The meaning of network culture (1)

Network culture is not individualistic but relational. And relations are specific to every situation in a way that units of individual production, characterising the prior digital era, are not.
Kazys Varnelis
11 February 2010

This article is the first part of a series of articles on the topic, Network Culture. To read the other aticles, see The meaning of network culture part two, three and four.

Not all at once but rather slowly, in fits and starts, a new societal condition is emerging: network culture. As digital computing matures and meshes with increasingly mobile networking technology, society is also changing, undergoing a cultural shift. Just as modernism and postmodernism served as crucial heuristic devices in their day, studying network culture as a historical phenomenon allows us to better understand broader sociocultural trends and structures, to give duration and temporality to our own, ahistorical time.

If more subtle than the much-talked about economic collapse of fall 2008, this shift in society is real and far more radical, underscoring even the logic of that collapse. During the space of a decade, the network has become the dominant cultural logic. Our economy, public sphere, culture, even our subjectivity are mutating rapidly and show little evidence of slowing down the pace of their evolution. The global economic crisis only demonstrated our faith in the network and its dangers. Over the last two decades, markets and regulators had increasingly placed their faith in the efficient market hypothesis, which posited that investors were fundamentally rational and, fed information by highly efficient data networks, would always make the right decision. The failure came when key parts of the network – the investors, regulators, and the finance industry – failed to think through the consequences of their actions and placed their trust in each other.

The collapse of the markets seems to have been sudden, but it was actually a long-term process, beginning with bad decisions made longer before the collapse. Most of the changes in network culture are subtle and only appear radical in retrospect. Take our relationship with the press. One morning you noted with interest that your daily newspaper had established a website. Another day you decided to stop buying the paper and just read it online. Then you started reading it on a mobile Internet platform, or began listening to a podcast of your favourite column while riding a train. Perhaps you dispensed with official news entirely, preferring a collection of blogs and amateur content. Eventually the paper may well be distributed only on the net, directly incorporating user comments and feedback. Or take the way cell phones have changed our lives. When you first bought a mobile phone, were you aware of how profoundly it would alter your life? Soon, however, you found yourself abandoning the tedium of scheduling dinner plans with friends in advance, instead coordinating with them en route to a particular neighbourhood. Or if your friends or family moved away to university or a new career, you found that through a social networking site like Facebook and through the every-present telematic links of the mobile phone, you did not lose touch with them.

If it is difficult to realize the radical impact of the contemporary, this is in part due to the hype about the near-future impact of computing on society in the 1990s. The failure of the near-future to be realized immediately, due to the limits of the technology of the day, made us jaded. The dot.com crash only reinforced that sense. But slowly, technology advanced and society changed, finding new uses for it, in turn spurring more change. Network culture crept up on us. Its impact on us today is radical and undeniable.

Network culture extends the information age of digital computing (see Tiziana Terranovas Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age) But it is also markedly unlike the PC-centred time that culminated in the 1990s. Indeed, in many ways we are more distant from the era of PC-centred computing than it was from the time of centralized, mainframe-based computation. To understand this shift, we can usefully employ Charlie Gere's insightful discussion of computation in Digital Culture. In Gere's analysis, the digital is a socioeconomic phenomenon as much as a technology. Digital culture, he observes, is fundamentally based on a process of abstraction that reduces complex wholes into more elementary units. Tracing this process of abstraction to the invention of the typewriter, Gere identifies digitization as a key process of capitalism. By separating the physical nature of commodities from their representations, digitization enables capital to circulate more freely and rapidly. In this ability to turn everything into quantifiable, interchangeable data, digital culture is universalizing. Gere cites the universal Turing machine – a hypothetical computer first described by Alan Turing in 1936, capable of being configured to do any task – as the model for not only the digital computer but also for that universalizing aspect of digital culture (see Charlie Gere, Digital Culture, London: Reaktion Books).

But today connection is more important than division. In contrast to digital culture, in network culture information is less the product of discrete processing units than of the networked relations between them, of links between people, between machines, and between machines and people.

Perhaps the best way to illuminate the difference between digital culture and network culture is to contrast their physical sites. The digital era is marked by the desktop microcomputer, displaying information through a heavy CRT monitor, connected to the network via dial-up modem or perhaps through a high-latency first-generation broadband connection. In our own day, there is no such dominant site. The desktop machine is increasingly relegated to high-end applications such as graphic rendering and cinema-quality video editing, or is employed for specific, location-bound functions (at reception desks, to contain secure data, as point-of-sale terminals, in school labs, and so on) while the portable notebook or laptop has taken over as the most popular computing platform. Unlike the desktop, the laptop can be used anywhere: in the office, at school, in bed, in a hotel, in a café, the train or plane. Not only are networks an order of magnitude faster than they were in the dial-up days of the PC, but Wi-Fi makes them easily accessible in many locations. Smart phones such as the Blackberry, Google G1, and the iPhone complement the laptop, bringing connectivity and processing power to places that even laptops cannot easily inhabit, such as streets, subways or automobiles. But such ultra-portable devices are also increasingly competing with the computer, taking over functions that were once in the universal device's purview. What unites these machines is their mobility and their interconnectivity, making them ubiquitous companions in our lives and key interfaces to global telecommunications networks. In a prosaic sense, the Turing machine is already a reality, but it takes the form not of one machine, but of many. With minor exceptions, the laptop, smart phone, cable TV set top box, game console, wireless router, iPod, iPhone, and Mars rover are the same device, becoming specific only in their interfaces, their mechanisms for input and output, for sensing and acting upon the world. Instead, the new technological grail for industry is a universal, converged network, capable of distributing audio, video, Internet, voice, text chat, and any other conceivable networking task efficiently.

Increasingly, the immaterial production of information and its distribution through the network is the dominant organizational principle for the global economy. To be clear, we are far from the world of immaterial production. We manufacture physical things, even if increasingly that manufacturing happens in the developing world. Moreover, the ease of obtaining goods manufactured far away is due to the physical network of global logistics. Sending production offshore – itself a consequence of new network flows – may put it out of sight, but doesn't reduce its impact on the Earth's ecosystem. And, beyond global warming, even in the developed world there are consequences: Silicon Valley contains more EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) Superfund sites than any other county in the nation. But as Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells have concluded, regardless of our continued dependency on the physical, the production of information and the transmission of that information on networks is the key organizing factor in the world economy today. Although other ages have had their networks, ours is the first modern age in which the network is the dominant organizational paradigm, supplanting centralized hierarchies (see Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, second edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001; Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, second edition, New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2000; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000; Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). The ensuing condition, as Castells suggests in The Rise of the Network Society, is the product of a series of changes: the change in capital in which transnational corporations turn to networks for flexibility and global management, production, and trade; the change in individual behaviour, in which networks have become a prime tool for individuals seeking freedom and communication with others who share their interests, desires and hopes; and the change in technology, in which people worldwide have rapidly adopted digital technology and new forms of telecommunication in everyday life.

As we might expect, the network goes even further, extending deeply into the domain of culture. In the same way that network culture builds on digital culture, it builds on the culture of postmodernism outlined by Fredric Jameson in his seminal essay "Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism," first written in 1983 and later elaborated upon in a book of the same title. For Jameson, postmodernism was not merely a stylistic movement but rather a broad cultural determinant stemming from a fundamental shift to the socioeconomic phase of history that economist Ernest Mandel called "late capitalism". Both Mandel and Jameson concluded that society had been thoroughly colonized by capital under late capitalism and any remaining pre-capitalist forms of life had been absorbed (see Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1991). Mandel situated late capitalism within a historical model of long-wave Kondratieff cycles. These economic cycles, comprised of twenty-five years of growth followed by twenty-five years of stagnation, provided a compelling model of economic history following a certain rhythm: fifty years of Industrial Revolution and handcrafted steam engines culminating in the political crises of 1848; fifty years of machined steam engines lasting until the 1890s; electric and internal combustion engines underwriting the great modern moment that culminated in World War II; and the birth of electronics marking the late capitalism of the postwar era (see Mandel, Late Capitalism, Verso: London, 1978).

This article is the first part of a series of articles on the topic, Network Culture. To read the other aticles, see The meaning of network culture part two, three and four.

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