Sunday 3 November 2013

Resilient and Antifragile Essences in Actor-Network Theory

Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a complex social theory based on social constructivism and the central idea that essences (viz., individuals and societies) are to be interpreted not as “containers” characterized by a physical dimension, e.g., a surface or a sphere, but rather as networks of nodes that have as many dimensions as they have “ties” (i.e., connections). Such ties are “weak by themselves”, though they achieve robustness (“material resistance”) through their social nature: “Each tie, no matter how strong, is itself woven out of still weaker threads [..] Strength does not come from concentration, purity and unity, but from dissemination, heterogeneity and the careful plaiting of weak ties” [Latour, 1996]. “Strength” here refers to the ability of the “essences” to retain their identity in spite of environmental conditions affecting their ties and nodes. A fragile essence is one characterized by one or more points-of-diffusion-failures — as it is the case for instance in centralized and hierarchical organizations; conversely, an essence is robust (resilient) if it tolerates discontinuities and other information diffusion failures. Be it an individual or a society, an ANT essence is not a static, immutable entity: It “starts from irreducible, incommensurable, unconnected localities, which[..] sometimes end [up] into provisionally commensurable connections” [Latour, 1996]. Strength is sought by conserving identity despite the changes of scale that are necessary to counterbalance turbulent environmental conditions. The above mentioned “careful plaiting of weak ties” is meant to guarantee that a network “is the same” (cf. definition of resilience), though “stronger” (which leads to Taleb's Antifragility). In this paper I conjectured that a geometrical interpretation to the ANT concept of strength may be given by the structured addition of complexity that naturally emerges in Fractal Social Organizations.


  1. Quite an interesting point Vincenzo. Are you saying that ANT explain identity invariant of
    a FSO?

  2. Thank you very much for your comment, Juan Felipe. No, I don't have scientific elements to say that. I'm rather saying that the modularity and self-similarity exhibited by FSOs may correspond to the ANT concept of "strength", which in turn I believe could relate to that of computational antifragility.

    I discuss this in a LinkedIn post I will quote here:

    "I think it's easier for me to discuss this through a few examples.

    A centralized organization is one that may be very efficient if all works fine but is dependent on the center of the system. It's not that resilient because there's a single-point-of-failure and a single-point-of-congestion.

    A hierarchical organization is one in which we have multiple layers of control and feedback. Again it works well when everything's fine but each layer becomes a potential point-of-failure and -congestion; also there is a systemic delay due to the need to traverse (and manage) the layers. Not that resilient also.

    Then you have bio-inspired organizations (bionic orgs, holarchies, fractal organizations) in which you have a hierarchy of objects whose role does not depend only by the place in the hierarchy but also by the context; quoting Sousa et al. these objects may be "simultaneously a part and a whole, a container and a contained, a controller and a controlled". These organizations are more able to resist to "attacks" -- they are resilient.

    As a final example, I proposed in the following paper an organization called Fractal Social Organization: (FSO). FSO is a fractal organization whose objects have special "rules" and have "memory". The rules control the way the objects interact at intra- and inter-layer level; the "memory" is used to remember which interaction "scored" best in a given situation. What I'm trying to do now is complete the model (it is still not completely formalized at the moment), simulate some FSO's and observe whether certain indicators of the "strength" of the organization (specifically, modularity, connectivity, and self-similarity) "get better" with time. If that would be case I could provide you with an example of an adequate "system structure" of an antifragile organization."

    I hope this clarifies things. I'll be glad to further discuss with you on this and thank you again for your comment.