Monday, April 10, 2006

Rhizome Network Defense Strategies

Last Summer, Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson of Cambridge published a fascinating article entitled “The Topology of Covert Conflict.” This article cuts to the core of the battle between hierarchy and rhizome, and while it is was conceived as a way to address the effective disruption of de-centralized networks such as al-Qa’ida and file-sharing systems, it provides a profound theoretical basis for the defense of a society founded upon the principles of rhizome. I will briefly review the article, and then offer some thoughts from a purely theoretical perspective on the optimal structure and natural resiliency of rhizome.

As an intro, here is the Abstract from Nagaraja and Anderson’s paper:

“Often an attacker tries to disconnect a network by destroying nodes or edges, while the defender counters using various resilience mechanisms. Examples include a music industry body attempting to close down a peer-to-peer file-sharing network; medics attempting to halt the spread of an infectious disease by selective vaccination; and a police agency trying to decapitate a terrorist organisation. Albert, Jeong and Barab´asi famously analysed the static case, and showed that vertex-order attacks are effective against scale-free networks. We extend this work to the dynamic case by developing a framework based on evolutionary game theory to explore the interaction of attack and defence strategies. We show, first, that naive defences don’t work against vertex-order attack; second, that defences based on simple redundancy don’t work much better, but that defences based on cliques work well…Our models thus build a bridge between network analysis and evolutionary game theory, and provide a framework for analysing defence and attack in networks where topology matters. They suggest definitions of efficiency of attack and defence, and may even explain the evolution of insurgent organisations from networks of cells to a more virtual leadership that facilitates operations rather than directing them.” (emphasis added)

First, a little overview on the science of topology as applied to network design and vulnerability:

The Scale-free network suggested in (b) is not a case of hierarchy emerging out of randomness, but rather an analysis of the communication connections between nodes, not necessarily the command-connections. More connected nodes, shaded in (b), are “vertexes,” and are the traditional targets of decapitation attacks when trying to destroy a scale-free network. Nagaraja and Anderson first analyze the effectiveness of the vertex decapitation tactic on a scale-free network, and demonstrate that it is a highly effective means of disrupting a network when only simple defensive measures are taken, such as simple replacement of the decapitated node (we see this game playing out between al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Security forces).

Next, Nagaraja and Anderson address the effectiveness of several tactics to defend against vertex-decapitation attacks. Essentially, the time-tested tactic used by insurgent groups everywhere is by far the most effective: when one node becomes an attractive vertex target, break that node into a clique of several nodes, with each new node connected to every other in the clique, and dividing the prior connections of the vertex among the new nodes in the clique in order to reduce their attractiveness when faced with a vertex-targeting scheme.

Here’s a graphic of the use of the clique transition as a defensive tactic:

And here’s Ngaraja and Anderson’s analysis on the viability of the clique-transition defensive tactic to the vertex-decapitation attack.

So, the final conclusion of this Cambridge team is, to use my terminology, that the devolution of quasi-hierarchal networks into a closer approximation of a rhizome structure is the best defense against predation by a hierarchal opponent.

Taking a bit closer look, what is the optimal connectivity structure for rhizome? In theory, a pure rhizome structure would have no higher-order vertexes for attack. However, there is the potential that if every node maintains the same connectivity, communications will either be so burdensome (every node has many, many connections), or too slow (every node has very few connections). The most efficient linking methodology that still maintains a uniformly low vertex-order among nodes is the “small-worlds” theory: most links connect to very “close” neighbors, but at least one or two are very distant and weak. These distant, weak links are what makes the “6-degrees of separation” effect possible. How is someone in Southern California really linked to a poor peasant in rural India by less than 6 links? It’s not the close ties to neighbors and coworkers (probably), but rather it’s that weak connection—the foreign exchange student that the Californian knew in high school from New Delhi. These weak and distant connections are what dramatically improve communications and information processing efficiency within a relatively “flat” network architecture. From the perspective of rhizome defending itself against attacks of hierarchy, this structure is also the most effective because it eliminates the most effective hierarchal tactic of vertex-order decapitation.


Peter said...

Glad to see your return to the rhizome. This is the topic that holds the most fascination for me. However, my interest is in its application in non-military situations.

Let me explain the situation I'm interested specifically. Last fall the Energy Bulletin published a "report from the future, c.2030" on the growth of the Unpluggers movement ( These are fictional people who decided to unplug themselves from the grid and the hierarchy-driven "rat race". Now prior to this article's publication, Jason had written over at Anthropik about how difficult hierarchy makes it for anyone wishing to drop out. He gave the example, IIRC, of someone who wanted to live in a teepee with their kids and, of course, the authorities immediately jumped in and issued a decree forbidding it.

So my interest is in exploring how the rhizome network can be used by humble, harmless, and unarmed unpluggers to create and exercise the political clout they will need to be able to distance themselves peacefully from hierachy as things begin to deteriorate. Of course as things begin to fall apart, the hierarchy's power will be steadily diminished. But this weakening will most likely occur at a rate not fast enough to meet the needs of unpluggers. Moreover, as we all know, those in power tend to hold onto it as grimly as Golum holds onto the ring.

In summary, I predict growing numbers of people will want to unplug to varying degrees over the next two decades. They will come from all points along the political spectrum. So I see this tension between them and all three levels of government developing. That's where I see rhizome networks coming in handy as a counterbalance to an increasingly desperate and paranoid hierarchy.

Hopefully we can explore this area a bit.

RyanLuke said...

"The Topology of Covert Conflict" is a useful and important piece of work, as are your elaborations from the rhizome perspective, Jeff. As you say, "it provides a profound theoretical basis for the defense of a society founded upon the principles of rhizome."

Important, yet... What society are we defending? At this point it is only a theoretical one. It is only ideas. Not that this is particularly a problem, just an analysis of where we stand. The task of building a rhizome society will be a process of bringing these ideas down into a connection with earth, with reality.

In your terminology, "the devolution of quasi-hierarchal networks into a closer approximation of a rhizome structure is the best defense against predation by a hierarchal opponent" is spot on. However, for the context of building a rhizome society, there is no authority to devolve - the rhizome structure has to be built from the ground up.

When presenting and implimenting new ideas such as rhizome society, leadership will arise. Understanding that leadership has an essentially (but not exclusively) hierarchical aspect is important. As rhizome leaders arise, they need to understand the power of devolution (which is actually the sharing of leadership and power) as an integral part of effective leadership.

Perhaps that is what defines an effective leader in the context of rhizome: someone who truly understands that the essential aspect of leadership is empowering others. And that rather than decreasing your own power, such actions actually increase it.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps that is what defines an effective leader in the context of rhizome: someone who truly understands that the essential aspect of leadership is empowering others. And that rather than decreasing your own power, such actions actually increase it."

We can look to the Zapatistas for real life examples of this type of leadership.

Jeff Vail said...

I made a comment about leadership on another thread here that I think is relevant to this conversation: if we accept leadership (and temporary hierarchy) to achieve a specific goal--say in an emergency situation--we are in grave danger. If we do so without a firm basis in self-sufficiency and independence, then we are lost. The only safe leader is one who we accept because we know that they would just as happily accept our leadership to accomplish a shared and specific goal. Leadership is of value when it creates leverage for the shared goals, not leverage of the leader over the led.

Jeff Vail said...


I think that, while the theory here was certainly developed in an "offensive/defensive" frame, it may hold some valuable lessons for the creation of a peaceful and successful "unpluggers" movement.

Specifically, my interest is in how to create a funcional, localized economy that processes information highly efficiently (effective network structure, or more straight-forward, effective use of labor and knowledge in production) without teetering at the edge of hierarchal structure. How can a rhizome economy effectively coordinate the division of labor and deal with specialization without turning into a feudal, manor-economy repleat with Baron and Seneschal? Or, in my more immedaiate world: I like specialized products like cheese, beer, bread, and sausages. In my world, I would consider it a significant decrease in my prefered standard of living if I don't get to have all of these things in a post-collapse economy. I'm confident that I would get by just fine as a truely self-sufficient hunter/gatherer, but I would really like to have pizza, drink wine, etc. In an area as simple as this food production, it would be very difficult to be truly self-sufficient in all of these things. How do we structure the economic network necessary to make it happen? I like to play this out in my mind in terms of a Tuscan hill-town. Or, perhaps more relevant in my personal near future, in terms of a post-collapse Oregon hill-town above the Willamette River. In diagraming the food production networks involved, how does it all work out? I'm rambling desparately at this point, but my basic model solution is to be truly self-sufficient at a minimal level, and then produce some semi-specialized surplus. Most people will exchange their basic-order surplus within a kinship group (vegetables, eggs, firewood, etc), and each kinship groups will establish a few, weak connections to more distant exchange partners, perhaps for beer, glass, or metal implements. This kind of structure is exactly what the Cambridge paper was discussing, just from a different perspective. I think that the kind of vertex-order data that identifies targets for decapitation attacks also identifies likely points of exploitative hierarchal development within local economic networks, as well as critical failure nodes to be avoided in the face of natural disasers, weather, localized disorder, etc. Just some initial thoughts...

The Global Silk Road said...

I find this all fascinating.

I believe it to be very important.

First it speaks the name, describes and then advocates anew something that is very ancient indeed and very important.

Despite having such a past it nevertheless has always, with good reason, remained seen but unseen. It is the time I feel to speak its name. It can no longer be blocked. This blog is doing this. Jeff Vail's book is the manifesto for doing it as effectively as possible.

Till now it has been very much like what Isac Azimov called Seldon's Second Foundation, unseen and at the other end of the universe. However it is there and visible just not seen.

Its significance and the approach to it was set out very clearly 2500 years ago by Lao Tzu's in the "Tao Te Ching":-

Acting Simply
True leaders
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them those they despise.

To give no trust
is to get no trust

When the work's done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.

Secondly I believe that the rhizome society advocated is coming into being naturally. It can do with the nurturing it is getting in this place. It is still quite young but I think now robust enough to mature seen.

Blogging is a key element of this. Blogging becomes even more significant when automatic translation becomes the norm - it is already important. Connectivity is then possible at very great cultural distances, Hofstede would say "psychic distances".

Multi-lingual blogs mean people at their own level in their own area of interest and in their own way can decide who to connect with. They are. Their is even a kid's site to facilitate this for the very young.

I myself like to consider such connectivities as "social wormholes" by analogy with astrophysics. They provide a very short fast route between people who are otherwise far apart nationally, culturally, geographically and temporally.

Related to this but seperate was a study I was involved in shortly after 9/11 on commercial intra-networking in financial institutions in the City of London. This had nothing to do with resilience post terrorist attack.

This showed that for economic reasons ever fewer staff were allocated office space in their corporations downtown City HQ offices - too expensive. Instead they hot desked, one desk for every ten staff.

Staff were given laptops and told to work from wherever they were, home, traveling whatever. This meant that if Al Qu'aeda were to strike any of these corporations they could not destroy more than 10% of their human or knowledge base of capability.

This was done for bottom line reasons totally unconnected with resilience against terror.
25 years ago I myself ran across a bokerage firm on Wall Street who had a typing pool in Cork in Southern Ireland simply because the per quare foot cost of a secretary there was 1/50th of that in Manhattan.

In addition a trained, high quality, totally happy, unflustered by commuter travel, well educated, Southern Irish, typist came in at 40% of a New York typists wage.

Finally that supreme test of robust command and control in the face of horrendous attrition is war. The military despite modern technology still use "orders groups".

In these orders are given verbally to everyone. If this is done and it is nowadays within the framework of what is called "mission command". Everyone knows the ultimate mission so the fight can continue effectively despite huge attrition in the apparent command heirarchy.

What does still stop such intellectually sophisticated armies is a lack of physical re-supply. This could in the end be the nemesis of the knowledge age without a rhizome culture.

If we do run out of physical resources this probably spells the end of human existance on this planet. I think not. We are already beginning to adopt the rhizome model advocated here.

M. Simon said...

I think the best strategy is to build nodes that do not invite attack.

The reason for this is that networks are not a group of isolated entities but in fact networks interact.

The network has to eat; this means contact with the food supply network. Any contact with another network is a potential source of betrayal.

The other source of problems for a set of individually acting isolated nodes are nodes that act in ways that do not further the goals of the "group". Insurgencies have this problem.

Let us look at the evolution of the war in Iraq. Head chopping and bombing of markets etc. has become counter productive. Yet there does not seem to be any way to stop it. Individual nodes have developed their own goals which do not conform to the goals of the network.

Then there is the problem of shutting down the network once its goals have been accomplished. You see this in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars in Spain. Once the war was won the network did not break up but instead turned to criminality or various other competing goals. France had this problem post WW2 due to the guerrilla movements built to fight the Germans.

The traditional Chinese remedy for invaders is best. Once defeated do not resist. Incorporate the invaders into Chinese civilization. In a few generations the invaders disappear. Which only works if you can provide a better civilization than the invaders bring.

In any case war is nature's way of sorting out culture/civilizations.

The advantage of hierarchy is that once a particular goal has been accomplished the resources devoted to that goal can be turned off.

M. Simon said...

We are not going to run out of resources for a very long time.

The biggest iron mine in America is above ground. It is in all the capital goods that get recycled once the useful life of the capital is over. The metals get recycled.

Worst comes to worst we will mine the garbage dumps.

As to energy:

Bussard Fusion Reactor.

The idea of running out of resources is craziness. Matter is conserved. The sea is full of enough deuterium to last millions of years. By then we will have figured something else out.

Babaji said...

Here's a link to a NYT story about artists buying up cheap houses in Detroit and going off the grid.

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Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff,

Google has a "augmented reality" game called ingress, which revolves around teams trying to create and hold fields by controlling nodes they call "portals".

Your rhizome model can be used strategically and tested in iterations in this game.

An interesting, if not very serious application.