[iDC] New Network Theory Post-Conference Thoughts

lkj4w.34841975 at bloglines.com lkj4w.34841975 at bloglines.com
Mon Jul 9 12:12:49 EDT 2007

From: Ulises Mejias

I just posted my own 'review' of the NNT conference


I am pasting the text below, but who knows what the formatting will look like.

Networks and the quantification of sociality

What 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?

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?


--- lilly
nguyen <lillynguyen at ucla.edu wrote:

So Trebor asked me to put together a
short overview of the New  

> Network Theory Conference that just took place
in Amsterdam. Overall,  

> it was an incredibly stimulating experience with
lots of interesting  

> ideas floated around and so this email will discuss
reoccuring themes  

> that struck me.

> You can go to the liveblog for a
more detailed overview of all the  

> panels: http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/.
Also you can see the  

> program here: http://www.networkcultures.org/networktheory/


> [Be warned: email is office friendly but rather long� ;)]


First, there were some really interesting critiques of web 2.0 and  

> social
software more broadly.

> There were overall skeptics of the promise of �openness�
in open  

> source production, Warren Sack specifically mentioned his work

> looking at the python development community and the hierarchal  

> structures
involved, and wikipedia was also mentioned in the same  

> way. Several individuals
questioned the novelty of notions of �user- 

> generated-content�, which
I wholly agree with and would personally  

> argue for a reconceptualization
of UGC as part of a longer tradition  

> of cultural evolution, engagement,
and, creativity, creation, and  

> innovation. Additionally, the notion of
UGC brings about a new  

> subjectivity of users as such, which I think is
an interesting idea  

> that requires some more serious consideration. The
role of private  

> business in this larger web 2.0 framework was raised
several times  

> and Tiziana Terranova had some really interesting points
about the  

> new forms of capital in an internet economy. One of her main

> was that we now see a shift where social relations and linking

> the currency and capital in a net economy, where the capture of 

> attention, memory, desires, and beliefs becomes a fundamental part of

> forming networks. Over the course of the conference, it became  

> increasingly
clear to me that the role of business in structuring and  

> shaping the
internet and represents a new economic logic that defines  

> web 2.0, in
spite of the rhetoric that is put forth about it. User  

> practices and
engagement may not be new, but the face there is now a  

> business incentive
to facilitate and harness this that is, in fact, new.


> Metaphors of
performance and performativity came up quite a bit  

> during the conference,
however often in passing. Oftentimes, there  

> was a conflation of the two
and people used these terms to describe  

> the things that people do in
networks. However, it is important to  

> understand them as separate, where
one represents (performance) and  

> the other articulates and enacts (performative).
Given the mediated  

> dimensions of networks, btn people and digital artifacts,
I think  

> there are some interesting questions of network engagement through

> the prism of the performance-performative distinction. In this way, 

> network maps or online network don�t just represent our clusters of

> relations but that they also enact, embody, and entail them as well.


> Related to this idea, is the critique that came up of how oftentimes

> we also conflate the network as a diagram-representation of social  

> phenomena and social phenomena itself. This kind of reflexive  

> critique
was part of a larger interest in the ways in which we  

> imagine and perceive
networks and how this, in turn, shapes how we  

> engage in/with them.


> Additionally, there were a lot of concerns regarding surveillance and

> we can clearly see how our perceptions of surveillance (from  

> government
agencies, to google, to parents and kids on myspace) might  

> contour our
understanding of network spaces and the types of actions  

> we may taken
within them. Alan Liu very elegantly discussed the  

> dialectic between
surveilling/authoritive policing versus knowledge/ 

> creativity and asked
�Where should authority be placed in the data  

> architecture of web 2.0?�


> An interesting set of questions that came up relate to notions of 

> time, memory, and history in networks. During one session (I forgot  

> who), someone asked if networks grow and evolve, do networks ever  

finish? This continued in other panels with questions regarding  

> history:
do networks, in fact, have a history or histories? Does  

> history exist
in the nodes of networks or in the links of networks?  

> Wendy Chun briefly
mentioned the idea of the enduring ephemeral in  

> networks and the role
of memory in networks which she provocatively  

> described as repetition
and regeneration of storage.


> Those were my key takeaways, definitely
lots of fodder and I hope  

> that this helped to stimulate more questions
and discussions. If  

> other conference attendees are on the list it'd be
great to get your  

> insight and comments as well!


> -lilly




> Lilly Nguyen

> PhD Student, Dept. of Information Studies

> lillynguyen at ucla.edu







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