Speculations towards the development of cures and preventive measures
- / -
Printed in Transnational Associations, 30, 1978, 11,
The speculations may now also be interpreted for the case of virtual organizations
Subsequently adapted as:
Memetic and Information Diseases in a Knowledge Society:
the development of cures and preventive measures (2008)
Despite widespread exposure to organizations and organizational systems
in various states of growth, health and decay, it would appear that there
is no convenient checklist of the malfunctions to which organizations are
subject. The matter is of course normally broached through the various
kinds of management problem, and the measures required to "get an ailing
organization on its feet again". But the range of possible malfunctions
is not identified as such, particularly for the kinds of structures - like
networks - which are supposed neither to require, nor to lend themselves
In order to focus thinking more clearly on the malfunctions to which
networks may be subject, some guidelines are required to provoke recognition
of unforeseen possibilities which might otherwise go unrecognized. tn passing
one may note the effort by Michael Haas (ref. 1, see Table 1) to identify
the different kinds of "asymmetry" to which systems may be subject.
However he defines asymmetry as "an attribute of a system which may vary
over time, space, and other such dimensions". Such asymmetry may or may
not be viewed as associated with some kind of malfunction.
For a deliberately humorous attempt to identify how systems fail, a
recently published book on "systemantics" merits attention (2; see also
book review). The
humour does not detract from an underlying profundity.
An attempt to categorize different kinds of system problems (see table
2) also throws some light on the matter.
An alternative approach
A much more specific range of system malfunctions is effectively represented
by the range of diseases - the human organism being that which has attracted
most attention and resources. Diseases of the human system have been incorporated
into a detailed classification scheme by the World Health Organization
(3). To the extent that there is even a faint parallel between the human
body and a social organization (as has often been pointed out), such a
classification can then be used to provide suggestive pointers to the kinds
of things which may go wrong with networks of individuals or groups. (It
is indeed possible that a classification of animal or plant diseases might
provide some additional insights and it would also be interesting to compare
this exercise with an attempt to classify disruptions to environmental
As with our recent experiment in producing a Yearbook
of World Problems and Human Potential (4), there will be some
who consider that the very effort to identity such diseases is misplaced
(even unlucky) and likely to invoke what it supposedly aims to guard against.
This is however a misguided form of "positive thinking", if it is through
the prevalence of such diseases that our efforts to facilitate networking
are in fact impeded or undermined. A clearer understanding of the factors
resisting the growth of networking is required.
Classification of diseases
The remainder of this article is therefore concerned with identifying
the kinds of questions which might be asked concerning the networking diseases
associated with each of the major categories in the WHO International
Classification of Diseases (3). lt. is for the reader to determine
how seriously the results are to be taken particularly if, as a member
of a network, he or she recognizes many possible symptoms as being characteristic
of that network !
Having identified such diseases, providing they have a basis in reality,
the question is then how to move towards devising suitable cures and preventive
measures. It may well be that network "health" is associated with the kind
of tension which results from the "tensed network" approach advocated elsewhere
(5). But many other avenues could be explored.
WHO 000-136: Infective and parasitic diseases
Infective : Can networks became "infected" as a result of the
transfer of some viewpoint (micro-organism) from another organization or
network, such that once transferred the viewpoint is widely propagated
throughout the network thus causing a particular disease ? What are the
modes of infection, are there "carriers"; what are the symptoms, what are
the appropriate preventive measures, etc. ?
Parasitic: What kinds of "parasites" can flourish on networks
as hosts, being indebted to the latter for their sustenance, though contributing
nothing to their welfare? Parasites may be comparatively harmless; or they
may, by the mere irritation of their presence or by interference with the
bodily functions of the host, give rise to troublesome symptoms: or they
may even, by destroying vital parts or forming poisonous substances, lead
to the death of the host.
WHO 140-239: Neoplasms (tumours)
Are networks subject to either (a) "benign" growths within their tissue
structure, pressing neighbouring parts aside without invading them, or
(b) "malignant" (cancerous) growths, spreading quickly, in a disordely
manner from point to point throughout the network, invading and destroying
surrounding tissues and those in which they arise, tending to recur after
apparently complete removal, and being very liable to ulcerate? What might
be the causes, symptoms and varieties of such disease?
WHO 240-279: Endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases
Endocrine: Do networks effectively possess certain "organs" whose
function is the production of certain kinds of information which play an
important part in regard to general network operations and the activities
of other organs performing necessary counteracting functions ? Are such
organs subject to diseases which can throw the network out of balance ?
How many such organs and functions can be distinguished ? What are the
symptoms of disease and of imbalance ?
Nutritional: What forms of nutrition (in the form of information)
do networks effectively require ? Does an inadequate supply of certain
kinds of information stunt the growth and development of a network ? Can
the types of information be specifically identified together with the diseases
to which their absence may give rise? (Is it possible to design a " healthy
diet " for a network ?)
Metabolic: To what extent do networks possess characteristic
modes for processing information whereby their structure is maintained
and energy is made available for various forms of work ? Are these processes
subject to types of disease, whether in connection with the anabolic processes
whereby incoming, information is constructively adapted for the use of
the network, or with the catabolic processes by which energy is produced
from the exploitation of stored information and with the production of
waste products ?
WHO 280-289: Diseases of blood and blood-forming organs
Do networks effectively possess some kind of carrier medium which circulates
throughout their extent conveying new information to isolated sectors and
removing from them the (negative) waste products of networking activity
? To what diseases is the medium subject, and what are their causes and
WHO 290-315: Mental disorders
Networks control their own behaviour and attitudes by the appropriate
transmission of information- Are disorders in this process liable to occur
because of either predisposing causes (e.g. defects inherited from their
progenitors, abnormal disposition or temperament) or exciting causes or
stresses (e.g. various diseases, growth stresses during transition phases,
deprivation and externally induced stress, anxiety-related stress) ? Do
symptoms take the form of abnormal beliefs (delusions, hallucinations)
or acts (aggression, auto-destruction, etc.) ? To what varieties of mental
disorder may networks be subject (mania, melancholia, paranoia, schizophrenia,
confusional states, mental enfeeblement) ?
WHO 320-389: Diseases of the nervous system and sense organs
Are networks subject to diseases with symptoms such as (a) disturbances
of information input ability either in the form of loss of receptivity,
hypersensitivity or perverted sensitivity, or (b) occurrence of more or
less complete paralysis of whole portions of the network (possibly accompanied
by spastic activity, whether or not in response to environmental stimuli,
or general impairment in the power of coordination) ? What sort of environmental
and other factors contribute to such diseases (pace of life, shocks, poisons)
WHO 390-458: Diseases of the circulatory system
Given the possibility that networks effectively possess some kind of
carrier mediurn for the circulation of information, what extent are networks
subject to diseases resulting from the accumulation the medium in particular
parts of the network (congestion) or an inadequate supply to other parts
? What are the symptoms and causes of such circulatory problems ? (Is it
possible that some networks suffer from "obesity" and lack of "exercise"?
WHO 460-519: Diseases of the respiratory system
Networks may be conceived as "breathing" information in order to revitalize
their various parts. Are networks subject to diseases associated with irregularities
in the breathing cycle ? Again what are the symptoms and causes of such
respiratory problems ? (Is it possible to design some form of, breathing
exercise appropriate to a network ?)
WHO 520-577: Diseases of the digestive system
Networks may be conceived as ingesting facts, which are broken down
into a form which enables information to be extracted from them, absorbed
and assimilated throughout the network. Is it possible that networks may
be subject to diseases associated with these processes ? What would be
their symptoms and causes ?
WHO 580-629: Diseases of the genito-urinary system
How do networks discharge the (negative) waste products arising from,
or generated by, their activity ? Are there diseases associated with this
process ? If networks may be assumed to regenerate or reproduce themselves
in some way, is this process linked in any way to the discharge process
? To what diseases might it be subject ?
WHO 630-678: Complications of pregnancy and childbirth
Smaller networks emerge within larger networks and may eventually break
away. To what extent can this be viewed as a process of pregnancy and birth
? What disorders are liable to be associated with this process ? How do
they affect the parent network and its offspring ? (Should attention be
given to some equivalent of midwife skills ?)
WHO 680-709: Diseases of the skin and subcutaneous tissue
As with a system (although probably different in kind), a network may
be conceived as being separated from its environment by a boundary. ls
it to be expected that such a membrane has functions analogous to those
of protection, secretion, heat regulation and respiration ? To what kinds
of diseases might such a boundary be subject: disorders of the "secreting
apparatus", disorders relating to "growth", "inflarnmatory affections", "nervous
disorders", "parasitic affections" ? How would these affect a network's
ability to process information and how might they be recognized ?
WHO 710-738: Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective
Do some features of networks perform structural functions analogous
to the skeletal system and the associated muscles (whether voluntary or
involuntary) ? Is it to be expected that networks are subject to disorders
analogous to arthritis or rheumatism ? How are they to be detected ?
WHO 740-759: Congenital abnormalities
Given a formative or birthing process for networks, is it to be expected
that the emergent networks are subject to congenital abnormalities, possibly
inherited form their progenitors ? What forms might these take and what
are the consequences for the viable functioning of the networks ? (Should
some networks be considered "handicapped" or "challenged"?)
WHO 760-779: Certain causes of perinatal morbidity and mortality
Clearly the formation of networks is not always without difficulty and
is not always successful. What are the kinds of failure to which networks
are subject in this early period? What are the symptoms of such problems?
What are the causes of failure and stillbirths ?
WHO 780-796: Symptoms and ill-defined conditions
To what other ill-defined disorders are networks subject, analogous
to the many vague pains (headache, etc) which may occur within the human
WHO 800-999: Accidents, poisonings and violence
To what kinds of "accidents" are networks subject? How may they
be damaged inadvertently or as a result of careless interaction with their
environment ? What are the consequences of "fractures" in vital structural
elements or of punctured boundaries ? What kinds of violence can be inflicted
upon networks ? (This question is explored separately).
How are the effects of such occurrences to be recognized ?
As stated at the beginning, the text above is designed to provoke an
imaginative examination of the current health of networks. A first comment
(for which my thanks to Jennifer Otlet) is that in discussing diseases
one should take care to avoid engaging in medical "quackery". And indeed
some management consultants give the impression of attempting to provide
imaginary cures for real organizational ills, or real cures for imaginary
ills (cf. the role of the "snake oil" vendor).
In a lengthy discussion with Professor David Horton Smith (Boston College),
he suggested that the above diseases would be made more meaningful to the
reader by the inclusion of specific examples. Possibilities were identified
for each category. (A suggested "congenital abnormality", for example,
is the case of a network set up at the instigation of a foundation which
only wanted it to appear to function as a network, intending in reality
to control its operations by suitable allocation of funds. There was little
possibility of repairing the damage thereafter.)
lt. is my impression that such examples should be collected from a variety
of sources (stimulated in (different ways by. the above presentation) before
relating them to any classification as above. A systematic grouping cases
would be premature, at this point.
Although I recognize the disadvantage to the reader interested
in cases rather than speculative open-ended questions, the discussion brought
out a number of points:
1. The presence in the human body of various systems (circulatory, respiratory,
digestive, nervous, endocrine) raises interesting difficulties in considering
possible examples. One may either assume that several of these should be
grouped into one in considering the diseases of networks, or else one may
assume that we are not yet sensitive to all the different flows in networks
and should therefore avoid collapsing such distinctions.
2. Following from the last point, it may well be that the kinds of
networks that are being set up now are very primitive compared to those
which will evolve and be functioning in 50 or 100 years time. As such the
different systems would be much simpler and less distinct than in the human
body. The variety of possible diseases is necessarily a function of the
complexity of the network. Networks with 3 or more distinct types of flow
between members would be susceptible to diseases more closely analogous
to those of the human body than those with only l flow.
3. Again, the above point brings out the basic question of what flows
in a network. The above text refers tentatively to a flow of "information".
David Horton Smith suggests: information, money, supplies, personnel, resources
in general, rumour, etc. Further reflection is required to sort how these
should be handled in relation to the diseases (if the exercise should be
4. Relating to point 2, David Horton Smith suggests that networks "ingest"
nodes and links, namely that the addition of a member involves a "digestive"
process. This raises the questions of how the concept of network growth
should be conceived in relation to ongoing network processes.
Again further reflection is required.
1. Michael Haas. Types of asymmetry in social and political systems.
In: General Systems (Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research),
12, 1967, pp. 69-79.
2. John Gall. Systemantics; how systems work and especially how they
fail. Pocket Books, 1977 (also book
3. World Health Organization. International Classification of Diseases.
Geneva, WHO, 1967
4. Union of International Associations and Mankind 2000. Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential. Brussels, Union of
International Associations and Mankind 2000, 1976. [text]
5. Anthony Judge. Tensed networks; balancing and focusing network dynamics
in response to networking diseases. Transnational Associations,
30, 1978, 11, pp. 480-485 [text]