#87 – BeyondFrames: Living the Networked Society with John Robb



#87 – BeyondFrames: Living the Networked Society with John Robb

John Robb, an expert in networked societies and tribal dynamics, returns to the podcast after more than three years, with some thought-challenging discussions.

In this episode, Robb takes us through the inherent destructive nature of networked tribes and provides a unique perspective on our global civilizations trajectory.

He touches on dissent dynamics driven by social media, the danger in the concentration of power due to the transformative effect of AI, all while resonating its impact on business and organizational operations. This is a special episode, and Robb leaves no leaf unturned. Tune in.

Youtube video for this podcast is linked here.


Podcast Notes

In today’s open world, managing networked politics has become increasingly complex for brands, requiring proactive measures from the outset. John Robb, a renowned author and expert in the field of global security, networked societies, and tribal dynamics, helps us unlock this and other topics on our podcast. 


Through popularizing concepts like “Global Guerrillas”, where small, loosely connected groups use modern technology to disrupt traditional power structures; he has influenced several entrepreneurs and decision-makers with his thought-provoking insights and predictions. 


He discusses the importance of cultivating a corporate culture rooted in civility, introduces profound perspectives on global civilization, and even urges us to consider where we want to be in 200 years, given the limitations posed by Earth’s energy and social entropy.


This podcast episode offers a deep exploration of such critical themes, providing valuable perspectives on the future of society and the influence of networks. Listen in, and join the conversation.  


This episode also introduces a new format:  #BeyondFrames, occasional podcast episodes where we’ll extend the view beyond product and org design, to look at the context of our work and organizations.


Key highlights

  • Networked Tribes: how they affect markets and organizations
  • Importance of Early pattern recognition and intervention for managing complexity in organizations.
  • How can organizations adapt to tribes and maintain brand coherence?
  • How to establish corporate civility and neutrality
  • AI’s impact on concentration of power, wealth and feudalization of warfare
  • The Permacrisis: how can we manage and prevent it at a societal level?
  • What is deindividualization, and how does it affect your organization?

This podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsSoundcloud and other podcast streaming platforms.


Topics (chapters):

(00:00) Navigating Corporate Civility in the Age of Tribal Networks

(01:01) John Robb Introduction

(04:01) The Last 3 years for John Robb 

(07:23) Structure, Culture, and Strategy

(10:23) Decentralized Tribes vs. Hierarchical Corporates

(16:33) Future of Organizations and the Coherence of Brands

(18:53) Positivity of Network Tribes

(24:57) Entropy Growth and Organizations

(32:11) De-individualization and Group Dynamics

(35:44) Keeping Markets Free

(44:52) The Next Cycle

(58:43) Breadcrumbs and Suggestions

(01:03:06) Closing 


To find out more about John’s work:


Other references and mentions:


Guest’s Breadcrumbs (suggestions): 


Recorded on 19th September 2023.


Get in touch with Boundaryless:

Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at https://boundaryless.io/resources/podcast



Music from Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here: https://blss.io/Podcast-Music


Simone Cicero \

Hello everybody and welcome back to the Boundaryless Conversations podcast. On this podcast we meet with pioneers, thinkers and doers and we talk about the future of business models, organizations, markets and society in our rapidly changing world. Today I am joined by my usual co-host Shruthi from Jakarta. Ciao Shruthi!


Shruthi Prakash 

Hi Simone, nice to be here. Hi John.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you so much. And Shruthi already introduced a little bit the new guest that we have today, as the loyal listeners know, we often open up a bit the perspective on this podcast. We don’t just talk products and orgs, but we try to look at society as well. So today we have a returning guest on the topic, John Robb. Hello, John, great to have you here.


John Robb

Hi Simone. Nice to be here.


Simone Cicero 

Great to have you. So for those that don’t know John, John is an American author, entrepreneur, complexity expert, and military analyst. He’s mostly focused now to act as the owner and principal analyst that produced the monthly Global Guerrillas Report, which is available both on Substack and Patreon. You will see the link in the description. And this report monthly covers the intersection war politics and technology. John has been doing this work for decades and has provided people, you know frameworks to make sense of our you know relentlessly changing in chaotic world John is one of our go-to experts at Boundaryless when it comes to understanding the Real implications of how complexity is unfolding and he was with us on episode four. It was April 2020, so we were trying to wrap our heads around the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. In that episode, we explored how the power was shifting towards self-organizing interconnected networks. And the link to the show is gonna be in the show notes today. As a first opener, let’s say question, John, it would be fantastic to hear from you how your work has evolved in the last three years. I have this guess that has become even more relevant and the pandemic was some sort of signal that we got in 2020 and words like war at that time wereIa bit more unfamiliar to people and to the general audience and now the concept, the idea of war has become a lunch table topic. So let’s try to give an initial framing on how things have changed in the last three years. So maybe you can brief us a little bit on this.


John Robb

Right, my work for the most part has focused on new organizational structures, open source organizational structures as they are applied to insurgency movements, protest movements, now politics, now war. And they have a certain dynamic in terms of how they operate. And certain limitations and certain strengths that make them both difficult to handle and beneficial at times. And then the other focus I have is on how technology is rewiring us and at a mental level our minds are being physically rewired due to our interaction with new technologies. And that rewiring is going to cause changes in how we organize society and trying to figure out that. Last time that happened was back in, when the printing press arrived and Marshall McLuhan started pioneering that, but he died before the internet. And then I’ve kind of picked up the ball on that. And finally, I have a focus on the work of John Boyd, military strategist, and his focus was on decision-making in warfare and everything else and how decision-making can be improved to improve your performance. If you’ve ever heard of the OODA, Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, that’s John Boyd, but he also had more complex topics. 


So laying that as a groundwork, how has things changed? Well, we’ve had a war and open source dynamics, open source social dynamics have played a part in that. And the rewiring of our brands had played a part in that. We’ve seen a shift in how corporations are perceived and what we expect of them. Politicization of corporate action and that has built on what I’ve been looking at. We’ve, it wasn’t new, but we’ve seen the kind of same dynamics in politics as a whole. And how we perceive institutions and their performance in this current environment has been influenced by these factors that I’ve been studying. So whichever one you wanna focus on to dive down into it.


Simone Cicero

Right. I mean, you often refer to David Rohnfeldt, TIMN framework, you know, and we spoke about this also last time we discussed, and I find it fascinating that it seems like that for those that are not familiar, T-I-M-N means tribes, institutions, markets and networks. Essentially, the big point that John is trying to explain or study or understand is this transition beyond markets into what we call the networks, this networked society. My question for you is, maybe second question for you is to kind of channel a bit of the conversation we’re going to have today.


It’s really how do you advise organizations of all kinds to deal with this changing world in terms of both for example structures, elements of culture or strategy, these are the three kind of things that I’m thinking about strategy, culture and structure, how the institutions that you know, rely on you for advice, for example, public institutions or private ones, and thinking of corporates mainly because this is the type of place that we most often talk to and work with and use our tools, especially corporates like small and big. How do they approach this, you know, this new landscape from a perspective of structure, culture, and strategy. So maybe we can start with culture and strategy and then we move into structure.


John Robb 

Okay, well…There was a couple of things I would focus on. First is how your decision making has changed in this new environment. This is a more complex environment than we’ve had in the past. We used to have more of a complicated environment, meaning that we could engineer and plan our decisions. And it was really about scale in terms of marshaling the resources and the people and putting them into a structure allowing us to achieve whatever ends we had in sight. In a complex environment, the off the shelf answers and solutions that we have to the problems that we face almost always never work. And when you put them into implementation, they’ll fail before you actually finish the implementation. We saw that with COVID, we saw that with, most recently with the war, we saw that, we see that on a daily basis with many companies as they try to deal with the changing environment.


In that kind of environment, you have to be much more flexible. And one approach is to, if you’re facing a problem or facing an opportunity, is to tap into your your corporate brain trust and have them generate ideas. This is just one method of doing it. Have them generate ideas that you could, in terms of how to solve the problem. And then you select the, say, four or five best ones, and then you, the ones that have the most likelihood of actually achieving positive results, and then you invest in them and let them run. And see which one actually gains traction in that at the implementation stage. And that’s the one you reinforce and go with. There are other kind of OODA loop, John Boyd tricks that you could use in terms of improving your observation capability focusing on improving your corporate culture and organizational culture such that it provides a better orientation when you’re faced with a dynamic complex environment. And what I mean by that is that when you observe something like an opportunity or a problem, and you want to respond to it, the orientation or the cultural phase is the next thing because that puts the next phase of the decision-making process because that puts that problem into context. It’s based on everything, all the training, all the life experience of the people involved, all of that goes into the orientation phase. And if you can get that right it’ll help you a lot in terms of responding in the right direction. If you get the orientation wrong, you’re gonna have a big problem because it’s basically. If you think of the potential solutions as a wide open area in three dimensions that you can go a variety of different ways, getting the orientation wrong is like facing in the wrong direction away from the solution. And every step you take, and you can make quick steps and you can do it quickly, will take you farther and farther and farther away from the optimum solution. So getting that orientation phase right is important. And that allows you much more potential for success in a dynamic environment.


Shruthi Prakash

I think John, the point that you were touching upon on how, let’s say, the environment is changing, where I wanted to come in was to ask that network tribes essentially, a large part of it operates in a decentralized manner. And the organizations that we have today in terms of corporate startups or larger organizations to some amount are following some amount of a hierarchical structure. So how do these two sort of operate in tandem with each other and how do you suggest, let’s say, corporates or organizations can go about this process of working with network tribes that might be more leaning towards decentralized ways of operation.


John Robb

Yeah, most of the network tribes that I’ve identified are mostly in the political space or the social space. Due to the dynamics of the way networks operate, these tribes aren’t founded on a positive message, you know, what they want to achieve. You know, if you ask a network tribe what justice is, nobody could agree.


But what they can’t agree on is what they oppose. And that goes all across the traditional spectrum of left and right. They’re great at being anti. And that’s the thing that brings them together. What they do is they build a pattern of behavior that they oppose. And it’s co-curated. There’s millions of people potentially on these bigger tribes that contribute to it. They parse all the news or make sense of all the news and cubbyhole it and connect it to them, the pattern of behavior they oppose. So from a corporate or organizational perspective, if you can, what you want to do is find a way to navigate beyond them or hold them off because they tend to be very aggressive. And unfortunately, you know, I wrote a report on the Edelman Public Relations Survey about corporate political orientation. And Edelman was the PR firm for Microsoft back in the day. Back in, you know 80s and 90s. And they’re shark smart. They’re really great in terms of what they do. And they found that most people around the, at least in the West, all want corporations to become more political and solve the problems that the governments aren’t able to solve. And governments, as we found in this new environment, are less and less capable of solving problems. They’re becoming more hollow. They’re losing traditional sources of power over borders, over messaging, all the things they used to be strong in. So people want corporations to become more political, but the problem is that this politics is very tribal. And if a corporation does become political, the early evidence is that you end up finding yourself in a minefield. If you take the wrong step, it’s going to blow up on you. I mean, the Miller Lite example was a classic. They thought they were doing something positive politically and maybe marginally or tangentially related to this brand. And this is a brand that had generated billions and billions of dollars every year, almost on autopilot. It was just like constantly throwing off money.


And they’re experimenting and it blew up. And now they’re being, they’ve lost, I think, 20, 30, 40% of their revenue on the brand and it’s in trouble and it’s being pulled from shelves now and I think it’s going to be a lost brand completely. But that is the problem with being political or aligning with a tribal network if you’re a corporation.


Sometimes though, when corporations act in tandem, as we saw in terms of disconnecting Trump after January 6, if you were a corporation that said, hey, wait a second, we want to continue to provide connectivity, we’re not political, what would have happened is that the other corporations would have disconnected you. And so that’s the other problem, is that those corporations have all acceded to the network or joined the network in an open source fashion to take action. And if you try to oppose that, you’d be cut off. And the damage from that could be catastrophic to a small company. So tribalization of the network is in part being driven by this rewiring of our brains, our shift to pattern matching, as a way to cope with it because we can get into why we shifted to pattern matching, but it’s not something that’s going away. We just haven’t figured out how to harness it and tame it yet. It’s kind of like this wild strain of political and social action that has yet to even out.


Simone Cicero 

I’m not sure if you have a follow up question, but if I can jump in, I want to ask John, a reflection on something that came out of the conversation. So it’s very interesting because what I feel is that we have a corporate culture and practice, let’s say, practice, I would say, in the last decades. If you think about how we manage brands as corporates or corporate responsibility and diversity and inclusion and so on. So we have a practice. And it looks like this practice is no more capable to deal with network at swarm-based kind of society we live in. Because whatever you do, you can upset one side or the other, and you risk to lose part of your market and possibly enter into these kind of exponential problems. And it looks like that it’s not even just a problem of large companies, because for example, I recall, I think it was last year, when we had 37 signals be a victim of this kind of reinforced feedback on, you know, the fact that the founders said, you know, politics should not be discussed on corporate channels like Slack, for example. We don’t want to take a position politically, we prefer to work on the product. And it looked like, you know, at that time, there was like a flame, an enormous flame. Actually, Jason Freed is possibly coming to the podcast in the future, so I would really love to ask him this reflection, but the point that I want to bring back to you is, is it true that basically there is no way for traditional approaches to branding and you know, corporate management to manage this. 


So you cannot really manage this. So the following reflection for me would be, can we think of a future of organizations where brand is not gonna be coherent anymore? And essentially you have more like a diversity of kind of brands inside the corporation that maybe can appeal to emerging dynamic tribes.


So essentially injecting into the very idea of branding, much more adaptability, much more, you know, kind of dynamism and fragmentation instead of the coherence we have been going through in the last few decades. What’s your thought on this?


John Robb 

Ya, the number of brands that can span all the tribal pressures is going to diminish, that’s for sure. I don’t think a single cohesive company can run multiple brands at the same time. It would have to be kind of more of a holding company structure where there’s like some distance between the companies. And so and I don’t even think that will happen organically. It would have, in the sense that it will, you know, it’s a planned approach. It will be probably done after the fact when a holding company starts buying up assets and, you know, saying, I want to add this kind of political tribal element to my portfolio. Um, and that you’re right, there’s no way you can get ahead of a tribe, right? You can’t, you can’t inoculate yourself because, uh, it’s a, it’s a.


And a tribal network tribes are inherently aggressive and they’re always looking for weakness. And once you, at least on the internal channels, let political discussions run wild, you can’t rein them back easily. You’re gonna have lots of dissent and it’s all gonna go online. The inside outside of the company is pretty open now. So has to be something that’s done at the very get-go.


And then I think you can, though, create a kind of a corporate culture in terms of civility. And if that’s, you know, that’s reinforced from the get-go and becomes like one of the major elements of being inside that company.


you can mitigate a lot of this. But once you start using coded language and you start using the kind of pattern matching that’s done outside to attack enemies, there’s nothing good that can come out of it because it’s anti, it’s against from the get go. And by using it, you’re opening yourself up for attack. And that goes left, right, doesn’t really matter. It’s just like, hey, they’re using that word. Boom, you know, that’s tough.


John Robb 

Yeah, that answer the question. Do you want me to take another stab at it?


Simone Cicero 

No, but I mean, I was, yeah, again, I was with Shruthi, we were talking in a chat and, you know, we were wondering about what could be classified as positive outcomes of this shift, okay? Let me frame it better and maybe see what you think. You said there’s no positive because it’s only anti, and I get it, but the point that I want to raise maybe on the other hand is,


We have seen the outcomes of industrial society, both from a perspective of industrialization of businesses and organizations and culture as well. So education, industrialization of culture, monolithic cultures and so on. And I wouldn’t say that, I mean, the debate is open. Many people say, you know, progress is going forward. Others say, you know, we’re not going to – does not really progress because we have climate change, we have inequality, we have global tensions and so on. So what is the silver lining, if any, in this transition?


John Robb 

Well, I mean, the early industrial revolution was pretty rough. Right. And, um, you know, we’re seeing the same thing with the kind of network revolution. And, um, you know, I, I would argue that on the whole, since the 1800s, we’ve seen a hell of a lot of progress. Things are a lot better than they were. And I just don’t think people have a sense of history to actually understand how, how absolutely brutal and tough it was even a hundred years ago.


And, um, from the conversational level and how people would even attack problems all the way down to the actual living conditions of most of humanity. And we’re seeing a global middle-class emerge everywhere. I mean, we’re talking billions of people all aspiring in and that obviously is having growing planes. It’s the maiden driver of climate change. you know, adding billions of people to the middle class and adding all the products and services and the air conditioning and the cars and everything else to that equation is driving this thing forward and it’s making it hard to solve. So we’ll figure it out. I mean, I have thinking on the climate change issue or just generally in terms of how things are becoming more chaotic, but that…


That’s focused on how global civilization has hit a global level and it is building up entropy until we get off the earth and we move into space and start developing space, not colonizing it, but using it to generate energy and acquire resources. Because, you know.


The underlying dynamic here is that global civilization was a dissipative system. And in thermodynamics, that’s a system that takes in energy to maintain a structure that’s far from thermodynamic equilibrium. And it gets more complex in time. It takes a lot more energy to do. That worked OK when the civilization was less or smaller than the Earth. The Earth was an external environment.


But once we hit the size of the Earth, the Earth is a closed thermodynamic system. It changes energy, but it doesn’t exchange matter. And that means that our dissipative system, our civilization, can’t acquire in a limited fashion the amount of energy it needs and expel the entropy. And that’s both physical and social entropy.


And the solution is to back up a little bit and say, okay, where do we want to be in 200 years? Well, there’s no way to get to that place without going into space, without building, you know, solar, solar arrays that are as wide as the earth is that are pumping out energy at 24 seven to our server farms and our cloud that’s based there, um, doing all the manufacturing based on, you know, thousands of years worth of materials and, uh, minerals that were mining off of asteroids, which is all a


We hit an asteroid the other day with an anti-asteroid missile. So we can get to asteroids and all the fuel that’s up there. So there is a potential solution to getting out of this current situation, the limitations, but until we start moving in that direction, I think the entropy is going to continue to accumulate and we’re going to have more and more problems that build up.


So that’s like a big picture. Somehow I segued into this big picture view of where we’re at. I’m working on a way to try to turn space into a gold rush. Remember how we built the internet in about five years? I mean, I was there in 93 working with the big telephone companies were working on interactive television. You remember that? Interactive television was kind of a top-down internet where they were going to start using network technologies to deliver channels and everything else. And it was just so expensive. It was going to cost them $100 billion to build, and they couldn’t figure out how much money they’re going to make from it. And


So they kind of stalled out and then this organic approach using, you know, copper wire and modems and modem farms. And then everyone was building their own, you know, sites using a very simple TCP IP standard started taking off and that grew into, um, a feeding frenzy where everyone was building out internet infrastructure, both at the site level, all the way down to the fiber. And the technology was advancing very, very quickly. And in about five, six years, we had a fully functional internet. I mean, there would have been, I mean, that’s trillions of dollars worth of investment in a very short period of time in problem solving that happened. So if we could do that based on this promise of this gold rush, of internet gold rush.


Can we do it with space? Can we do it in 10 years, what would normally take 100 years of government investment and slow but steady investment in that? Can we do it in 10 years and change the equation here on earth, like unlimited energy, unlimited resources, all externalized, entropy’s outside the earth, and we can focus on making the earth the place where we live better, without that kind of pressure, constant being applied to it.


And…Yeah, that’s my world changing aspiration. I’m on a project right now to make that happen. See if we can get that kicked off.


Simone Cicero 

Right, but I find it fascinating. I think I’ve read some of your comments on Facebook a few months ago and you made it very clear, this idea that on a finite biosphere, there is no other way to maintain, let’s say that the idea of progress that we have, then.


Going beyond that, so essentially trying to start sourcing materials outside of the biosphere and, you know, betting hard on space exploration and so on, which makes a lot of sense. I think the interesting points maybe to underline for our listeners is that until we get there, as you said, entropy is going to grow uncontrollably. So the question will be like, from a perspective of corporates and organizations, what are the kind of structures that we should be advising companies to adopt to live through this process? Because we basically didn’t figure out yet not even what happens after we solve the problem, the rest of the issues that we have, but the question would be like, how do we get there with a functional market and a functional society? So the question for you would be maybe, and I know that you have been introducing a lot of concepts like for example, that of being connected on your own terms, strategic disconnection. So how can we think of a few, patterns that organizations can embrace to be able, I don’t wanna say to three, but basically to adapt and evolve as entropy grows in the, possibly in the next decade or so.


John Robb

Yeah, a lot of the advice applies to individuals as well as corporations. It’s, uh, I like to stay politically neutral. My kids, they politically neutral helps them a lot of less stress on their brains and, and conversations, if you could do that. And then, um, I mean, I think the same applies to corporations and that gets you out of the whole tribal insanity. And then, um, in terms of resilience, and I did a whole thing on resilience, if things break down and things will break down, I mean, like in the U.S., in terms of electricity, we’ve flatlined our production, and that’s happening around the world. We haven’t produced any more than we have five years ago. It hasn’t really caused a problem because all the low-hanging fruit of efficiency has been kind of rung out of the system and now we’re down to the bedrock and we’re about to add electric cars. 


And everyone’s pushing back and saying, we’re not going to generate more electricity, but we’re adding electric cars to the equation. And it’s going to cause brownouts. And already blackouts in the US over the last five years have doubled in number and it’s going to keep on going. We’re going to see brownouts as a regular occurrence because there’s no one’s finding a way to add new energy to the system, even though it’s more demanding of it. So how do you deal with a system that is being constrained and has more problems meeting the needs of people and it starts to break down and brown out, both electricity and all the other things that we get from the system? Well,


You don’t want to take a kind of an isolation approach and do everything yourself. I mean, that’s very expensive and time consuming. It’s like growing all your own food. It would take all your time to grow your own food. It’s just not worth it. What you can do is build up the capacity and the skill sets necessary to replace what you’re missing for short periods of time. And so…


If things become too expensive for a short period of time or disconnected, you should be able to keep yourself going. So like in a data center is like, you have the capacity to keep your data center up and going for longer than the short blackout, just a couple of minutes. You have to have the battery capacity or the generated capacity to go longer, for weeks if necessary. I mean, I just had a blackout that was three, what? Two days.


And I have a whole house generator and I kept it up. I’ve built a couple data centers and so this is the same kind of thing. You’ll have to increase the timeline on how long you expect to be disconnected or things that need to be broken. You have to increase your security inside your corporation both from that cyber of course and the physical.


So I mean that from a resilience perspective is just, you know, connect on your own terms, be able to provide for yourself for short periods of time. Take a multimodal approach, don’t rely on one thing, try to increase the number of different ways that you connect to the system to allow you some, you know, diversity at the home level. It’s like, don’t have one way to heat your house. Have a couple. You know, I have a pallet stove, I have a, you know gas furnace and other things that, different fireplaces that do different things. And then if one is expensive or I don’t get delivery on it, then I can switch. I’m not like freezing the house and everything goes down. Same thing happens to corporations.


All right, so that’s kind of the resilience perspective to handling a high entropy environment. And we’re all gonna experience that. It’s just inevitable. Thermodynamics is kind of like the, if God had a law, that’s it. Thermodynamics, that’s the law of the universe. There’s no breaking it.


Simone Cicero 

So I just want to maybe draw some initial conclusions before we switch to maybe other topics. But I think from the initial conversation we had, we spoke about trying to be politically neutral. We spoke about embracing more diversity, so unbundling a little bit the corporation. You said something interesting, you said sometimes multiple brands for example can only come as a consequence of mergers and acquisitions. I would add that we are also experimenting with boundaryless some approaches to unbundling and rebundling the corporation. So thinking in terms of multiplying your value proposition, your brand proposition and also your political propositions.


May be a good option to multiply and be more resilient towards this kind of dynamics. But on a more structural basis, I think you said something again interesting about trying to secure your capability to resist the shocks. You spoke about what I perceived as multiplying your sourcing capabilities, so because essentially you may have some interruptions in your supply chain, so the idea of having nodes that are connected to more sources of suppliers, for example, and or even diverse routes to customers may be a good idea in terms of optionality for organization. So I think that was also good to recap for our listeners.


Shruthi, I know that you have a question coming up.


Shruthi Prakash 

Yes, actually I wanted to touch upon one of the points that you said earlier that you’ve taken a stance of some amount of political neutrality, but when it comes to organizations and how individuals play a group and on the parallel digital tribes are building, then where do…


Do individuals tend to, let’s say, de-individualize themselves in the sense that they sort of operate in group dynamics and participate in some sort of, you know, opposing belief systems probably to adhere to some amount of group dynamics? And where does all of this come into play when it comes to organizations aligning on a certain goals, right? So that’s something that I wanted you to touch upon a bit more.


John Robb 

Right. This kind of reorganization of social structure, very similar to what happened with the printing press. And then the printing press kind of launched the Reformation and Protestantism because it allowed the printed Bible and allowed people to spin off into all these different Splinter religions. And to a certain extent, the network tribalism we see now has a kind of a secular religious kind of overtone to it. It’s very evangelical, it’s very aggressive in many ways. So if you’re a corporation and you want to allow people to be individuals, you can try to embrace it to a certain extent and then focus. That’s where I say that you can’t have a brand that, brands for each different external tribal group inside the same corporation, because it has to be aligned throughout the entire thing. This, you know, it’s a cultural outgrowth. The brand has got to reflect the internal culture. So you could have corporations side by side, but you can’t have them all in the same house.


Yeah, the problem with allowing people to really express that kind of politicized tribal sentiment is that it’s kind of like, in the U.S., it’s like discussing politics and religion at Thanksgiving. I mean, if you’re a family and you enjoy everybody, if you start getting down that rabbit hole, it’s like it’s going to blow up. The whole table is going to go.


And when you combine politics and religion and the way this kind of networks dynamic has done, it blew up. As it did previously in Europe, it blew up Europe. I mean, it divided it. It turned into a complete mess. I mean, 30 years were, it was like bam, very, very bloody and very, very awful. We’re having kind of a smaller version of that right now.


But we’ll see, as time progresses, hopefully it stays this small. That doesn’t get worse. But yeah, discussing it at the dinner table is tough. And that’s kind of like, you know, company. You want to have cordial conversations. And so you got to keep it muted to the extent possible. Not combative, supportive, positive.


Simone Cicero

I was thinking, John, you know, you mentioned often that as a consequence of these dynamics, sometimes we see states align with corporates, right? I’m kind of wondering if this is a response that is the sole response that can ensure some kind of stability let’s say in the situation we live. 


So how do you think of this as a dynamic? Why is this emerging? This kind of neo, I don’t want to say neo-fascist, but fascism was, were known for the alignment of the corporate, let’s say, interest with the state. So why we are seeing that? And as people, what can we expect? How can we kind of counteract these dynamics and keep our markets free, let’s say.


John Robb 

Yeah, I’ve looked into this, you know, the three great systems of the 20th century battled it out, you know, communism and fascism and democracy slash capitalism. And most people, you know, when they talk about fascism, they think, you know, jackboots and racism and things like that, but that’s not the system.


The system was how do you organize bureaucracies, corporate bureaucracies, government bureaucracies to manage the society and the economy. And those three systems had three different ways of doing that. With communism you had an ideology, but there was single bureaucracy that managed everything, society and economy.


But the burden of actually doing that was too great. You had too few decision makers, and you couldn’t plan the future effectively, because you miss things, like computers and things like that. Having just one shoe because it was perfect is not the way to go about it. And then you had capitalism slash democracy, which tended to be messy, and it really wasn’t good at waging war which is how the contest between these systems was played out.


It tended to be messy because there was all these competing interests and corporations were given kind of a playing field where they could go out and compete. And as long as they didn’t go outside the boundaries of that playing field, everything was fine. And the government had a limited bureaucracy that managed certain things that fell through the cracks of that capitalist system. 


But the fascism said, OK, we can’t manage everything centrally like communism. We don’t want to have corporations do that for us and we’ll have corporations manage much more of the of the social system than democracy and capitalism does. But we also see them as competing interests. So how do we get everyone in this system working on the same solution. And they worked out a means of propaganda and goal setting. Germany called it Gleichschaltung. Those were the first three laws that they passed in Germany when Hitler took over. It was like, the Gleichschaltung laws was like on the same page, with the same focus. It’s how do you get all of these different bureaucracies solving the same problem?


That system was effective, but the means by which they achieved that unification was by creating enemies, common enemies. And what happens when you start creating a common enemy, it’s like threatening, it’s horrible, it’s about to get us, both internal and external, is that the severity and the immediacy of the danger of that enemy goes up and up and up, but the solutions needed to take care of that get more and more drastic. So ultimately you end up killing millions of people inside your country and you’re at war with everyone else, because all the countries outside of you are enemies, or most of them.


It was a self-defeating system. Fast forward to where we’re at now with networks. We have democratic capitalism is pretty much in charge of the system, but it’s been moving more and more and more towards a fascist model. That’s the kind of system that many people are advocating for in terms of how we should in the rest of the West eliminate the kind of chaos that we’re seeing sociopolitically is that we align everybody.


Towards this common goal, corporations and governments, and we all work together to do that. But unfortunately, the dynamic of tribalism that we’re using, like I said earlier, is an anti. It has the same, it’s against thing, it has enemies, it has patterns of behavior that they’re opposed to.


That dynamic has the same flaw the original fascism did, is that you end up creating new enemies, new people to target, new groups, new organizations, new countries. We saw a little bit of what that meant most recently when Russia invaded Ukraine. There was a network that was built up, a tribal network to oppose Trump. And It got very effective doing that, but it was waging a moral war against him. And Putin was lumped in with that. For many people, he was the architect of Trump’s election. As somebody who looks at this professionally and has been around the internet forever, I didn’t think the Russian contribution was much at all, but a lot of people would say otherwise. 


So when Putin invaded Ukraine All of that network immediately said, OK, he is the new Hitler. He’s everything that we said he was. That hatred reframed the whole invasion in war into something that was a clash of systems. We saw immediate move to turn into the new Cold War, discarding all the kind of traditional.


Cold War approaches that we had to dealing with another nuclear power, which is a very measured approach to containing them, controlling it, limiting the damage, trying to come up with a stable solution that would minimize casualties in Ukraine and prevent a larger war. We went whole hog into it. Thousands of companies joined the network opposing Russia, disconnecting Russia, getting kicking the amount of discussion groups, like shunning them as a whole and reframing it into this like replay of World War II and here’s Hitler coming to take all of Europe. And I mean, I’m not to offend people who think in that perspective, but it was extreme. And you know, from my perspective as somebody who studied my first paper and I wrote was about nuclear war. 


And the difficulties associated with deterrence, I mean, it is the most complex psychological problem anyone could ever attempt, is that.


We went right up during those initial phases to the edge of a potential nuclear release. And threats aside, you have to actually look through the noise of threats and dismissals of those threats and say, what would actually trigger a nuclear release? And we got close to that and the network that was, I called it the swarm, that was pushing for amplifying the war against Russia, didn’t care about nuclear release. They poo-pooed it. They said it was fine.


And nuclear weapons will never be used. And I’m like, what? And the reason why is I figured out that the swarm, the network didn’t have a sense of mortality. It didn’t think it would die. It doesn’t solve problems the way we do. It goes for maximal gains.


It wanted complete victory, wanted complete surrender of Russia. It won’t stop until that happens. Abdication, de-arming, denuclearization, I mean, that’s the goal of that network. And it completely disregards any kind of threats or mitigating factors. Has no nuance, there’s no nuance involved. There’s no kind of stable middle ground outcome. I mean, the kind of thinking that got us through the Cold War without blowing up the world. I mean, the John Kennan containment thinking, that kind of like, let’s not go too far here. Let’s try to work this out. Nobody’s really gonna be happy, but we don’t blow up the world kind of thinking. That let us survive the end of the 20th century without World War III and IV.


Yeah, the swarm doesn’t like that. It doesn’t like that nuance. It doesn’t like the compromise. So, uh, anyway, so it’s threat incidentally, I mean, based on everything I’ve seen, and I back channels on, on Musk, that was the reason he bought Twitter. You know, he, he saw that he was initial participant in it. And then he saw it picking up a momentum on Twitter. And then he said, Oh my God, this is dangerous. I have to, I have to buy this. And he did, and then he muted that conversation. He de-amplified it. So Ukraine as a topic started dropping down, and everything started to become less escalatory. Kind of saved us from ourselves. And for all the foibles and the errors and things that he’s done as a managing Twitter.


And it’s too bad it’s not as good as it used to be because so many people left. I mean, not the mechanics of how it works, it’s that people were protesting his ascension, his purchase. If he actually saved us from a nuclear catastrophe, I think it is actually a good thing. So, there we are.


Simone Cicero

Yeah, I mean, this last segment, I think, is really a testament to how things have changed in the last few decades. Really, you know, I cannot imagine having this conversation 10 or 20 years ago. We were all focused on innovations and the thesis was much more globalized. Let’s say even China had a very similar development thesis as we do. We on the West, I would say.


India as well, Shruthi is here, she’s an Indian. So we can make parallels with situations coming up in general in this regionalization of the discussion we are seeing. A lot more confrontation, more multipolar world and so on. And for example, as a testament again of how much overlapped and complicated things are.


So I think, again, it’s a manifestation of how much overlap things are. Even if I think of, for example, what’s happening in Europe, I think the last five years, and most likely also the years coming up, have been very much, I would say, influenced by decisions in terms of budget allocations from a EU perspective. So now we have a market that is at many levels entirely transformed and impacted by public policy, like allocation of capital on certain segments, for example, of the market, so EVs or sustainability, the Green New Deal, and so on. So I think it’s clear that the political agenda and the technology agenda and the corporate agendas are overlapping and we have to understand how to manage this complexity. 


So maybe as our last question before we move into the last bits, I would like to ask you to make an exercise of projecting a little bit of these dynamics in the next, I don’t know, I don’t want to say five years, but in the next cycle, let’s say. How is this cycle going to produce a sublimation and then maybe what comes next? I don’t know, what’s your feeling on this? Also pondering and considering new technological elements that are emerging, like AI or, you know, I know last time we spoke about virtual reality as well. So what is your perception in terms of how this mess is going to evolve over the short to midterm in the next two to three to five years?


John Robb 

Okay, one of the overarching frameworks I’m using is a permacrisis. So we’ll have a continual re-emergence of a crisis that’s on a global scale. Typically mishandled by governments and corporations and the response has been to add a little authoritarianism to the system. It’s like 9-11 militarizes the police in the United States and starts this whole global manhunt, you know, surveillance system or January 6th, most recently, started to control the information flows even more aggressively, the censorship complex. So these things, these authoritarian measures don’t go away, so they continue to accumulate.


And the dissent will become more and more strident and chaotic, complaining about the way that these crises have been handled. So if we’re getting more authoritarian, here comes AI and augmented reality. And my worry is they’re going to be misapplied. I mean,


You know, I testified in front of the Senate, you know, focusing on trying to get some digital rights and data ownership rights, where we own our data and our data is now being used to build these A highs. And we’re not getting any kind of, you know, ownership stake in what will become the most valuable technologies ever built. Right. And we’re talking technologies that in 10 years, probably worth tens of trillions of dollars. I mean, major segment of the global economy. And our data was used to train them and we’re not participating in it, or we’re like serfs, we’re just being stripped of mine for data and labor. But so that’s not, those reforms that would make this, the impact of these new technologies better aren’t being implemented.


What we’re seeing is kind of a concentration of power, and then you add AI to the mix, and you add concentration wealth and concentrated power, makes it even more so. There’s some dynamics on the warfare front, is that as you move into drones and AI drones and the like, you don’t need the large militaries anymore to have a large military force. You know, it turns more into kind of a feudal system.


One of the reasons why we have democracy and constitutional governance and people care about what everyone thinks is that you needed a lot of people for these big armies to fight wars. And like during the Cold War, I mean all of the civil rights and everything else at least was justified by a lot of the government types because it kept our ability to make war at a global level possible. Allows us to continue to have a multi-million man army.


And so AI kind of meets that. AI also plays a big role in the future of censorship and totalitarian kind of systems. Because it can, we’re already seeing this and the surprise of how good it’s getting and it’s how great it is coming from the civilian sector.


It can listen into the conversations of billions of people simultaneously, you know, on or offline, make sense of those conversations, kind of redirect them or punish the people involved or, you know, reward the people involved. And it could do it, you know, all at, in real time simultaneously. So you think about that, that’s like, it’s not much of a stretch from what we’re having. You can listen to it. You can read it.


It can see what you’re doing and parse it and make sense of the picture or make sense of the video and project as what you’re doing in that video. You know, a lot of a lot of rude people online. So let’s adopt these authoritarian measures and use AI to do that. That’s I think a wrong approach. And then you add AR into it. I think the way AR is going to play out is that there’s not a metaverse like a virtual space or you know, world that we all go to visit, kind of out of snow crash that doesn’t work.


Those are kind of unique environments that are mostly fantasy for gaming. Right. If you want to go to a specific world, you go to there like Skyrim or something like that, one of the popular games.


where AR augmented reality is going to be more important than VR, it’s going to add a digital layer to everything that’s around us. Now that’s going to be the metal layer that’ll allow you to redecorate your house, add soundtrack to your life. You could change what you’re wearing, change what other people perceive you to be wearing. You can beautify yourself, forget the makeup. It’s like, you already see hints of this on all the social media now.


You can put you in a mansion, right? Or you can have Martha Stewart redo, you know, every Christmas that you can share with other people visiting. You can look out your windows and see, you know, daylight every day, you know, late into the night because it can turn day into night, night to day to get rid of rain while you’re driving. All that stuff is coming, but the driver on that is going to be…


This is a replacement, this virtual replacement, this virtual sense of prosperity and goodness. Being able to talk to characters that are AI driven, that are in your life as a replacement for human beings, which might be good in certain circumstances, but people are gonna utilize these on a mass scale. These are gonna be seen as a replacement for the real world delivery of those items and prosperity.


And they’ll use climate change as a rationale for doing that. Say, OK, we’ve got to cut down on giving you the good stuff, the real stuff, the tangible stuff, the products and the services and the interaction and the communities that really work, but we’ll give you the virtual equivalent. So no matter what your life, as long as you’re getting fed a certain amount of calories and the like, everything else will look better. It’ll look pristine and amazing. And A virtual economy can get very, very big, and it can start creating its own weather. It also has lots and lots of people that just opt to live in it constantly, never want to leave mental problems and the dysfunction that’s going to be derived from that is going to be awful. The fact that we don’t, and I’ve also been pushing for open access platforms to deliver this. So there aren’t any gating or gatekeepers like we have with the app stores on the major smartphone platforms who could charge a 30% tax on all of that economy. I mean, could you imagine a virtual economy worth 20 trillion or 30 trillion dollars a year and Google or Facebook or OpenAI charges a 30% tax on it. And governments couldn’t even hope to make that kind of money.


No, we don’t want that. Also, they would control who can get on and what you can do. And we don’t want, as you move to AR slash AI tutors, like you can already see this in the educational space. When you, the open AI implementation right now can actually pass a freshman level Harvard course set with a 3.5 or 3.6 GPA average. So it can teach people at a college level. It can teach people at a variety of different levels. AI tutors that stay with people for their entire lives is very possible. And to the extent that will actually include elements outside of just pure academic knowledge, like social knowledge, we don’t want that controlled by one person or one group.


We want people to have some level of choice in what they choose to have their kids learn, whether it’s religious or social belief or whatever it is, ethnic customs, whatever you wanna incorporate, it should be the parent’s choice. And that, unless you have kind of an open platform, you’ll have that dictated. And,


the relationship between the AI as a developed personality and your kids are gonna be tighter than a lot of people imagine. And that’s, you know, once this hits in five years, you know, we’re already seeing the thing in the next year or so, but when you start to see the first major platform come out and it starts zooming with these AI, AR characters and the redo’s, it’s gonna take off as fast as the smartphone did, which came out in 2007 and by 2020, five billion people had it, right?


See this as like it’s going to go from zero to five billion people overnight probably even less time maybe ten years and we won’t know what hit us so easily but if it’s in the control of a few major corporations it’s going to be horrific


So open platforms, open access, digital rights, digital data ownership, simple rules. If we do it now, downstream is gonna be much, much better. And it’s gonna be bounded system. But if we don’t, damn, we’re headed for a world of hurt.


Simone Cicero

It looks like a very challenging task. It doesn’t look like we’re going to make it very easy. This idea of open metaverse, for example, or open LLM systems. It doesn’t look like we are on the good track, but good to.


John Robb 

But you can do it at a corporate level, right? If you’re an organization, in the next five years, organizations and corporations, everyone’s gonna start collecting data from their employees. Okay, and there are gonna be companies offering training on that data to create new employees, right? So you have to figure out how you’re gonna do that in equitable, I mean, not equitable in that same similar outcomes, that’s kind of a bad use of the term. Equitable meaning that they get piece of the action and the upside opportunity. Okay, is that, you know, if they give you data and they help train these AIs, they should participate in the success of that venture. 


And not necessarily through the stock or whatever, but it could be royalty. I’m suggesting royalties. But it could be, you know, stock ownership, but a meaningful stake, not like a pittance, like here’s a hundred shares or something like that. I mean, it’s something that, you know, a pool, a meaningful pool that the employee is contributing to that are participating in. And that’s above and beyond salary and bonuses and everything else, because they’re to a certain extent competing for their job and with those AIs once they train them. But that competition shouldn’t be zero sum. And if enough companies start adopting that practice, that can mitigate a lot of the downside of the year. The people that, the companies that don’t will stand out and be the companies that people avoid.


Shruthi Prakash

I think.


Yeah, I think what you were speaking about is really interesting. I remembered the book which I read three years back that really sort of influenced me, right? Like I remember reading Age of Surveillance Capitalism and a lot of it still holds true today and you know what you spoke about highly resonated with that, especially on the points of let’s say concentrated wealth and power and so on. So I think…


I mean the listeners I’m sure have learned a lot from you today, but we wanted to ask you if you have maybe any additional suggestions for books or podcasts or anything that basically inspires you. We call these breadcrumbs on our podcast, so anything that inspires you that our listeners can learn from as well.


John Robb

Okay, well, I suggest reading some books by Marshall McLuhan. They’re really kind of strange to read, but they’re worth reading. Anything about John Boyd? You know, mostly he just had some papers. Look up John Boyd, type pad, T-Y-P-E-P-A-D. I have a site that has a collection of his papers, some old videos, which are really crappy videos. But you know, reading those papers and reading his perspective on decision making will help. He never wrote a book, which was kind of his big failure, but, uh, and do that. Now, if you want a sense of where AR and AI is going, at least AR, uh, I’d suggest that if you, if you game.


You know, use Skyrim and the modded version of Skyrim. And you can see that there’s, you know, you use mod manager to load the mods off a site called Nexus, and there are hundreds of mods a week, thousands. And they can, they’ll let you modify every bit of behavior and scenery in the game. And that will give you a sense of how much control of your environment you will have, your sensory environment in the future.


And how like little changes to the color template that you’re using will have vast changes in your, your mood, from soundtracks to the AI driven characters that you’re interacting with. There’s even some mods that allow voice interaction with the characters and you can give them a backstory loaded into the AI that would allow them to respond like that character, which is really kind of cool and strange, but it’s all cutting edge because of this open environment that Bethesda made.


That’ll come to Starfield at some point, but it’s kind of unplayable right now.


That’d be a hands-on thing. And then, you know, a lot of my stuff on the Global Global Guerrillas Report, you know, the easiest way to get it is to go on Substack for that. There’s more complex stuff that you can get off of Patreon. But the easiest way to access that is through Substack. And I cover a lot of topics, usually two, three, four, five years ahead of time. So when it actually happens in practice, I’m kind of bored with it, so I don’t even talk about it. And everyone starts talking about it like, but I’ve already written a report about that, talked about it four years ago, and it’s not interesting to me now. So I let them all just go without participating in it.


But if you want to get a little ahead, yet my approach is very similar to what I did at Forrester was an analyst there. I build frameworks, paragraph, bullet, logical structure for understanding a rapidly changing environment, something I’m focusing on. And if you’re a decision maker making a decision in that environment, it’ll unfreeze you.


You know, because with too much change, you can’t, you don’t know what to invest in and what to do and how to respond. And it can be debilitating. And the framework can at least give you something to hang your hat on and start to kind of take the news and put it into the right cubby holes. You may or may not stick with the framework, but it allows you to modify it or expand on it or refute portions of it. But it unfreezes you and allows you to operate again. And I find that people tend to think that that’s beneficial to their future prosperity. A lot of people have made a lot of money reading my stuff, knowing how to think about things in a new environment. And it’s not even explicit financial advice, it’s just how to approach the world.


Simone Cicero

Thank you so much. I just was saying that three and a half ago we spoke about, for example, I recall we spoke about AR and VR and lots of the things you said, I’ve watched it that unfold in the Vision Pro advertising, for example. That was a very interesting and provocative reflection that I had before this conversation. So John, I mean, it was great. I hope you enjoyed our kind of provocative point and always far ranging questions.


John Robb

Oh yeah, it was fantastic. Thank you for having me. And nice meeting you, Shruthi.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you so much as well Shruthi for your always interesting points.


Shruthi Prakash 

Thank you. Thanks for having me as usual, Simone. And thank you, John. It was great listening to you.


John Robb 

All right, thank you. 


Simone Cicero 

So again, thank you both. Thank you both. And to our listeners, don’t forget, go to Boundaries.io/resources/podcast. You will find John’s episode with all the transcript and all the links, the show notes. And until we speak again, don’t forget, remember to think Boundaryless.