Chapter 1: The Network as Method for Organizing the World

PART I: Thinking the Network

If there is no longer a place that can be recognized as outside, we
must be against in every place.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

 

How is an ethical and political act possible when there is no outside?
Bülent Diken and Carsten Bagge Laustsen, “Enjoy Your Fight!: ‘Fight Club’ as a Symptom of the Network Society”

 

CHAPTER 1
The Network as Method for Organizing the World

 

THIS BOOK INVESTIGATES how the digital network forms part of a capitalist order that reproduces inequality through participation and how this participation exhibits a hegemonic and consensual nature. It describes the emergence of a network episteme that organizes knowledge according to reductionist logic and exposes the limits of trying to counter this logic on its own terms. Additionally, it explores the motivations and strategies for “unmapping the network,” a process of generating difference and disidentification. While these themes are considered in detail in subsequent chapters, here I will attempt to establish a general framework for their discussion.

The digital network is a particularly delusive technological determinant because it is a mechanism for disenfranchisement through involvement and for increasing voluntary social participation while simultaneously maintaining or deepening inequalities. In other words, while the digital network increases the means of participation in society—­as celebrated in much of the current literature—­it also increases socioeconomic inequality in ways that we have not yet fully begun to understand. Networks are designed to attract participation, but the more we participate in them, the more inequality and disparity they produce. The way in which they do so—­the way in which they create inequality while increasing participation—­is through strategies that include the commodification of social labor (bringing activities we used to perform outside the market into the market), the privatization of social spaces (eradicating public spaces and replacing them with “enhanced” private spaces), and the surveillance of dissenters (through new methods of data mining and monitoring). Various examples of these dynamics will be discussed throughout the book.

This is not to say that participation in digital networks fails to yield any benefits, for it does produce many gains for participants. For instance, participation may increase social capital, such as rank within a community, or attention capital,[1] such as the number of times one’s profile in a social networking site is viewed—­all of which explains why some nodes have managed to “make it big” with very few resources in what appears to be a level playing field. But my point is that these methods of capturing and measuring new kinds of social wealth are means of concealing the fact that participation in the network promotes, overall, a kind of inequality that can eventually nullify most of its benefits.

Inequality is, in fact, part of the natural order of networks, particularly those exhibiting a preferential attachment process. The outcome of this process—­whether we are talking about networks of proteins, citations, or web links—­is that the rich nodes in those networks tend to get richer. This is not something that should strike us as illogical or irrational, since we know that even (or especially) in the midst of great disparity, those with resources manage to increase their wealth at the expense of those with fewer resources (which explains why it was recently reported that the world’s rich got richer amid the worst recession in decades[2]). What I am interested in, therefore, is looking at the natural and artificial properties of digital networks that generate inequality and exploring their social, political, and economic impact both within the network and beyond it. In other words, I am interested in a political economy of participation in digital networks: looking at how the act of participation in digital networks increases the wealth of the corporations that own the networks and fails to generate any substantial long-­term gains for the participants, even though it might seem to generate some short-­term gains.

The starting premise, as many authors who have written about the information society have argued, is that the network has become the dominant operating logic of late capitalism. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, for instance, write that “[i]n the passage to the informational economy, the assembly line has been replaced by the network as the organizational model of production, transforming the forms of cooperation and communication within each productive site and among productive sites.”[3] But the network has become much more than a capitalist organizational paradigm. It has become the means through which capitalism (which produces inequality as a by-­product of the generation of wealth) can profit from social exchange and cultural production. This is possible because the network facilitates what Mark Andrejevic calls a digital enclosure.[4] Much like the transition from feudalism to capitalism involved the appropriation or enclosure of communal lands by private interests, today’s digital enclosure also commodifies the public—­not in the form of land, but in the form of speech and social acts—­and widens the economic gap between those who own the means of production (the digital networks) and “those who sell their labor for access to those means” (labor, in this context, means participation in the network, which generates user information that “becomes the property of private companies that can store, aggregate, sort, and in many cases, sell the information to others in the form of a database or a cybernetic commodity”).[5]

Thus digital networks are oppressive not by virtue of being digital or being networks per se but by virtue of being part of a capitalist order that produces inequality. The unfairness and inequality of participation in digital networks is a difficult trend to observe given the fact that an increase in access to digital networks is, most of the time, reported as a sign of progress. In order to provide a clearer picture of this inequality, we must consider not only arguments that show the immediate benefits of a particular technology but also broader arguments that contrast the increase of access and participation with more comprehensive societal indicators. For instance, a Pew Internet and American Life Project survey from July 2010 indicated that cell phone ownership in the United States was higher among Latinos and African Americans (87 percent) than among whites (80 percent).[6] This would seem to suggest some progress in terms of inclusion and perhaps even economic opportunity. However, when we contrast these data with the fact that the median wealth of African Americans decreased 77 percent from 2007 to 2010 (in 2009, it was $2,200 compared to a median net worth for white households of $97,900[7]), it becomes apparent that access to the digital network does not, by itself, translate into more equality. It might thus be helpful to speak of the inequality generated through participation via digital networks in the manner that Andre Gunder Frank[8] spoke of underdevelopment: not as the result of being excluded from the economic systems of capitalism, but precisely as the result of being included and participating in them.

Participation in digital networks produces inequality because it is asymmetrical. For instance, while users surrender their privacy for the sake of convenience, network owners are increasingly opaque about the ways in which they use the information they collect, as Andrejevic suggests.[9] The full range of inequalities that participation in digital networks can produce has not been fully indexed, but it includes dynamics such as the transformation of public goods into private goods once they are uploaded to the network (think of the LOLCats.com model); the way in which small social media projects are acquired by corporations who capitalize on the social labor of the site’s existing communities (like Yahoo! in the case of Delicious.com), in some cases only to later disband those communities when the parent company experiences financial hardship; the warrantless monitoring and surveillance of action and speech as users participate in networks; and so on. These and many other examples can be used to build a picture of the inequality networks are generating. But rather than proceed merely by documenting examples, my goal in this book is to build a theoretical framework for understanding how inequality is produced and, more important, how it can be disrupted. While it would be valuable to quantify how participation in digital networks makes people poorer, we must begin by theorizing how the digital network converts our participation into disparity in the first place.

One of the ways in which it does this is through the commodification of the social—­that is, by delegating more and more social processes to the market. If certain social functions before were performed in the public sphere and they are facilitated by for-­profit digital networks now, or if new social functions emerge that can only be facilitated by for-­profit digital networks, it means those social functions have been commodified, or transformed into something people are willing to exchange in a market. Most users quickly appreciate that there is no free ride in digital networks: we pay for “free” services every time there is an ad on a page. Or as the adage of social media economics goes, If you are not paying for it, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold. However, most of us are happy to be such products, given what we perceive we get in return. Participation in digital networks is not coercive in a straightforward manner.

 

Network Hegemony

If wealth in the digital network is not evenly distributed and participation is disadvantageous, why do we keep participating? In most cases, we might not even be presented with a choice. The college at the State University of New York (SUNY) where I work, for example, made the decision (like many other schools) to accept Google’s offer to handle all the school’s e-­mail “for free.” In the face of $410 million in state budget cuts to SUNY in the past two years, it is understandable why public schools are keen to save money wherever they can. And on the surface, getting better functioning e-­mail, a full menu of apps (including calendaring), file storage, chat, as well as 2.5 gigs of storage sounds like a good deal. But when I asked whether there would be other options for handling our school e-­mail, I was told this would be the only one. As I wrote in our school newspaper,[10] there are reasons why universities like Yale, UC Davis, and Lakehead originally turned down similar deals with Google or, in some cases, filed grievances citing concerns about privacy and academic freedom (although in the two years since I wrote that, all three institutions have switched to Google). For one thing, in these days of cloud computing (where data are stored in remote company servers, not in the user’s computer), who gets access to the data is a complex international legal question. If Google stores copies of our e-­mail in 3 of its 450,000 servers located all over the world (for data redundancy purposes, which keeps our data safe in the event of a server failure), some individuals at the aforementioned universities had obviously been wondering whether Google is obligated to hand over their e-­mails if the corresponding authorities in those countries come asking for them. In other words, if my Google e-­mail data and research are stored in Israel or Malaysia, does that give those governments the right to monitor them? But beyond the issue of surveillance by foreign or domestic authorities (in collaboration with Google), my concern is that the decision to switch to Gmail signifies a further privatization of education by effectively putting everyone at our public institution to work for Google, whether they choose to or not. Let us not forget that Google derives 97 percent of its revenue from advertising. And while switching to Gmail does not mean that my colleagues and students started seeing ads for Viagra or teeth-­whitening products next to their in-­box (Google Apps for Education is ad-­free), it does mean that Google is scanning our e-­mails and documents to collect more information about us, their users.[11] The more Google knows about us, the better it can sell that information to people who want to target ads at us. The hegemony of networks is insidiously evident in examples such as this one in which participation is presented as a fait accompli, in the absence of options and alternatives, and as an almost naturalized form of commodification in which a social act (sending e-­mail to students and colleagues) is almost invisibly transformed into a revenue-­creating opportunity for a corporation.

Of course, it is presumptuous to assume that, given a choice, people would opt not to use Gmail (most people at my school seemed to think it was a fine idea, or they simply did not care). The fact of the matter is that inequality in the digital network is not experienced as coercive or unpleasant. To the contrary, because it appeals to our egos by allowing us to express ourselves, participation in digital networks is creative and pleasurable. Everyone feels welcomed because there is a place in the network for everyone and everything. Inclusion is the default setting. The inequalities that the network creates are overlooked by most users because the network is perceived as a better provider of opportunities and equality than the alternatives (social institutions or the state, for instance).

The network thus represents a form of hegemony, a system of rule in which a minority can rule over a majority not by brute force or deception but through consensus. From a Gramscian perspective,[12] hegemonic power is predicated on a harmonious relationship between unequal social classes achieved through the formation of a popular discourse of inclusion: political accommodation of the underprivileged allows the ruling class to maintain its privileges by seeming to represent the interests of the ruled. In the context of digital networks, the trope of “total inclusion” establishes hegemony by promoting the idea that the consensual acceptance of the terms of use (which spell out precisely the way in which we are to be ruled) is rewarded by the opportunity to have a presence in the network on the same terms enjoyed by everyone else. The illusory sense of empowerment is further reinforced by the idea that there is no ruling body in the network. This is true to the extent that there is often no centralized authority in most networks. But we could say that the ruler in networks is network logic itself, which specifies the parameters for interaction.

Consequently, participation in digital networks is seen as a productive, beneficial, and enjoyable contribution to the social order (a form of play mixed with labor). In some ways, this paradoxical relationship of the participant to the digital network is reminiscent of the relationship of the colonized subject to the colonial power. As Partha Chatterjee suggests, the colonial project granted the colonized individuals subjecthood, although it did not grant them citizenship[13] (it offered them a worldview in which they could locate themselves, but it restricted their participation by reducing them to a subjugated role). Likewise, I will be arguing that the digital network can grant participants subjecthood and agency, but because it produces inequality, it also constraints their rights. The network, in short, can only function if members passively adhere to its logic, not if they are actively engaged in questioning it. Hence there is a need to begin to unmap the network, to transcend its determinism through whatever strategies we might devise: obstruction of its growth, disassembling of its parts, localization of its processes, intensification of its virtualities; hence there is a need, in other words, to resist a logic that can only think in terms of nodes.

 

Nodocentrism

While the technological phenomenon is a powerful social determinant, it is also true that humans are responsible for creating and determining technology in the first place. Thus it is probably more exact to say that humans and technologies codetermine each other. However, for the moment let us continue to focus on the fact that network technologies play an important role in shaping our societies, and let us suggest, therefore, that whereas before the network was merely a metaphor to describe society, now it has become a technological model or template for organizing it. A lot of socializing happens within the structures and architectures of digital networks (as evidenced by the amount of time we spend interacting with a human being through an electronic screen), but this socializing is shaped by the network in very particular ways, resulting in new ways of experiencing the world.

What I want to suggest is that what we are seeing is not only the pervasive application of the network as a model or template for organizing society but also the emergence of the network as an episteme, a system for organizing knowledge about the world. To better understand this development, it should be pointed out that the network model and the network episteme serve two different functions: whereas the model is used to design and build actual networks, the episteme allows us to understand the “networked” world, to see everything in terms of networks, and to apply network logic even to things that are not networks. In other words, as social networks are facilitated or enabled by digital technologies, the network ceases to function merely as an allegory used to describe or study particular forms of collectivity. It becomes, first, a technological template for organizing the social; and second, it becomes an episteme or a way to understand and access reality. This episteme not only is facilitated by the technology but also transcends it, becoming a knowledge structure, a way of seeing the world as composed of nodes and links. The shift from metaphor to model to episteme (which will be explored in more detail in subsequent chapters) signals a transition from using the network to describe society to using the network to manage or arrange society, defining the parameters for interaction within the network by prescribing, or obstructing, certain kinds of social relations between nodes.

The most consequential effect of superimposing this technological template and episteme onto social structures is the rendering illegible of everything that is not a node. I call this effect nodocentrism. In describing the relationship that nodes have to things internal and external to the network, Manuel Castells writes,

 

The topology defined by networks determines that the distance (or intensity and frequency of interaction) between two points (or social positions) is shorter (or more frequent, or more intense) if both points are nodes in a network than if they do not belong to the same network. On the other hand, within a given network, flows have no distance, or the same distance, between nodes. Thus, distance (physical, social, economic, political, cultural) for a given point or position varies between zero (for any node in the same network) and infinite (for any point external to the network).[14]

 

Thus whereas the distance between two nodes that are part of the same network is finite, the distance between something inside the network and something outside the network is infinite (even if, in spatial terms, that distance is quite short). Nodocentrism means that while networks are extremely efficient at establishing links between nodes, they embody a bias against knowledge of—­and engagement with—­anything that is not a node in the same network. Only nodes can be mapped, explained, or accounted for. The point is not that nodocentrism in digital networks impoverishes social life or devalues what is around us: nodes behave neither antisocially (they thrive in linking to other nodes) nor antilocally (they can link to other nodes in their immediate surrounding just as easily as they can link to remote nodes). The point, rather, is that nodocentrism constructs a social reality in which nodes can only see other nodes. It is an epistemology based on the exclusive reality of the node. It privileges nodes while discriminating against what is not a node—­the invisible, the Other.

Nodocentrism does not provide an incorrect picture of the world, just an incomplete one. It rationalizes a model of progress and development in which those elements that are outside the network can only acquire currency by becoming part of the network. “Bridging the digital divide” is normalized as an end across societies that wish to partake of the benefits of modernity. The assumption behind the discourse of the digital divide is that one side, technologically advanced and accomplished, must help the other side, technologically underdeveloped or retarded, to catch up.[15]

The nature and ramifications of nodocentrism can be illustrated with some quick examples.

Search engine results are examples of nodocentrism in the sense that they point to documents, sites, or objects that have been indexed by the network. What has not been indexed is not listed as a result, and it might as well not even exist in the universe of knowable things as far as the search engine is concerned.

Buddy lists, such as the ones used in instant messaging (IM) programs, are examples of nodocentrism because they portray a social network composed of the acquaintances available to chat on that program (even if the friends are currently offline), but they render invisible the acquaintances who are not on the list because they do not use the same program or because they do not use IM.

Nodocentrism is at work in accidents caused by following inaccurate Global Positioning System (GPS) instructions, as when the GPS device tells its user to drive into incoming traffic or a body of water. By relying on the simulated reality of the digital network over the reality of the terrain, humans give precedence to the actuality of the node.

Similarly, when people are pulled from flights because the combination of their names, ethnicities, or religious backgrounds triggers something in a no-­fly database, the process of selection of potential threats exhibits a nodocentric logic. The definition of a threat according to its characteristics as a node or its place in the network represents a new way of applying network logic to security.

Algorithmically generated recommendation lists are another example of nodocentrism. These lists might aggregate the opinions of large communities of users, but in doing so, they also operationalize decisions about what is included in and excluded from the list.

We also see nodocentrism at work in the digitization of archives, making analog materials (texts, photographs, recordings, etc.) available online. However, not all materials are digitized, or not all materials are equally accessible to everybody. Nodocentrism can help us talk about the politics of knowledge construction in an age when we seem to increasingly depend on the digital network as a historical archive.

The articulation of nodocentrism and the kinds of inequalities it produces might suggest that the normative goal of unmapping the digital network is to give shape to a noncapitalist information society. However, information, sociality, and capital are entangled today in such a way that to suggest an easy separation would be simply naïve. Furthermore, the spaces of resistance that digital networks have currently opened up, no matter how circumscribed by corporate interests, are important and should not be dismantled just yet. Therefore, it seems prudent at this point to clarify some things about a book that—­going by its title alone—­appears to issue a call to arms against digital networks. This book will not be arguing that the existence of the digital network, in and of itself, has negative consequences for humanity (I believe that as the designers and users of digital networks, we—­not they—­are ultimately responsible for what kind of impact they have on our society). Furthermore, the book will not be calling on anyone to stop using digital networks or providing step-­by-­step instructions for dismantling any kind of digital network. The point is not to embark on a journey to some remote corner of our contemporary life to find subjectivities or sites untouched by digital networks. Thus this book will not be promoting a network Luddism, because no responsible person can afford to be a Luddite. In a world where 1.6 million cell phones are activated every day, inclusion and exclusion from the network are everywhere—­embodied not only by the digital divide that separates the haves from the have-­nots but also by the digital divides that privilege some sociocognitive spaces and undermine others, or the interior digital divides that separate our networked from our nonnetworked selves. Instead of romanticizing some prenetworked state of being, this book will try to get us to confront the tensions in those digital divides, because the spaces on the “wrong” side of the divide—­those not based on the predictable and controllable models prescribed by network logic—­will increasingly be considered threats to the network.

So while we need to be critical of the use of digital networks as platforms for participation, I am not calling for a total rejection of the network as a model for organizing sociality or the dismantling of for-­profit networks wherever they may be found. Rather, I believe that a reimagining of identity beyond the templates of the network episteme is necessary to articulate new models of participation, and that is what I mean by doing the work of “disrupting” the digital world: unsettling, undermining, and even unmapping what is oppressive in certain structures of thought. This book strives to present a starting point for this kind of unthinking. While some general strategies will be discussed, they will not be presented as subversive tasks intended exclusively for hackers, anarchists, or dissenters. To the extent that we each participate in digital networks, we are all already engaged in the production of inequality, and we are all also involved in the politics of inclusion and exclusion of the network. Furthermore, no one enjoys absolute inclusion, so we are always already occupying varying states of exclusion. Embodying the organizing logic of the network is part of what we already do, perhaps without even realizing it, and it is the divide between the networked and nonnetworked parts of our identity (the included and excluded parts) that we have to become sensitive to.

While using networks to disrupt networks might make strategic sense at times (what Hardt and Negri call fighting networks with networks[16]), the goal of this work is to theorize models that ultimately move beyond network logic altogether. Disrupting the digital network cannot rely only on marginal strategies such as hacking, open-source/open-­content paradigms, peer-­to-­peer sharing, and so on because these strategies rely on the same logic the network does, as I shall argue in later chapters. The challenge is to acknowledge the fact that, since the network is agnostic about what it assimilates and can thus easily extend its reach, there is “no longer a place that can be recognized as outside.”[17] This makes the task of being against the network increasingly difficult, since in order to be against one needs to occupy a position or framework outside the established paradigm. To Hardt and Negri, this simply means that we must be against everywhere—­inside and at the same time outside the network (and since every node has limits or borders, the outside is not just what is external to the network but what lies internally between nodes). But if nothing is really outside the logic of the network, how can we begin to articulate the ethical and political meaning of being against the network? The greatest obstacle today to the emergence of a critical theory of the network episteme is, therefore, our inability to imagine an outside.

 

Beyond Networks

In the long term, perhaps more egalitarian organizations might emerge from the process of disrupting or unmapping the network. But today, at this very moment, it is unlikely we can either challenge or substitute the network model if this means reorganizing technological infrastructures and the economy at large. All we can hope for, perhaps, is to reorganize our intimate ways of thinking. If unmapping is unthinking, it should require no special tools or skills but the mind. The present goal of unmapping the network, therefore, is to give the mind the tools to envision how the network has shaped and molded us, to explain how the network has determined us, and more important, to raise the possibility of alternatives—­to ask how we can determine it.

Perhaps this intellectual exercise is a good enough start, considering that network logic points to a crisis of imagination, specifically, to a crisis of how we imagine ourselves as individuals in a community. Defining the self in relation to the collective requires an investment of multiple desires or affects that converge in the act of imagining a community. In other words, community can be said to be the intersection (whether benign or violent) of affects that start as imagined and, through the process of communication, crystallize into social practices. As Etienne Balibar suggests (in his analysis of Spinoza), it is in the collective process of imagining community that we communicate our desires and work out “the relationship through which affects communicate between themselves, and therefore the relationship through which individuals communicate through their affects.”[18]In one way, networks open up new ways for individuals to communicate affectively, giving way to new forms of community and participation. But as has already been suggested, the network determines those forms of community according to specific interests. We might be fascinated by the digital network as a new form of imagined community,[19] but we need to ask, Whose imagined community?[20] Who is doing the imagining, and who is merely living in the product of someone else’s imagination? If hegemonic power is inscribed in networked communities, we need to ask what the network template leaves for us to imagine, which is why the network template represents, to paraphrase Chatterjee,[21] a colonization of our collective power to imagine community.

It is, in fact, the very appeal of the digital network as a cultural metaphor for imagining community that makes it particularly restrictive as a social determinant. The digital network is a ready-­made image into which we can pour our hopes for social unity and connectivity. We can point to a location in the network map and say “that’s me!,” while admiring the wealth of our social capital. A network map thus becomes an egotistic object for aesthetic contemplation: it is visually pleasing, dynamic, and it is about us. It is the social world turned into an interactive mirror, miniaturized and projected onto a screen for our pleasure. The digital network signifies the aestheticization of the social, a means for the masses to contemplate a simulation of themselves and express themselves through this simulation. But it also represents an arena of restricted or diminished opportunities for meaningful political and social action. Walter Benjamin had already described similar dynamics in relation to Fascism. According to him, the emerging Fascist rulers recognized and feared the potential of the masses to change property relations; in order to preserve the traditional property system, Fascism found its salvation “in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves”[22], thus introducing aesthetics into political life. In other words, Fascism granted the masses subjecthood, the ability to express themselves, as a way to avoid granting them more active powers. Interestingly, for Benjamin the aestheticization of the political involved the masses accepting reproduction (what we would call simulation) in lieu of the “uniqueness of every reality.”[23] Likewise, today’s networked masses are encouraged to express themselves in a simulated social sphere that contributes to the reproduction of inequality. They are encouraged to accept the network map in place of the “banality” of unnetworked space and to express themselves through it. The rendering of politics as aesthetics satisfies the need for sociality while respecting the traditional forms of property on which capitalism is founded.

Thus far, there has not been a widespread movement to challenge the hegemony of the network and its colonizing imaginary. Hegemonic rule depends on widespread consensus, which in network terms means all nodes subscribe to the same protocols and accept the same models of social participation. Public intellectuals (media gurus, academics, etc.) who advocate that digital networks are being used to empower the public are only undermining our potential to free ourselves from the hypnotic hold of this aestheticized form of sociality. This is why there is a need to theorize how new imagined communities can be different from the template-­based communities of the digital network. At the same time, any alternative would have to organize itself in order to survive, and that form of organization would probably look and act just like a network. While I am attempting to critique the network as a digital template for sociality, I also recognize that the network, as an organizational form, can be useful. If the only way the excluded can unsettle network hegemony is to first organize themselves into a networked multitude that eventually rejects, subverts, or disinvests itself from network templates, so be it. Unmapping the digital network needs to involve both working within the spaces of resistance that digital networks have already made available and asking what it means to obliterate those very spaces.

This brings me back to the project of imagining and thinking alternatives, right here and now, using the digital network as a starting point. Digital networks map unto a social domain what was before unimaginable, reorganizing the possible. They are the result of previous social models as well as new, emerging ones. This actualization of the virtual unveils new associations, new ways in which things that were not linked before are now related, and also in which other things are now excluded or forgotten. Disrupting the network prevents the energy of nodes from becoming arrested or complacent, and unleashes it in new directions, as nodes begin to unthink themselves. From the perspective of the node, the witnessing of the ethical resistance of the outside (the way it is excluded, the way it resists assimilation) can lead to the kind of self-­questioning that can generate personal and social change. Sensing the limits of nodes within and outside us can lead to the alteration of our intimate ways of knowing the world through an increasingly dominant corporate nodocentrism. It is ultimately about changing the way we understand others and ourselves.

Thus while this is a book about thinking and unthinking networks, it is also a book about alterity and othering—­about the way we imagine and engage difference. Specifically, it is about the ethics of othering. In the standard view of interaction in a network, we have two or more nodes struggling to communicate in the presence of noise, as depicted in the Shannon–­Hartley theorem, which calculates the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted given a specified bandwidth and noise interference. Noise—­we have always assumed (at least since Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication” was published in 1949)—­is a barrier to interaction, and this model has influenced our development of communication theories and technologies. The Internet, however, practically eliminated the problem of noise through digitization and packet switching (distributing information in small chunks through multiple channels). But the project of unmapping the network asks if we have perhaps invisibilized noise too quickly and too efficiently. Noise, in network terms, is nonnodal—­it is not simply a meaningless sound but a sound that does not conform to the harmonies of the network. The project of disrupting or unmapping the network and encountering its outsides is one that goes from trying to solve the problem of communicating in the presence of noise to one that sees noise as communicating presence, the presence of the Other. In short, noise communicating difference. It is only in the outside spaces of the network, beyond the limits of nodes, where we can acquire enough clarity to listen to the sounds that alternative subjectivities, even from within us, might suggest.


  1. In order to elaborate on attention capital, a basic understanding of attention economics is needed. Attention is “the action that turns raw data into something humans can use” (Lanham, quoted in Lankshear and Knobel, New Literacies, 111). Thus attention economics treats attention as a scarce commodity. What information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon, quoted in Lankshear and Knobel, New Literacies, 109).
  2. Giannone, “World’s Rich Got Richer amid ’09 Recession.”
  3. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 295.
  4. Andrejevic, iSpy, 3.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Smith, “Mobile Access 2010.” The same survey found that minority cell phone owners were taking advantage of more of their phone features compared to white mobile phone users.
  7. See “Harper’s Index,” 11; Allegretto, The State of Working America’s Wealth, 10.
  8. Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America.
  9. Andrejevic, iSpy, 7–­8.
  10. Mejias, “Between Google and a Hard Place.”
  11. Details are hard to glean for those not privy to the negotiations and contracts, but apparently, due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the content of students’ e-­mails will not be mined for data while they are enrolled, although Google can still track the “signaling data” (web links within e-­mails, activity between people, etc.). If students wish to keep their Gmail accounts after they graduate, then their e-­mail contents will presumably be open for mining.
  12. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.
  13. Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments.
  14. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 501.
  15. This is reminiscent of the old colonialist model of cultural diffusion (cf. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World) and more contemporary theorizings of a normal inside and a queer outside (cf. Fuss, Inside/Out).
  16. Hardt and Negri, Empire.
  17. Ibid., 211.
  18. Balibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas, 29.
  19. Anderson, Imagined Communities.
  20. Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Benjamin, “The Work of Art.”
  23. It is also interesting to note the role of war in occupying the masses according to Benjamin, for “[w]ar and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.” Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 241.