The meaning of network culture (3)

In this series of articles Kazys Varnelis explores the meaning of network culture
Kazys Varnelis
11 February 2010

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

In network theory, a node's relationship to other networks is more important than its own uniqueness. Similarly, today we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the product of multiple networks composed of both humans and things. This is easily demonstrated through some everyday examples. First, take the way the youth of today affirm their identities. Teens create pages on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. On these pages they list their interests as a set of hyperlinked keywords directing the reader to others with similar interests. Frequently, page creators use algorithms to express (and thereby create) their identities, for example, through a Web page that, in return for responses to a set of questions, suggests what "chick flick" character the respondent is. At the most reductive, these algorithms take the form of simple questionnaires to be filled out and posted wholesale on one's page. Beyond making such links, posting comments about others and soliciting such comments can become an obsessive activity. Affirming one's own identity today means affirming the identity of others in a relentless potlatch. Blogs operate similarly. If they appear to be the public expression of an individual voice, in practice many blogs consist of material poached from other blogs coupled with pointers to others in the same network – for example trackbacks (notifications that a blogger has posted comments about a blog post on another blogger's blog) or blogrolls (the long lists of blogs that frequently border blog pages). With social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us or the social music platform last.fm, even the commentary that accompanies blog posts can disappear and the user's public face turns into a pure collection of links. Engaging in telepresence by sending SMS messages to friends or calling family on a mobile phone has the same effect: the networked subject is constituted by networks both far and near, large and small. Like the artist, the networked self is an aggregator of information flows, a collection of links to others, a switching machine.

Along with this change in the self comes a new attitude toward privacy. Many blogs reconfigure the personal and the public, as individuals reveal details that had previously been considered private. The idea of locks on diaries today seems almost preposterous as individuals, particularly teenagers, discuss their most intimate – and illicit – details online. Meanwhile, advances in computation and networking have made it possible to store data on individuals to a greater degree than ever imaginable. As debit cards and other technologies replace cash, our actions, be they online or out on the town, leave behind a trail of information. Corporations routinely track what websites individuals visit at work. In the wake of 9/11, governments have taken to recording more and more communications traffic, even when that recording is of questionable legality. As tracking increases, advances in data mining mean that those wishing to find information can do so more easily than ever before.

But if this degree of surveillance conjures images of George Orwell's 1984, there has been relatively little protest. That Watergate undid Nixon seems impossible in retrospect. To some degree this is the case of what security researcher Ross Anderson calls "boiling the frog" (a frog in a pot of water doesn't notice when the temperature of the water is raised incrementally, and it boils to death). Nevertheless, it also underscores the degree to which privacy is no longer important in this culture. As the subject is increasingly less sure of where the self begins and ends, the question of what should be private and what not fades.

In network culture, then, the waning of the subject that began under postmodernism grows ever greater. But whereas in postmodernism, being was left in a free-floating fabric of emotional intensities, today it is found in the net. The Cartesian "I think therefore I am" dissolves in favour of an affirmation of existence through the network itself, a phantom individuality that escapes into the network, much as meaning escapes into the Derridean network of différance, where words are defined by other words, significance endlessly deferred in a ceaseless play of language (see Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). The division between the self and the net that Castells observed a decade ago is undone.

Nor are the networks that make up the contemporary self merely networks of people. On the contrary, they are also networks between people and things. In Bruno Latour's analysis, things are not merely objects that do our bidding but are key actors in the network. As things get smarter and smarter, they are ever more likely to make up larger parts of our "selves". An iPod is nothing less than a portable generator of affect with which we paint our environment, creating a soundtrack to life. A Blackberry or telephone constantly receiving text messages encourages its owner to submit to a constantly distracted state, a condition much lamented by many (see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; Patricia Pearson, "Are BlackBerry Users the New Smokers?" USATODAY.com, December 12, 2006)

It is in this context that networked publics form (See Kazys Varnelis, editor, Networked Publics, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008). Apart from the loss of the self, of all the changes that network culture brings us, the reconfiguration of the public sphere is likely to be the most significant, a distinction that makes our moment altogether unlike any other in three centuries. After the Enlightenment, the public came to be understood as a realm of politics, media, and culture, a site of display and debate open to every citizen while; in turn, the private was broadly understood as a realm of freedom, inwardness, and individuality. The public sphere was the space in which bourgeois culture and politics played out, a theatre for bourgeois citizens to play their role in shaping and legitimating society. In its origin as a body that the king would appear to, the public is by nature a responsive, reflexive, and thereby a responsible and empowered entity. Founded on the sovereign's need for approval during the contentious later years of the aristocracy (an approval that eventually was withdrawn), the public sphere served as a check on the state. In that respect, the public sphere served in the same capacity as media: at the same time as the emergence of the newspaper, the gallery, the novel, modern theatre, music, and so on, the public produced voices of criticism. Even if the equation of public space and public sphere was a problematic, by understanding media as a space (or conversely space as a medium), it was nevertheless possible to draw a rough link between the two.

As many theorists observed, the twentieth century was witness to a long, sustained decline in the public sphere. In Habermas' analysis, this came about due to the contamination of the public sphere by private matters, most crucially its colonization by capital and the consequent transformation of the media from a space of discourse to a commodified realm. As media concentrated in huge conglomerates more interested in the marketing of consensus than in a theatre of deliberation, and with little use for genuinely divergent positions, mass media sought consensus in the middle ground, the political apparatus that Arthur Schlesinger called "the vital centre" (see Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cummings, New York: Continuum, 1991; first published in English translation, Herder and Herder, 1972; originally published in German as Dialektik der Aufklärung, Amsterdam: Querido, 1944).  The model of the public became one-way, the culture industry and the political machine expecting approval or, at most, dissent within a carefully circumscribed set of choices.

Public space was not left unmolested. On the contrary, it was privatized, thoroughly colonized by capital, less a place of display for the citizen and more a theatre of consumption under high security and total surveillance (see The classic work here is Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976). In postmodernism, the condition seemed virtually total, the public privatized, reduced to opinion surveys and demographics. If there was hope for the public sphere, it came in the form of identity politics, the increasing voices of counter-publics composed of subaltern peoples (in the developed world this would have been non-whites, gays, feminists, youth, and so on), existing in tension with the dominant public. But if counterpublics could define and press their cases in their own spheres, for the broader public they were marginalized and marginalizing entities, defined by their position of exclusion.  Toward the end of postmodernism in the early 1990s, even identity politics became colonized, understood by marketers as another lifestyle choice among many (see for example, Steven Kates, Twenty Million New Customers: Understanding Gay Men's Consumer Behavior, Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 1998). But if this was the last capitulation of the old publics as an uncommodified realm for discourse, it was also the birth of networked publics.

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