Stratfor comes to grips with the 21st century

Stratfor took me by surprise this morning and I am very pleased. Stratfor, known in its early days as Strategic Forecasting, is a widely-read and influential private firm providing analysis of political, social, and economic changes and trends on a global basis. I have been a subscriber for many years and also hired them to provide a briefing for my former firm and its clients a decade ago. I have great respect for their work and for their founder, George Friedman. I may disagree with their analyses on occasion, but that is one important reason to be a subscriber. They present their analysis intelligently and, in the process, provide access to information often not available elsewhere or very difficult to find.

However, I have been disappointed in recent years. Stratfor has a long history of emphasizing the importance of physical geography to understanding nations and their relationships. As one of many examples, they often point out that Poland is a relatively flat plain over which Russian, German, and other armies have marched to war. Thus Stratfor argues that this historical reality frames much of Polish politics today. There is some truth to that, I’m sure, but it just isn’t good enough anymore. I seriously doubt that either the German or Russian armed forces are going to be marching across the Polish plain any time soon, if ever again.

A better example is Cuba. I live in Panama which is much further away from the US than Cuba, but in so many respects, Panama is much closer to the US than Cuba. The same can be said of many other Latin American nations (outside of possibly Venezuela, Latin America’s basket case).

Better yet, in centuries and millennia past, had the Korean peninsula been divided into two, a northern and a southern half, the two would have been deeply tied to each other, less so than to China and Japan, and not at all to the US.

Today, South Korea is arguably far closer in most respects to the US and even Japan, its historic enemy, than to its Korean neighbor with which it shares a border.

Physical geography remains a factor, very important in some instances. The current tensions in the Pacific south of China come to mind. But it is no longer the critical factor globally.

Today, Stratfor contributor Jay Ogilvy provided subscribers with a new way of looking at global political, economic, and social realities. Long overdue, in my mind, and a very welcome beginning of a more robust analytical model that fits life in this century.

But I think it is just as important that all of us begin to focus more on the “flow” of life today then on its physical location. It is too easy to slide back into 20th century thinking.

I thank Jay Ogilvy for bringing the work of Manuel Castells to subscribers’ attention, along with his own comments. But I also want to express my thanks to Stratfor and George Friedman for not only providing the platform for this, but for allowing us permission to republish it in full. Comments in parentheses are those of Mr. Ogilvy.

Redrawing the Map in the Information Age
By Jay Ogilvy

The “geo” in geopolitics refers to geography, the discipline of charting the globe: which countries are where, and how big or small are they? Literal geography charts contiguities and borders, proximities and distances, using maps in different colors to define countries in any number of atlases. But there is another kind of geography, quite different from the drawing of borders on photographs taken from space, another lens through which the relationships among countries can be drawn: Manuel Castells’ concept of the “space of flows.”

For a useful analogy, consider the difference between a photograph of an automobile engine, on the one hand, and on the other, the readout from a computer attached to the very same engine that tracks rpms, torque, miles per gallon, amperages and voltages. Is one picture more accurate than the other? No. Both systems accurately represent the same engine, but do so according to different metrics and different parameters. So, too, do literal geography and the space of flows depict the same globe using two very different methods.

The Space of Flows

According to Castells, who is very much a geographer, the conventional technique of portraying countries as spaces contained by borders, ribbed with mountain ranges and separated by oceans is less reflective of today’s reality than maps that are drawn based on flows of information. Ye shall know them by their FedEx bills, by the density of communication between different places.

Much like the difference between unicellular and multicellular organisms, the space of places considers a location in isolation, while the space of flows draws our attention to the relationships among cities and countries — the “arteries,” “veins” and “nerves” that connect the individual cells of a multicellular organism. Unlike a geographical map, which highlights the sizes and locations of different cities — the nodes in the network — the space of flows draws our attention to the degree to which extrinsic relationships determine the nodes, rather than the nodes’ intrinsic nature determining the relationships.

In his monumental three-volume work, The Information Age, Castells develops his concepts of “the network society” (which is also the title of the first volume) and “the network state.” Just as Philip Bobbitt sees “the market state” as the successor of “the nation-state,” Castells, approaching our current stage of history from a very different angle, sees the network state as the successor of the nation-state. In both cases, focusing on the linkages and the connective tissues tells us more about the connected entities than looking at the self-contained sovereignty of each entity. Thus the relationships shape the nodes more than the nodes shape the relationships, generating an entirely new “multicellular” reality.

So, it is not so much that traditional geography is wrong — states as we know them will not disappear — but the relationships among them have created a new, emergent reality, one that requires a new kind of mapping.

The Network Society

How and when did this new world emerge? Contrary to claims of the kind of lockstep necessity that characterizes Marxism and Hegelianism, Castells sees its appearance as historically contingent. Three factors, quite independent of each other, came together. First, the revolution in information technology enabled an exponential increase in connectivity. Second, stagflation in the 1970s, the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s-90s, and the global economic meltdown in 2008 pushed industrial capitalism and statism into crisis. Third, the social and cultural movements of the late 1960s-70s, including feminism, environmentalism, civil rights and ethnic equality, challenged the old, hierarchical edifices of patriarchal authority.

What does the new network society look like? For one, the analog scale distinguishing between higher and lower levels of a class society has been replaced by a digital, binary distinction between being in or out of a network. To use a phrase from the 1960s, you’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus; there is no in between. The threat of exclusion from the network leaves some in a downward spiral toward what Castells calls, “the black holes of informational capitalism.” Consistent with the need to remap our globe, these black holes are not confined by the borders of one country or another, but are distributed across many developing countries as well as the decaying cores and outskirts of many cities in wealthier countries. Castells groups these two geographically distinct black holes under one umbrella: “the fourth world.”

The dynamics of power within the network society are also different from those of the nation-state. In one of the stunning reversals that Castells uses to contrast the old world and the new, he says that the power of flows now trumps traditional and patriarchal flows of power. Here, it is worth including a dense but succinct quotation from the conclusion of his third volume:

“Cultural battles are the power battles of the Information Age. They are primarily fought in and by the media, but the media are not the power-holders. Power, as the capacity to impose behavior, lies in the networks of information exchange and symbol manipulation, which relate social actors, institutions, and cultural movements, through icons, spokespersons, and intellectual and cultural amplifiers. In the long run, it does not really matter who is in power…”

(a view shared by George Friedman)

“… because the distribution of political roles becomes widespread and rotating. There are no more stable power elites. There are however, elites from power…”

(yet another stunning reversal)

“… that is, elites formed during their usually brief power tenure, in which they take advantage of their privileged political position to gain a more permanent access to material resources and social connections. Culture as the source of power, and power as the source of capital, underlie the new social hierarchy of the Information Age.”

Castells’ Odyssey

Speaking of “dense but succinct,” it’s worth asking Castells why his multi-volume magnum opus is so long. I once did just that while preparing to publish an interview with him in Wired Magazine, and his answer, both in the interview and scattered throughout his several volumes, follows from his intellectual path.

Born in Spain and later educated at Nanterres in the turbulent and ideological 1960s, Castells grew weary of the airy philosophizing of his Marxist and deconstructionist French colleagues. So he came to Berkeley, and more recently to the Annenberg Institute for Communications at the University of Southern California, to pursue more empirical research. His volumes are filled with data, details and mountains of evidence to support his claims about our new reality.

Yet in addition to his calling as an empirically based geographer, he remains something of a philosopher. In the last pages of his third volume, End of Millennium, Castells pulls yet another stunning reversal of Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach. Marx’s original text stated: “Heretofore philosophers have merely interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” Leary of trying to tell people what to do, as the master thinkers so despised by postmodernists did, Castells writes: “In the twenty-first century, philosophers have been trying to change the world. In the twenty-first century, it is time for them to interpret it differently.”

Hence the need to redraw the map in a way that will allow people to navigate their own paths and figure things out for themselves. Is this not also the goal of the intelligence Stratfor provides?

Redrawing the Map in the Information Age is republished with permission of Stratfor.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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