Networks have become a powerful metaphor to explain the social realities of our times. Everywhere we look there are attempts to explain all kinds of social formations in terms of networks: citizen networks, corporate networks, gamer networks, terrorist networks, learning networks… and so on. Information and communication technologies—in particular the internet—and the structures they enable have greatly influenced how we imagine the social. It’s similar to what happened in cognitive science when the computer was taken as the favored metaphor for explaining how the brain works, except that now we are attempting to explain how the social works.
But is there something anti-social about imagining and organizing our social realities in terms of networks?
Most critiques of the rise of the network as a model for organizing social realities focus on what it has replaced: tightly-woven, location-specific communities (a community itself can be defined as a particular kind of network, but for the moment let’s stick to these conventional terms). Wellman (2002) traces how social formations have developed from densely-knit traditional communities to sparsely-knit but still location-specific “Glocalized” networks (think cities connected to other cities), to networks unbound to any specific physical space, or what he calls Networked Individualism, where “people remain connected, but as individuals rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household.” (p. 5)
Thus, an important characteristic of Networked Individualism is the overcoming of physical space. Today’s networks connect individuals regardless of the distance between them. This has led various authors to announce—some with glee and some with regret —the Death of Distance. But more than its elimination, Networked Individualism promotes the reconfiguration of distance: it is not only our relatonship to the far that is changed, but also our relationship to the near. Of course, early on critics sensed a threat to the near in this reconfiguration, and saw in Networked Individualism the destruction of communal location-specific forms of sociality (i.e., the irrelevancy of the near). However, this has not proven to be necessarily the case, as Network Individualism can play a part in (re)connecting people to the local. The network then also becomes a model for “reapproaching nearness” (Mejias, 2005), with the added benefit that nearness now encompasses new forms of global awareness.
But this is where it starts to get tricky. Reapproaching the local thorough the network is not simply a case of arriving right back where we started after a process of dislocation and re-location. It’s not simply reaching our nose through the back of our head. The near that the network delivers is a slightly different near, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
It’s true that our relation to the near has always been regulated by some thing or other. Mediation between the individual and the world is not an invention of the network. But the point is to try to understand how the network mediates our understanding of the world, and how the network’s particular kind of mediation competes or participates with other forms of sociality.
My thesis is that the network undermines productive forms of sociality by over-privileging the node. It might be difficult to see this because nodes are not anti-social (they thrive by forming links to other nodes), nor are they anti-local (they link to nodes in their immediate surrounding just as easily as they link to other nodes). But what I am trying to say is that 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. In other words, networks promote nodocentrism. In this reconfiguration of distance, new ‘nears’ become available, but the ‘far’ becomes the space between nodes. To ignore this dark matter is to ignore the very stuff on which the network is suspended, much like the fish ignoring the water around it.
How is internodal space collapsed? If roads and highways connect any two nodes, they also allow for the commuter to quickly bypass the space between the nodes. Those locations may be nodes in other networks, but from the perspective of the two nodes being connected, they do not matter. Of course, for networks unbound by physicality, the nature of what is black boxed is different. Wellman (2002) writes:
The Internet both provides a ramp onto the global information highway and strengthens local links within neighborhoods and households. For all its global access, the Internet reinforces stay-at-homes. Glocalization occurs, both because the Internet makes it easy to contact many neighbors, and because fixed, wired Internet connections tether users to home and office desks. (p. 4)
The point here is not so much that the Internet forces people to stay at home, and that it black boxes one’s surroundings. After all, the promise of pervasive computing and ‘the internet of things’ (incorporating objects outside the network into it) is that nodes becomes physically unbound, mobile, “ubiquitous.” The point is that instead of stay-at-home, the Internet reinforces stay-in-network. One can have all the interlinking of nodes one wants both at a local and global level, but one must remain in the network; one must adopt the network’s ontology of what constitutes a node, how links between nodes are to be established, and how to collapse the space between nodes (and I’m not even going to go, for a change, into issues of who controls and regulates the network). The network is an epistemology, a way of interpreting the world, a model for organizing reality.
We are told not to fuss about the space between nodes, because everything is a potential node and can be added to the network. Actor-network theory tells us to ‘follow the actors’ to uncover what kind of links they form with other nodes, thus giving us the framework to consider everything a node. But a network is the opposite of continuous space, so no matter how many nodes we add there will always be, necessarily, space between nodes. Without that space, there would simply be no network.
So what are the consequences of interpreting the social as a network? According to Vandenberghe (2002), scientific explanations of social realities as networks flatten the richness of symbolism and replace it with causality, reducing interaction to economic exchange governed purely by interest. In other words, social network theories fail to account for the ontological differences between humans and non humans, explaining human agency in dehumanized terms:
Being-in-the-world among humans and non humans is systematically displaced by a formal, atomistic, intellectualistic and pseudo-economic analysis of the vulgar interests of humans who link up with other humans and non humans, translating their interests in a reciprocal exploitation of each other’s activity for the satisfaction of the personal interests of each of the parties involved. Humans are thus no longer seen as co-operative ants, but as egoistic ‘r.a.t.s’ – i.e. as rational action theorists who behave like ‘centres of calculation’, strategically associating and dissociating humans and non humans alike, pursuing their own political ends by economic means. Conclusion: when science enters in action, meaningful action disappears and all we are left with is a pasteurized and desymbolized world of strategically acting dehumanized humans, or humants. (p. 55, my emphasis)
Not only are such explanations bound to yield limited understandings of the world, but when actualized as models for organizing the social, they institutionalize an individualistic form of interest as the only viable motive for cooperation. It might not seem like networked individualism is anti-social at first, because networks thrive on forming social links. But in the long term, the effect of reducing the social to transactions of capital (even if it is non-monetary ‘social’ capital) is detrimental, since it subordinates the social to the rules of exchange. At that point, as Vandenberghe argues, “the economy is no longer embedded in the society… society is embedded in the economy” (p. 58).
The tyranny imposed by social network theories is that a node acknowledges only other nodes, and can relate to those nodes only in terms of commodified exchange. If something is not a node, it cannot be engaged in exchange, and therefore it has no value. Nodes take for granted the internodal space that supports the network (and it is often a question of literally “supporting” the network through the labor and decisions that happen in those dark internodal spaces). ‘So what?’ some might ask. 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. 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.
Mejias, U. 2005, Re-approaching nearness: Online communication and its place in praxis. First Monday, vol. 10, no. 3. Retrieved April 28, 2005 from http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_3/mejias/index.html
Vandenberghe, F. (2002). Reconstructing Humants: A Humanist Critique of Actant- Network Theory. Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 19(5/6): 51–67. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE.
Wellman, B. (2002). Little boxes, glocalization, and networked individualism. In M. Tanabe, P. van den Besselaar & T. Ishida (Eds.), Digital cities II: Computational and sociological approaches (pp. 10-25). Berlin: Springer. Accessed on October 3, 2006 from http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/littleboxes/littlebox.PDF