Monday, November 08, 2010

A Thought About Networks: Parallels and difference between 1848 and now

I have been reading 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport. That was a year in which liberals and radicals organized mass demonstrations all across Europe, succeeding in some cases in obtaining democratic reforms, and leading to conservative reactions. There seems to have been a contagion. I suppose that the news spread via the newspapers that were increasingly present in part to improved technology of printing, and through the networks of liberal and radical activists. Still the rate of spread of the news of demonstrations seems very fast since the railroad system was quite limited and the telegraph only recently invented. Still there were steamboats and a well established system of ocean, river and canal transport that clearly carried the news in some cases.

Of course, the unrest spread explosively because there was a fertile ground for its spread. Terrible weather had cut into agricultural productivity, while the industrial revolution was disrupting societies and throwing people out of work. Liberal and radical theorists had brought the social problem of poverty to the attention of the public while nationalism was challenging the political order of the time. Conservatives in power often were too slow to respond to the dissatisfaction of the public letting the temperature rise to the boiling point.

That got me thinking about Al Qaeda. I recently read a report about a mathematical model that illuminated the way in which anti-terrorist action could increase the number of terrorists; some actions can increase the probability of people deciding to become terrorists to such a degree that more new terrorists are recruited than existing terrorists are removed from the group of terrorists. (Sorry, I can't recall the link.)

It occurred to me that in the not too distant past it would have been very hard if not impossible for a terrorist organization on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to recruit new members and agents in the Middle East, other parts of Asia, Europe and even North America. Now it is clearly not only possible, but happening. The global mass media certainly are playing a part in increasing the likelihood that Muslims all over the world will be disturbed and angry enough to be more easily recruited; the improved point-to-point communications (telephone, Internet, air travel) make it more possible and indeed relatively easy to establish and operate networks of recruiters at great distances.

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