Los Altos author provides framework for 'Network Power'

User's manual for Los Altos native David Singh Grewal's "Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization" (Yale University Press, 2008): Skim the introduction, skip chapters 1 and 2, read chapters 3, 7 and 8, skim chapters 9 and 10, then read the conclusion. Unless, of course, you are an economist or like your books, as well as your wines, dry.

Grewal proposes a theory that a power he terms "network power" is the force behind globalization, then examines how various aspects of globalization fit the theory. This is not to say that this is in any way uninteresting or that his observations are incorrect – just that it's like playing a game where you first have to read a hundred pages of instructions, definitions and game theory before being allowed at the table.

Grewal poses the question why, with the promise of freedom offered by globalization, billions of people feel that they are being subjugated to an unseen power beyond their ken or control. He explains that network power allows people all over the world to coordinate their activities – to communicate and work together. This is the democratic part of the network power driving globalization.

Network power only works, however, in the presence of standards. As large numbers of users join a group because of the access or benefits to be had from the group, the standards used by that group become the dominant standard. The standard becomes or remains a standard not because it is the best option available (an intrinsic property), but because it offers access to the largest number of users (an extrinsic property).

People can come to feel locked into a standard (like Microsoft software or World Trade Organization requirements), even feel compelled to join in on that standard or lose out. This is the point where network power becomes coercive, not freely chosen.

Two forces at work in globalization are sociability and sovereignty. Grewal argues convincingly that only sovereignty, meaning the power of government, can provide an appropriate check on unfettered network power. He takes issue with technology utopians who see any government interference as attempts to check the power of the individual. Where government interference is badly needed, he writes, is to limit private ownership of shared standards – the very thing that leads to subjugation.

In the chapter titled "Network Power in Technology," he writes: "In the specific case of Microsoft, it seems that these relations of sociability swamped the countervailing power of sovereignty through the functional equivalent of a ‘pay-off' to the Bush administration. … The problem may not be that one standard will overtake others given our desire to cooperate in as large a network as possible, but rather that any private company (or, more generally, any single actor) should own or control that standard itself."

In chapter 8, "Global Trade and Network Power," Grewal writes that the ideal of free trade may conflict with the facts. He writes: "On one reading of history, free trade appears less a formula for global peace than an effective means of amassing wealth for the next war."

He quotes Harvard economist Dani Rodrick, who argues that free trade – rather than having value in and of itself – is merely the means to an end, and that we should be clear which ends we are trying to achieve. For example, should the ongoing argument about free trade in agriculture be recast as one concerning food security and a nation's ability to feed itself?

These are fascinating questions, and Grewal provides a new framework for studying them. This reader wishes that he had done so in a more accessible way, using techniques of creative nonfiction currently employed by physicists to explain string theory or neuropsychologists to teach us about the role of the amygdala.

"Network Power" is available at Kepler's Bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park.

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