Unthinking the network

Ulises Mejias writes a very thought-provoking post Disassembled Spaces. He makes the point that if we are not able to ensure that a substantial part of our social and cultural production over the Internet is controlled openly rather than by a handful of private corporations, should we begin “unthinking the network”? He explores many dimensions of the concept in his post The tyranny of nodes.

He calls upon us to think of “open space as an un-thinking of the digital network”. According to him, the digital network creates inequality. It “(network) undermines productive forms of sociality by over-privileging the node”. He states “to the extent that the network is composed of nodes and connections between nodes, it discriminates against the space between the nodes, it turns this space into a black box, a blind spot” .

By reinforcing a “stay-in network”, the network “(becomes) an epistemology, a way of interpreting the world, a model for organizing reality.” To the extent that, quoting Vandenberghe, “the economy is no longer embedded in the society… society is embedded in the economy”.

I am inclined to believe this is true with my experiences while learning Economics at the post-graduate level. My professor applied game theoretic techniques to try and solve a village-level problem of contracts between a moneylender, a landlord and a tenant. To my then, and still, ignorant mind, it was ludicrous to reduce the problem to strict assumptions of rationality that economists need to make. They ignored the spaces in the network – the politics of fear and repression that exists at the village level in India. Perhaps it contributed to my disenchantment with the subject.

But it is also true of any theory or opinion that seeks to abstract meaning from an otherwise complex world. Perhaps thinking about a “continuum” between nodes is necessary but may not imply that any thinking that doesn’t incorporate these notions is infructuous. In fact, one could argue that since the “continuum” is infinite, it is not amenable to analysis at all.

Ulises agrees when he states “Surely, we cannot pay attention to everything, and as a result we have developed self-interested strategies (predating networks) for making some things more relevant than others” and concludes with the following:

My point is that although self-interest might be a functional principle to organize networks, even at a local level, it might not be sustainable as the basis for a social ethics, which requires a degree of selfless engagement. If we are going to go with the network metaphor, we need a praxis and an ethics, for engaging with the world beyond our interests, which means accounting for the space between nodes, becoming invested in the non-nodal.

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