Networks and the quantification of sociality

Wikipedia_mosaicWhat follows is NOT intended to be a comprehensive review of the European Computing and Philosophy (ECAP) and the New Network Theory (NNT) conferences, which took place in the Netherlands this June (for good summaries of NNT, see the Masters of Media blog or Lilly Nguyen’s post). Instead, my intention is to briefly discuss some of what I heard in the context of my own research, putting some of those arguments in conversation with my own, so to speak. I apologize in advance to all the authors I’m citing because this selective form of quoting will undoubtedly reduce and perhaps even misrepresent their original arguments. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, correct?

My remarks are organized into three major areas having to do with network metaphors, network metrics, and network critiques.

Networks: Metaphors or models?

My own presentations at the two conferences were framed in the context of the current shift from using the network as a metaphor to describe the social to using it as a model for organizing sociality (putting people into buckets called ‘nodes’). This theme of the limits of the network as metaphor was a recurring one, specially during NNT. Marianne van den Boomen (all authors are from the NNT conference, unless otherwise indicated), for instance, discussed the tensions created when we try to stretch the metaphor of virtual community (a troubled metaphor to begin with) to encompass the kind of social structures engendered by Web 2.0. According to van den Boomen, the very label “Web 2.0″ suggests a metaphor that at least acknowledges the role of software in forming social structures. But the question is whether the network —or any other metaphor, for that matter— can adequately describe social realities. Part of the problem, according to her, is that new media can no longer be associated with a stable ontology. If I understood her correctly, whereas before we had ‘stable’ categories of media, new media is too vast and too amorphous, too difficult to pin down. New media is more about the processes of transmediation and transcoding than about a particular kind of tool or industry, so it is problematic to use such an polymorphous concept to metaphorically describe “stable” social and cultural structures. If anything, as Mirko Tobias Schafer (and others) suggested, the network functions more as epistemology than metaphor, blurring the distinction between information infrastructure and social relations. The network, in other words, does not describe or represent our social world, it is how we understand and construct our social realities.

Bernhard Rieder enlisted some of the tensions inherent in working with the network as metaphor or model: Should we describe its structure topologically (in terms of broad ‘areas’ and components) or through thick anthropological description, as Actor-Network Theory (ANT) would have us do? Is the network static or evolving, tangible or abstract? How are network configurations caused? Should network critique be localized, or overarching? I understood Rieder as suggesting that we approach the network as a methodology to explain the social, not as an ontology to take certain forms of sociality for granted. The network as question, not as answer, in other words.

Network metrics: Quantifying the social?

But is the methodology that the network suggests biased (dare I say, corrupted) by a form of scientism that subordinates the kinds of questions we allow ourselves to ask of the network to the kinds of answers we can, quite literally, compute? What I see in this latest ‘social turn’ of media is a propensity to let the computational functions that the code can perform define the nature of the social functions we can perform. Social is what code does. In the Web 2.0 rush to innovate, to re-invent sociality with code, there is no room for asking what aspects of sociality to formalize, and how much.

Perhaps, as Noortje Marres suggested, the problem began when ANT 1.0, which started as a way to explain technosocial systems, became a bit arrogant and re-imagined itself as ANT 2.0, capable of explaining anything and everything. Yes, as Valdis Krebs stated, the network as method allows us to map and measure what was formerly invisible, and this data may indeed tell us something new about the way we perform our sociality. But from there it is a slippery slope to thinking that sociality can be quantified and reduced to network functions.

The kind of network logic that Giovanni Boniolo (ECAP) is in the process of formulating describes the relation between nodes in terms of logical propositions. Relations between elements in a database can be expressed through these logic statements, allowing us to map the network through logical operations. This form of network quantification is meant for application in the natural sciences, but how long before such methods become the research standards in the social sciences? Aren’t the algorithms embedded in the code of social media already the precursors of this reductive logic?

Moreover, behind the social markup schemes that Alan Liu proposed to calculate or quantify the social character of networks is the belief, shared by Warren Sack and others, that new forms of object-oriented democracies or publics are not only possible, but desirable. After all, as Noshir Contractor suggested, it’s all about relational metadata: “it’s not who you know, but what who you know knows.” Being is subordinated or reduced to informational value. What will democracies and publics look like under such models of efficiency?

Towards a critical theory of networks

According to Jeroen van den Hoven (ECAP), technology —by virtue of its affordances— presents us with a form of epistemic enslavement: deferment to the authority of the system. Epistemic enslavement in networks takes the form of what I call nodocentrism: nodes are capable of knowing only other nodes. As Wendy Chun puts it, we need to question the kind of network logic that seeks to eradicate gaps (the paranodal) at all costs. In this context, she argues that we need a critique of “openness” as an end (this is an important question: to what extent do open source, open content, p2p, etc., contribute to this ethos to “close all gaps”?). According to her, mapping a network can be enlightening, but can only happen if we surrender ourselves fully to the logic of the network. Thus, the best way to map the network might be to refuse the map altogether. Thus, it seems to me that any useful critique of networks needs to begin with an exploration of their indeterminacy: not only their borders, but the very paranodal spaces that help define them.

Perhaps a way to begin to formulate such a critique is to address how network logic is inadequate for locating suffering in social networks. This seemed to be part of Thomas Berker’s plea for a meaningful and non-trivial theory of suffering within the network. Power Laws and Long Tails might explain why there are elite nodes and less-fortunate nodes, but do they address the meaning of inequality in the network? Can they suggest a politics to correct it? Or are these concepts a new opium that allows the masses to think of themselves as a new elite, as I thought Ekaterina Taratuta (ECAP) was hinting at?

[photo: An emergent mosaic of Wikipedian activity, cc: silvertje]

One thought on “Networks and the quantification of sociality

  1. Don Steiny

    It may be a mistake to get too caught up in what networks “really” are. Authors often use the term with different meanings even in the same sentence. A fundamental issue can be called “structure vs. agency” or “anti-essentialism vs. essentialism,” or “sociological vs. economics” and so on. The enormously influential network theorist, Harrison White, wrote a book “Identity and Control” that attempts to describe all social constructs, including “persons” as emergent from networks (as phenomenological reality). His new edition should be out next March where he moves the project forward. Intelligence, race, gender and many other “things” are “properties” of people that are not really. They have their meaning only in a certain place at a certain time. They “exist” because of the patterns of relations in which the “person” is embedded. Networks provide a way to talk about those patterns.

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