strong leader or leadership team emerges. This process may be all for the good in the long run, but it will definitely be painful in the short term.

When Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China between 1949 and 1976, was asked for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution, he said, "It is too early to say!"


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Best wishes

ATCA: The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance is a philanthropic expert initiative founded in 2001 to resolve complex global challenges through collective Socratic dialogue and joint executive action to build a wisdom based global economy. Adhering to the doctrine of non-violence, ATCA addresses asymmetric threats and social opportunities arising from climate chaos and the environment; radical poverty and microfinance; geo-politics and energy; organised crime & extremism; advanced technologies -- bio, info, nano, robo & AI; demographic skews and resource shortages; pandemics; financial systems and systemic risk; as well as transhumanism and ethics. Present membership of ATCA is by invitation only and has over 5,000 distinguished members from over 120 countries: including 1,000 Parliamentarians; 1,500 Chairmen and CEOs of corporations; 1,000 Heads of NGOs; 750 Directors at Academic Centres of Excellence; 500 Inventors and Original thinkers; as well as 250 Editors-in-Chief of major media.

The Philanthropia, founded in 2005, brings together over 1,000 leading individual and private philanthropists, family offices, foundations, private banks, non-governmental organisations and specialist advisors to address complex global challenges such as countering climate chaos, reducing radical poverty and developing global leadership for the younger generation through the appliance of science and technology, leveraging acumen and finance, as well as encouraging collaboration with a strong commitment to ethics. Philanthropia emphasises multi-faith spiritual values: introspection, healthy living and ecology. Philanthropia Targets: Countering climate chaos and carbon neutrality; Eliminating radical poverty -- through micro-credit schemes, empowerment of women and more responsible capitalism; Leadership for the Younger Generation; and Corporate and social responsibility.

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