The meaning of network culture (4)

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

This article is the final 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 three.

Today, we inhabit multiple overlapping networks, some composed of those very near and dear to us, others at varying degrees of remove. The former are private and personal, extensions of intimate space that are incapable of forming into networked publics. Interest communities, forums, newsgroups, blogs, on the other hand, are sites for individuals who are generally not on intimate terms to encounter others, sometimes with the goal of making acquaintance, sometimes on a deliberately anonymous and ephemeral level. These networked publics are not mere consumers. On the contrary, today's political commentary and cultural criticism are as much generated from below as from above. From the deposal of Trent Lott to Rathergate, networked publics have drawn attention to issues that traditional media outlets missed or were reluctant to tackle.

The idealized model for networked publics is, as Yochai Benkler suggests, that of a "distributed architecture with multidirectional connections among all nodes in the networked information environment" (see Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) This vision of the network, commonly held as a political ideal for networked publics and sometimes misunderstood as the actual structure on which the Internet is based, is taken from RAND researcher Paul Baran's famous model of the distributed network. Where centralized networks are dominated by one node to which all others are connected, and decentralized networks are dominated by a few key nodes in a hub and spoke network, under the distributed model, each node is equal to all others (see Baran, On Distributed Communications. For a discussion of Baran's model and the Internet see Varnelis, "The Centripetal City: Telecommunications, the Internet, and the Shaping of the Modern Urban Environment," Cabinet Magazine 17, Spring 2004/2005; Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999). Baran's diagram has been taken up as a foundation myth for the Internet, but not only was Baran's network never the basis for the Internet's topology, it bears little resemblance to the way networked publics are organized. Benkler points out that the distributed model is merely ideal, and if we seek a networked public sphere with everyone a pamphleteer, we will be disappointed. Networked publics are by no means purely democratic spaces in which every voice can be heard. That would be cacophony. But, Benkler continues, if we compare our current condition to the mass media of the 1990s and earlier, we can observe real changes. Barriers for entry into the public sphere have been greatly reduced. It is possible for an individual or group of individuals to put out a message that can be heard globally with relatively little expense.

Still, there are very real threats to the networked public sphere, and Benkler, like many other theorists, warns of them (see Richard Rogers, Information Politics on the Web, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).  In terms of infrastructure, the decentralized structure of the Internet allows governments, like the Chinese, to censor information they deem inappropriate for public consumption and the United States's National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor private Internet traffic. So far, networked publics have found ways of routing around such damage, providing ways of getting around China's censorship and exposing the NSA's infamous room at the AT&T switching station in San Francisco (see See "Boing Boing's Guide to Defeating Censorship,"; Ryan Singel, "Whistle-Blower Outs NSA Spy Room," Wired.com).

But a centralization that emerged from within networked publics would also be a danger. Manuel de Landa observes that networks do not remain stable but, rather, go through different states as they evolve (see De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, New York: Zone Books, 1997). Decentralized and distributed models give rise to centralized models, and vice versa, as they grow. The emergence of networked publics just as mass media seemed dominant is a case in point. In his work on blog readership, Clay Shirky notes that diversity plus freedom of choice results in a power-law distribution. Thus, a small number of A-list bloggers attracts the majority of the readers. If tag-oriented search engines like Technorati or del.icio.us attempt to steer readers into the long tail of readership, they also reinforce the A-list by making evident the number of inbound links to any particular site (see Clay Shirky, "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality," e-mail to Networks, Economics, and Culture mailing list, February 8, 2003).Moreover, even if such sites, together with Google, MyTube, Netflix, iTunes, and other search engines, successfully redirect us to the long tail, together they form an A-list of the big aggregators. For now most of these are catholic in what content they include, but it is entirely possible this may change.

The long tail may prove to be a problem for another reason, what Robert Putnam calls "cyberbalkanization" (see Robert Putnam, "The Other Pin Drops," Inc., May 16, 2000, 79; Carl R. Sunstein, "Democracy and Filtering," Communications of the ACM, 47, no 12 (December 2004) Given the vast number of possible clusters one can associate with, it becomes easy to find a comfortable niche with people just like oneself, among other individuals whose views merely reinforce one's own. If the Internet is hardly responsible for this condition, it still can exacerbate it, giving us the illusion that we are connecting with others. Through portals like news.google.com or my.yahoo.com and, even more so, through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) readers, Nicholas Negroponte's vision of the "Daily Me", a personalized newspaper freshly constructed for us every morning and tailored to our interests, is a reality. Even big media, under pressures of post-Fordist flexible consumption, has fragmented into a myriad of channels. But this desire for relevance is dangerous. It is entirely possible to essentially fabricate the outside world, reducing it to a projection of oneself. Rather than fostering deliberation, blogs can simply reinforce opinions between like-minded individuals. Conservatives talk to conservatives while liberals talk to liberals. Lacking a common platform for deliberation, they reinforce existing differences. Moreover, new divisions occur. Humans are able to maintain only a finite number of connections, and as we connect with others at a distance who are more like us, we are likely to disconnect with others in our community who are less like us. Filters too can lead to grotesque misrepresentations of the world, as in the case of happynews.com ("Real News. Compelling Stories. Always Positive.").

Another salient aspect of network culture is the massive growth of non-market production. Led by free, open-source software such as the Linux operating system (run by 25 per cent of servers) and the Apache Web server (run by 68 per cent of all websites), non-market production increasingly challenges the idea that production must inevitably be based on capital. Produced by thousands of programmers who band together to create software that is freely distributed and easily modifiable, non-market products are increasingly viable as competitors to highly capitalized products by large corporations.

Similarly, cultural products are increasingly being made by amateurs pursuing such production for networked audiences. Sometimes producers intend such works to short-circuit traditional culture markets, speeding their entry into the marketplace or getting past barriers of entry. At other times, such as in the vast Wikipedia project, producers take on projects to attain social status or simply for the love of it. Often these producers believe in the importance of the free circulation of knowledge outside of the market, giving away the rights to free reproduction through licensing such as Creative Commons and making their work freely accessible on the Internet. But such peer-to-peer production also faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, it is still unclear if the burgeoning fan culture is critical, or if it only re-inscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.

By no means are network culture and the network economy limited to the developed world. Network culture envelops the entire world. If imperialist capitalism used the developing world for its resources and manual labour, and late capitalism exported manufacturing, networked capital exports intellectual labour and services.

But outsourcing is only a start. The mobile phone has revolutionized communication in the developing world, often leapfrogging existing structures. Due to the absence of any state apparatus that might regulate its phone system, Somalia, for example, has the most competitive communication market in Africa. Nor is innovation in the developing world likely to cease. The developed world has only lukewarmly adopted mobile phones as platforms for connecting to the Internet, but for the majority of the world's inhabitants, such devices are likely to be the first means by which they will encounter the Internet. History suggests that as different societies pass through similar levels of economic development at different times, unique cultural conditions emerge (Britain, the first country to industrialize, developed the Arts and Crafts movement, and some fifty years later Germans responded to industrialization with the Deutscher Werkbund). The developing world's reshaping of the Internet through the mobile phone will almost certainly be utterly unlike what we have experienced.

All too often, discussions of contemporary society are depicted in the rosiest of terms. Sometimes this relentless optimism is a product of fatigue with outmoded models of criticism; sometimes this is just industry propaganda. But to be sure, network culture is not without its flaws. Many of these are nothing new, mere extrapolations of earlier conditions. As with modernism, and postmodernism before it, network culture is the superstructural effect of a new wave of capital expansion around the globe, and with it comes the usual rise in military conflict. Today's new wars are network wars, with networked soldiers and unmanned search-and-destroy flying drones fighting networked guerillas in what Castells once dubbed the "black holes of marginality", spaces left outside the dominant network but increasingly organized by networks of their own. Closer to home, as Deleuze points out, the subtler, modulated forms of control in network culture mask themselves, above all in the idea that resistance is outmoded. This position, which Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have dubbed the "Californian Ideology", suggests that technology is inherently emancipatory, that the network is both a space of self-realization and a natural road to a greater democratic government. In network culture, the idea that the corporation has a soul (which Deleuze declared "the most terrifying news in the world") and that the primary route by which individuals can achieve self-realization is through work, is commonplace, if perhaps treated with a little more scepticism since the collapse of the dot-com boom.[45] Moreover, as we explore the long tail, we are tracked and traced relentlessly, and as we are monitored, Deleuze concludes, we wind up internalizing that process – so as to better monitor ourselves.

If we have largely looked toward the utopian, positive moment in network culture, we note new threats emerging as well. Sensing that their day is done and that the means of production are in public hands, many large media outlets are fighting to extend their power through legislation, especially through radical modifications of the copyright law to prolong its length and expand its scope. Another danger comes from telecoms, some of which dearly miss the monopoly status once enjoyed by the former AT&T. They hope to find salvation by controlling the means of distribution, profiting from giving privilege to certain network streams over others. Meanwhile RFIDs and the ever-growing digital trail of information that we leave behind suggest that in the near future our every action could be tracked, not just by the government but by anyone able to pay for that information as well.

Whether network culture plants the seeds of greater democratic participation and deliberation, or whether it will only be used to mobilize already like-minded individuals, remains to be seen. The question we face at the dawn of network culture is whether we, the inhabitants of our networked publics, can reach across our micro-clustered worlds to coalesce into a force capable of understanding the condition we are in. Can we produce positive change, preserving what is good about network culture and changing what is bad – or are we doomed to dissipate into the network?

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