Chapter 4: Acting Inside and Outside the Network

CHAPTER 4
Acting Inside and Outside the Network

DIGITAL NETWORKS MEDIATE our social realities according to templates where certain forms of sociality are algorithmically operable and others are impossible for the algorithm to perform. Because these templates are increasingly subordinated to for-­profit interests, it is important to explore how they structure the formation of the self, and what other models for conforming the self outside these templates are available. However, the problem with framing the question this way is that it already presupposes a separation between our networked and unnetworked selves. A neat separation between a networked world and a world that remains untouched by digital networks is increasingly difficult to maintain, even for the purposes of conducting a critical analysis. If half of the population of the planet has a cell phone, it is nearly impossible to talk about dimensions of life not affected in a direct or indirect manner by the network as it mediates or governs the relationship between the individual and the social. Thus to theorize the networked subject is also to theorize the ways in which the digital network has become a universalizing logic for ordering the social and providing certain types of agency.

Until very recently, it was convenient for those wishing to engage in a critique of the network to establish a false dichotomy between our networked selves and those parts of our lives not connected to digital networks. Because the Internet and other digital networks were still new, and not yet such a pervasive presence in our lives, we developed a convenient habit of seeing our online experiences as unfolding in an alternate part of reality. We believed that our actions could begin, unfold, and conclude entirely online without any repercussions to life offline, thus concluding that virtuality had its own set of rules and values that did not correspond in a one-­to-­one manner to the rest of reality. But even during this early period, many critics began to look at the rupture between the two realms, and the possibilities supposedly afforded by the virtual domain, with skepticism. Albert Borgmann, for instance, compared online and offline communities and suggested that commodification (to take something that is outside of the market and inscribe it in the market) was the distinguishing feature that separated the former from the latter. Borgmann argued that online communication itself reduced everything to an economic exchange meant to secure attention from others: “The internet is culturally commodifying by its nature. . . . What happens in fact is that commodification reduces ourselves and those we encounter on the internet to glamorous and attractive personae. Commodification becomes self-­commodification, but shorn of context, engagement and obligation, of our achievements and failures, of our friends and enemies, of all the features that time has engraved on our faces and bodies—­without all that we lack gravity and density.”[1]

In contrast to these commodified communities, Borgmann described what he called “final communities”: “[F]inal communities are ends rather than means, or more precisely, they are the groups of people where one finds or works out one’s reason for living. . . . The point is that final communities require the fullness of reality, the bodily presence of persons, and the commanding presence of things. Any attempt to secure the fulfillment of one’s deepest capacities and aspirations in and through cyberspace will founder on the shoals of commodification.”[2]

Consequently, Borgmann saw any attempt to form final communities by using the Internet as bound to fail: “Use of the internet at home leaves people feeling lonely and unhappy.”[3]

A similar critique is posed by Hubert Dreyfus who, following Kierkegaard, argues that to escape the anomie of modernity one needs to form unconditional commitments. This type of commitment establishes “qualitative distinctions between what is important and what is trivial, relevant and irrelevant, serious and playful”[4] in life, determining what we hold to be significant in it. Unconditional commitments make us vulnerable, because what we hold to be true may disappear or turn out to be false. But it is precisely this risk, according to Kierkegaard, that produces a strong identity and gives individuals a perspective on the world. Dreyfus then wonders whether the Internet can encourage and support unconditional commitments. He concludes that, similarly to Kierkegaard’s assessment of the press and the public sphere, the Internet does not necessarily prohibit but definitely undermines unconditional commitment: “Like a simulator, the Net manages to capture everything but the risk. . . . [I]f we are sufficiently involved to feel as if we are taking risks, the simulations can help us acquire skills. But insofar as [these simulations] work by temporarily capturing our imaginations in limited domains, they cannot simulate serious commitments in the real world . . . the risks are only imaginary and have no long-­term consequences. The temptation is to live in a world of stimulating images and simulated commitments and thus to lead a simulated life.”[5]

Dreyfus ends by arguing that unconditional commitments can only be formed when the identities, knowledge, and skills we develop online are transferred to the real world, where the risk becomes real. This is, however, practically impossible according to Dreyfus because the nature of online experiences inhibits this very step: “Indeed, anyone using the Net who was led to risk his or her real identity in the real world would have to act against the grain of what attracted him or her to the Net in the first place.”[6]

In retrospect, these kinds of arguments essentialize—­to the point of oversimplification, perhaps—­the online and offline worlds as two distinct realms of reality, with no intersections between the two social realms. What undermines them is that they establish a very clear separation between the self as it exists within the network and the self as it exists outside it, in some sort of a “natural” social order that is corrupted or complicated by the arrival of digital network technologies. Merely a few years later, this kind of critique sounds quaintly absolutist. Because of the ubiquitousness of the digital network, it is possible for our networked existence to encompass all the dimensions of our social lives. In other words, it has become not only possible but also commonplace to extend our interactions with our most intimate acquaintances through the digital network. Even digital natives (those generations exposed to digital network technologies from birth) will admit that online experiences are indeed no substitute for the “real” thing; however, the point—­they will add—­is not to replace the “real” thing, but to supplement or augment it.

Thus the digital network has not done away the real. It has merely converged with it. Mediated social exchanges have become so intertwined with unmediated ones that it is no longer possible (or necessary?) to tell where the real and the simulated begins or ends. Something can start as an exchange on an electronic forum, move to a private face-­to-­face conversation, continue over text messaging, and so on. Hence the futility of talking about the networked subject as if it was an avatar, a member of a parallel community whose actions concern a separate universe (the digital network). Rather, to talk about the networked subject is to talk about a fragmented self, some of whose multiple identities are wired or connected to the network and some that are not. Nonetheless, there is no way to understand this fragmented self without appreciating how network logic mediates the perception of reality for the subject, how it constructs the agency models for the subject to act in concert with technology, and how it establishes a new form of social contract to replace the model of subjecthood previously granted by other social institutions.

MEDIATING THE NETWORKED SELF

How do digital technologies intervene to mediate the world of the individual? Are being and knowing, as mediated by the digital network, qualitatively different or even inferior than those forms of being and knowing that are not mediated by the digital network?

The false dichotomy between the networked or mediated self and the unnetworked or unmediated self mentioned earlier seems to have distant echoes in tropes such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, where we encounter the idea that what we perceive as reality is an illusion, and that the authentic (unmediated) version of reality is out there waiting to be grasped by those minds capable of true understanding and learning. This has been a common theme in Western thought, and in more contemporary times, works of fiction like The Matrix have hinted at the role that technology can play in making the illusion of reality more realistic and, thus, more pernicious. While truly immersive virtual reality (undistinguishable from reality) remains a fantasy, modern communication technologies have succeeded in producing a disembodied subject that can experience alternative or enhanced forms of reality. In other words, by allowing us to know or experience the world indirectly, technology can put us in places without having to be physically there. This technologically mediated sense of detachment from local space and reattachment to hyperspace is known as “telepresence” or the experience of being somewhere where our bodies are not. Telepresence has become a routine experience for most of us, as common as talking to someone on the phone. Through telepresence, as Dreyfus says, “our bodies seem irrelevant. . . . our minds seem to expand to all corners of the universe.”[7] But when our interaction with the world is reduced to mediated signals, how do we know if things on the other side are real? How do we assign to them the appropriate importance?

These questions have preoccupied philosophers well before the advent of modern communication technologies, of course. Descartes, for instance, was concerned not with the reality of things on the other side of the screen, but on the other side of the brain. He believed that all we have access to in the world is our private experience. The world, in his opinion, was out to fool the brain, the only reliable organ through which we could assess the reality of things. Skeptics of the “realness” of reality had been around before him, but Descartes was really the first one to question the reality of perception. He did this on the grounds that the sense organs (the eyes, ears, nerves, etc.) are unreliable transmitters of information to the brain, which is the only one capable of interpreting and acting on that information. According to his model, our access to reality is indirect, mediated by the senses but actualized exclusively by the brain. This line of thinking lead Descartes to believe that the only thing we could be certain of was the content of our brains, and everything in the outside world was consequently less real or not real at all. This skepticism about the existence of the external world actually fueled the development of the branch of philosophy we know as epistemology, which concerned itself with assessing the validity of our everyday beliefs about the world.

While Cartesian epistemology was gradually replaced with other approaches for making sense of the world that do not presuppose a separation of the mind and the external world,[8] Dreyfus suggests that because digital network technologies are making perception more and more indirect, and demanding that we take for granted the reality of what we perceive, Descartes’s epistemological doubts are being resurrected. As a result, it sometimes seems as if the networked subject occupies a Cartesian plane where the only thing that can be taken for granted is the self, and every other aspect of networked reality is a world of mediated shadows whose reality we can only infer.

Biases in the Way the Network Mediates Involvement

While we might not want to go as far as questioning the reality of every single thing mediated by the network, it is necessary to at least be cognizant of the ways in which reality is processed by the network. As digital networks mediate social reality, they tend to favor certain types of involvement over others, which constitutes the networked self in one manner and not in others. What I describe next are trends in how social involvement is structured in the network. This is not meant to imply that every single digital network exhibits all these characteristics all the time. Rather, what is meant is that as networks operate according to the principles of nodocentrism, their architecture seems to predominantly (although not always exclusively) exhibit a bias toward the following processes.

Immediacy. Immediacy usually indicates the distance across space between social actors, and is thus a factor that can impact our sense of social involvement. In digital networks, however, spatial distance no longer seems a relevant metric given that—­we are told—­technology annihilates distance. Thus immediacy becomes a function of those metrics in the network that express closeness, regardless of a node’s geographic position. The digital network exhibits a bias toward expressing immediacy or nearness in nodocentric terms. This does not mean that the network obstructs a sense of immediacy, but that it exhibits a bias toward presenting that which is networked as near, whereas that which is not networked is perceived as far.

Intensity. Intensity describes the strength with which actors perceive social acts to the exclusion of other phenomena. For example, face-­to-­face conversations have high intensity because of the amount of information coming from one source, whereas an online text chat comparatively has lower intensity. This does not necessarily mean that high intensity social scenarios are “better” than low intensity ones on some sort of moral scale. Nor does it mean that a series of ongoing low intensity interactions cannot feel quite “intense” (low intensity allows for multitasking, since the user can quickly switch between a number of simultaneous exchanges). It just means that intensity in this context can help us understand how networks redistribute an individual’s attention and energy across networked sites. Digital networks are biased toward low-­level intensity social interactions because this kind of involvement is more cost-­effective and less time consuming than high-­intensity interactions.

Intimacy. Borrowing from Joseph B. Walther,[9] we can describe the intimacy of social interactions according to three categories: impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal. Impersonal interactions are those that contain low levels of personal information, and they are ideal for situations where a goal can be accomplished without a significant exchange of information about the participants. Interpersonal interactions are those that contain higher levels of personal information and allow participants to develop or sustain social relationships beyond just getting the job done. And hyperpersonal interactions are those in which actors have technological means to control the personal information they wish to share (means that they would not have available in regular face-­to-­face interactions). Hyperpersonal social interactions thus involve the ability to form interpersonal social relations “without the interference of environmental reality.”[10] Digital networks have a bias toward supporting impersonal and hyperpersonal social involvement. Privacy settings, for instance, are a tool of hyperpersonal social involvement because they allow the participant to decide which aspects of their personal information to share, or not to share, with a degree of control that would not be possible outside of the digital network (the fact that many users have not yet realized the consequences of setting these privacy settings correctly is a separate issue).

Simultaneity. Asynchronous forms of communication allow us to communicate without having to be concurrently engaged with the person we are exchanging messages with. And while electronic media are sometimes associated with the advent of a second age of orality, asynchronous communication—­from e-­mail to text messaging—­continues to be a major feature of digital networks.[11] Thus digital networks have a bias toward nonsimultaneous social involvement.

There are the trade-­offs to this loss of simultaneity. Schutz defines simultaneity as the ability to experience our consciousness in parallel with another human being’s consciousness through the act of communication or interaction. He writes, “[W]hereas I can observe my own lived experiences only after they are over and done with, I can observe yours as they actually take place. This in turn implies that you and I are in a specific sense ‘simultaneous,’ that we ‘coexist,’ that our respective stream of consciousness intersect.”[12]

The outcome of this experiencing of parallel subjectivity is not that we are able to read each other’s minds. It is simply the realization that one is experiencing a fellow human being (which is, I suppose, what the Turing test seeks to replicate). To be sure, simultaneity can be approximated through other forms of mediated interaction; some digital network technologies (like voice or video chats) can support real-­time or synchronous communication. But as a general rule, we can say that the larger the network, the more pressing the need for efficiency through asynchronous management of communication among the participants, which means the fewer the opportunities for members to experience simultaneity. Simultaneity is time consuming. Digital networks might make it possible for more people to be on the network at the same time, but as the number of links or “friendships” increases, the possibility of having a truly simultaneous intersection of streams of consciousness with most of those people decreases. Since information in the network must circulate at ever-­increasing speed and efficiency, social interactions become predominantly nonsimultaneous.

Because of the reconfiguration of immediacy, intensity, intimacy, and simultaneity, we could say that the digital network exhibits an overall bias toward engagement with contemporaries as opposed to consociates. According to Schutz, consociates are the individuals I can experience through simultaneity. Contemporaries, on the other hand, are the people I know exist but whose consciousness I cannot experience in parallel. Schutz says of the latter, “[W]hile living among them, I do not directly and immediately grasp their subjective experiences but instead infer, on the basis of indirect evidence, the typical subjective experience they must be having.”[13]

The necessity to manage time and resources means that social interactions in digital networks tend to become identified with disembodied immediacy, low intensity, guarded intimacy, and nonsimultaneity. As we saw in the example of social tagging systems, the subjectivity of network users can only be inferred “on the basis of indirect evidence” (such as tags) through the manipulation of digital objects. Thus although networks can facilitate interaction between consociates through mediated synchronous interaction, they have a bias toward mediating social realities where interaction between people (contemporaries) is increasingly supported nonsimultaneously. This is not to say that to a digital native, communication via these technologies can indeed feel immediate, intense, intimate, and simultaneous. But the point of the previous discussion was to frame how these biases are predominant in the network, and what impact they have on the self.

Mediation and the Obstruction of Being

Even though I have warned against the danger of talking about the networked self as if it was a separate self with a separate reality, perhaps I have myself promoted this contradictory approach by talking at various points about a networked subject. I have engaged in this practice merely with the intent to identify certain characteristics and critique them, and I will now continue to do so in order to question whether the digital network’s mediation of the self is in some way obstructing the process of being in a philosophical sense. Again, the goal is not to reify a separate self, but to suggest that, if our networked and unnetworked selves are inexorably linked, there is no way to talk about the obstruction of being in one instance without considering the repercussions for the other. In essence, the problem is that prior to digital networks, we never had such a dominant or propagated model of technologically facilitated mediation of reality, one that left little room for alternatives. So the question of whether the digital network obstructs being is particularly pressing, even though the same question could (and should) be posed in regard to other technologies.

According to Theodore Rivers,[14] technology in general subverts being by demanding that our attention and efforts be placed at its service and by reducing the amount of time and effort we dedicate to things like contemplation and reflection. This is because, Rivers argues, technology is concerned with a reductive, repetitive form of action or endless doing: “Technology inhibits deep thinking because it is concerned primarily with activity, not contemplation. Because thinking is fundamental to self-­awareness, technology is an obstacle to self-­identity. It is a threat to internality.”[15] Contrary to a view that sees actions as emanating from being, technology promotes an interpretation of being as emanating from action: I do, therefore I am. By virtue of what it was designed to do, technology fulfills its mission only as long as we are engaged in doing things with it; it occupies the self with continuous action and is unconcerned with what kind of being results from that action. Whereas Martin Heidegger once saw the premodern engagement with technology as a way of revealing the truth of being in the world (“There was a time when the bringing-­forth of the true into the beautiful was called techne”[16]), now, as Rivers puts it, “[t]he relationship has been reversed: that is, technology is no longer an aid in the perfection of being, but rather being is now an aid to the perfection of technology.”[17]

The worst reading of this argument would present us with a state of affairs in which technology has total control, and we are merely its puppets. However, this view would also assume that the networked self does not have any agency at all. Which brings us to the question of who or what exactly has the power to act in digital networks.

Enacting the Networked Self

While it is true that digital networks shape our perceptions of social reality, it is also true that we can actively intervene in the shaping of those realities. Agency in digital networks—­the opportunities to shape and transform those networks—­is shared by humans and technology. When we intervene as technology’s designers or masters, we can responsibly delegate agency to it, and allow it to perform certain social functions on our behalf (sometimes, to be sure, with unexpected consequences). However, when we become technology’s subjects, we irresponsibly or involuntarily surrender our agency and allow technology to act, perhaps even against our interests. Therefore, the issue of how agency comes to be delegated is extremely important.

While modern history has positioned humans as masters and technology as the servant or slave (merely a tool to exercise our mastery over nature), dystopian critiques have presented a very different picture, with humans as the slaves of an autonomous technological master. But can technology act on its own? There are basically three theoretical approaches to allocating agency between humans and technology: realism, social constructivism, and what Philip Brey (2005) calls hybrid constructivism. Each approach attempts to answer in its own way the question of who acts in technosocial systems.

Realism, also known as technological determinism, establishes that technology shapes individuals and society. Technology prescribes behaviors and determines social practices. Think, for example, of a traffic light. It is nothing more than a mere flashing red light. Yet we obey it unconditionally (most of us, anyway) and organize our behavior around it. This is a simplistic example, of course, but while technological determinism might not go as far as ascribing consciousness or intelligence to technology, it does grant it the ultimate power to shape our social environments. Thus agency is a principal attribute of technology in this perspective, to the extent of treating artifacts as autonomous agents. Under this view, technology is definitely the master.

In the social constructivist perspective, it is we who shape technology: society’s behavior and practices give technology its meaning. Agency cannot be attributed to artifacts, because the supposed “acts” of technology can always be traced to the actions and interpretations of social groups. We invented the traffic light; we came up with the system of laws, regulations, and technologies into which the traffic light fits as a constituent of a complex social system, and we can change any of that at any point. A traffic light in a deserted intersection has no purpose. Under this view, we are the master, and technology the servant.

These two approaches deliver us into a conceptual paradox. Which comes first: technology that creates social circumstances or social circumstances that give shape to particular technologies? As a way out of that paradox, most philosophers of technology have abandoned the master–­slave dialectic altogether and aligned themselves with a third approach: hybrid constructivism.[18] Hybrid constructivism avoids making a discreet distinction between society and technology when it comes to the ability and opportunity to act. It suggests that technologies possess the potential to act, but this potential is only realized when they interact with other elements in social assemblages. This is a crucial point: the potentiality of artifacts (or humans, for that matter) is actualized only when they are part of a network of human and nonhuman actors. In hybrid constructivism, there are no clear-­cut masters or slaves, since it is not possible to apportion agency exclusively or neatly to one party given the dependencies and interactions created through network transactions. In short, actors acquire their agency only as nodes in a network. Agency cannot exist in a social vacuum; without each other, human and technological actors cannot actualize their agency: “Agency is not, to be somewhat precipitous, rooted in the properties of entities-­in-­themselves, but rather in the properties of entities as elements of networks (or structures). And those networks/structures are invariably concatenations of both human and nonhuman actors.”[19]

This hybrid approach is similar to another well-­known theory of agency: actor–­network theory, or ANT.[20] ANT establishes that “[a]rtifacts and their properties emerge as the result of being embedded in a network of human and nonhuman entities. It is in this context that they gain an identity and that properties can be attributed to them.”[21] Since everything—­human or technological—­can be an actor on equal terms, hybrid constructivism in general, and ANT in particular, introduces a generalized symmetry in accounting for agency within a network: “The term ‘hybrid constructivism’ can be taken to refer to any position that adopts the principle of generalized symmetry. This is a methodological principle according to which any relevant elements referred to in an analysis (whether ‘social,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘technical’) should be assigned a similar explanatory role and should be analyzed by the same (i.e., symmetrical) type of vocabulary.”[22]

This tendency to see all actors on equal or symmetrical terms is not without its problems. First, it might fail to provide meaningful or complex accounts of new social formations. Paradoxically, what is supposedly an empirical attempt to describe things as they are ends up obscuring any explanation of how the nodes came into being in the first place. By simply calling any assemblage a “network,” social theorists end up confusing, according to Bruno Latour, “what they should explain with the explanation”; they begin with networks as self-­evident explanations, “whereas one should end with them”[23] after explaining how they are constituted. In other words, the mapping of the network serves as the starting and end point; the distribution of agency is traced, but not explained, or explained by blackboxing motivations under the name of various “social forces.” Or as J. Macgregor Wise puts it, “Agency cannot be so unquestioned. How do we account for differences (even similarities) in agency, in the distribution of agency? And how do we do this without recourse to abstract macro-­actors such as social forces . . . ?”[24] The purpose of ANT is not simply to draw a network, but to try to explain the associations formed within it without resorting to these black boxes or abstract terms like “social forces.”

Second, the tendency to see all actors on equal terms might obfuscate the special nature of human agency and, more important, human responsibility in technosocial systems. While the actions of technologies can be predictable to an extent (their affordances are materially circumscribed), hybrid constructivism and ANT commit a certain reductionism by obscuring the fact that humans can act in unpredictable ways: “Human actants have a richer behavioural repertoire by which they can respond to prescriptions, and humans may have various intentions, beliefs and motivations that may be relevant in the analysis. In a hybrid vocabulary, these differences between humans and nonhumans are obscured in the interest of symmetrical treatment.”[25]

In other words, human agency is polysemic by nature; it can have more than one meaning. Symmetrical models of agency that fail to account for this are deficient and, in presenting a limited scope of human agency, might be reducing the scope of human responsibility as well. While agency might be shared or distributed between humans and technology, the responsibility for the effects of technology always rest squarely with us. We might choose to delegate some of our social agency to digital networks. We might even be compelled to surrender that agency. But we cannot surrender or share with technology the ensuing responsibility for the impact that these actions have on our world.

The point about agency and responsibility is important because, as Paul Dourish points out, the medium for acting in the world is increasingly digital, not physical: “[Computer] technology is increasingly the medium within which activity takes place. We are used to the ways in which the physical world mediates our actions, and how it forms a shared environment whose characteristics are thoroughly predictable. . . . Technological systems as a medium for social conduct are very different inasmuch as the inherently disconnected, representational nature of computer systems means that actions can be transformed in unpredictable ways.”[26]

Whereas action in the physical world has, by and large, predictable reactions, action in the digital world is mediated in entirely different ways, and agency is assembled in different combinations of human and technological actors—­even if humans remain entirely accountable for the consequences of all actions. Since the physical and the digital world are not two separate and discreet dimensions of reality, but are tightly interwoven and interdependent, new models of agency have led to a significant reconfiguration of the self in collectivity.

Methodological approaches like ANT help us map complex connections and dependencies, delineating the political relationship between various actors. They can also help us describe the nuanced ways in which we participate not just in one digital network but in multiple ones. The danger, however, is that these methods are so useful in constructing an approach to studying social realities, that it has become difficult to talk about the network as a singular episteme. For fear of engaging in a form of essentialism, discourses around the digital network remain tied to ideas of multiplicity and plurality, which while valuable also make it difficult to talk about the network as, itself, an essentializing tool of a particular economic and political structure, with concrete implications for how subjects are governed in the so-­called networked society.

GOVERNING THE NETWORKED SELF

Although the social forms that humans and technology have coproduced often appear as innovations, they have never emerged from a historical vacuum. While the digital network reconceptualizes the place of the individual in society, it also replicates many of the features of previous models. Thus in order to understand how the digital network as template produces subjectivity and agency, we need to understand how theories of the modern state define the social contract between the individual, the collective, and the authorities, and how this compares to the models afforded by the network. This exercise can help us determine what exactly is changing as individuals reallocate their agency from one social domain to another, and what this means for democracy. While a complete account of the theoretical evolution of the concept of the modern state is beyond the scope of this argument, some general observations about its nature in relation to the network might be helpful.

The Digital Network and Democracy: Publics versus Masses

If digital networks are said to be transforming participation in everything, including the governance of the state, perhaps it makes sense to begin a comparison of the nature of the state and the network with a discussion of the perceived influence of digital networks on democracy. In general, there are two positions. According to one side, the digital network is believed to be empowering us with new ways of participating in civil society, strengthening our position as a public. According to the other, the network is merely a tool of surveillance and regulation, making us more vulnerable to state control, further transforming us into a mass. This summary may be overly simplistic, but it is helpful for illustrating some of the tensions surrounding the application of digital networks as tools of democracy. However, a more nuanced reading of the concepts of public and mass, and how they might be discussed in relation to digital networks, is required.

Previous chapters have already described the shift during our times from a mass society to a network society:[27] from densely knit urban communities that are isolated from each other but organized under the umbrella of the nation-­state to a society comprising diffused individuals operating in small sparsely knit communities not bound by location but interconnected by networks. In some of these cases, the transition is imbued with positive connotations, suggesting that the network society represents an opportunity to reverse the formation of masses and return society to the status of a public (mass formation referring basically to a process in which an elite governing class can control the general population, in large part through the dissemination of messages via the mass media). In the network society—­the argument goes—­digital networks allow individuals to engage in the production of messages, adding their voice to the democratic process instead of being mere consumers of information.

This position seems to echo that of philosophers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, C. W. Mills, and Jürgen Habermas,[28] to name but a few, who believe that democracy requires an informed public to operate, whereas nondemocratic forms of government function on the consensual passivity and ignorance of a mass. Most of these philosophers are engaged in a critique of mass culture and mass communication by placing it in direct opposition to a somewhat romanticized notion of the public. Mills, for instance, describes the disparity between publics and masses in terms of three main differences. First, in a public “as many people express opinions as receive them” while in a mass, “far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.”[29] Second, in a public “communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public”; in a mass, on the other hand, “the communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect.”[30] Based on the first two criteria, those who are optimistic about the democratic potential of digital networks can argue that these can facilitate the formation of publics because individuals have increased opportunities for self-­expression and can contribute immediate reactions to public discourse with unprecedented effectiveness.

Of course, one can counter this optimism with the arguments of critics who have seen in the dynamics of mass society not the curtailment of self-­expression, but its unabated promotion. While recalling the earlier discussion of communicative capitalism, we should remember Deleuze’s observation about control societies: “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves. . . . What we’re are plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements.”[31]

This failure to translate words into action by promoting never ending self-­expression brings us to the third and final difference between publics and masses according to Mills. In a public, he argues, “opinion formed by such discussion readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against—­if necessary—­the prevailing system of authority.” On the contrary, in a mass, “the realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action.”[32] The question then becomes whether a digital network is an effective means for transforming information into meaningful action, or whether—­as Rivers[33] proposed—­it merely encourages the kind of repetitive, meaningless action that obstructs being.

 

Old and New Models of Collectivity

Clearly, a comparison of the features of publics and masses in the context of the democratic affordances of digital networks is helpful, but it is not enough to capture the complexity of this new form of collectivity. For that, it might be more productive to compare the digital network to its political predecessor, the modern state, and see which of its features for organizing sociality it adopts, rejects, or reinvents.

The digital network is not making the state obsolete, by any means. But it is, to some extent, giving shape to decentralized and ungovernable multitudes (ungovernable, at least, through the traditional mechanisms of state power, which rely on electoral representation and one-­to-­many communication). Unlike the state, the digital network is experienced as personal, heterogeneous, fluid, and not bound to a territory. But the state and the network as models of organizing sociality do share some characteristics: they can both be experienced as ubiquitous (the state and the network are all around the individual), and they can both be said to be based on totalizing forms of regulation and mediation based on the dynamics of inclusion or exclusion (one is either inside or outside the state or the network).

The differences and tensions between the state and the digital network might seem insignificant in this current era of globalization and digitality in which both states and networks can be experienced through each other (the network through the state, the state through the network). But philosophically, the debate concerning collectivity and plurality goes back to the very origins of Western modernity and its political theories for conceptualizing the social. One point of departure for this analysis could be Thomas Hobbes and his notion of the state as a great Leviathan. According to Hobbes, a form of government in which individuals subordinate their liberties to a sovereign authority—­that is, the state—­is necessary and legitimate because, left to their own devices, humans are rather brutish. The quest to satisfy our personal needs and wants means that inevitably we will impinge on our neighbor’s needs and wants, resulting in a “war of all against all,” which makes our time in this world “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[34] Thus it is nothing less than the protection of our lives that the state facilitates. In theory, the state guarantees subsistence, abundance, equality, and security: it makes possible the operation of free markets, declares the equality of all men (literally only men at the beginning, since as we know equality for women and other groups considered to be less than white men was only gained through struggles later on), and establishes mechanisms for internal and external security (the police and the military, respectively). In return, however, citizens have to enter into a social contract in which they recognize that their individual liberties are circumvented by the power of the state. It is worth noting that digital networks are seen as extending the same guarantees that the state offers: in an information economy, they ensure the subsistence of many; their ability to distribute goods easily (some would say too easily) guarantees abundance; networks do not discriminate on any bases other than access, so equality is supposedly achieved; and there are governing powers that regulate the networks in order to guarantee our security within them.

Thomas Hobbes’s ideas were adopted and adapted by other Western thinkers (Locke, Bentham, Mills Sr. and Jr., and Rousseau, for instance) who helped define the state in terms of a more inclusive liberal democracy in which authority was accountable to citizens to a greater degree than originally imagined by Hobbes. But four characteristics remained essential to the definition of the state: the protection of private property, an emphasis on territoriality as a way to actualize the state, the right of the state to maintain a monopoly on violence, and the equality of all citizens in the eyes of the government. It was seen as the primary role of the state to inculcate in its citizens an inviolable respect for private property, which in fact was seen as predating the state. Without respect for private property, the argument went, there could be no civilization. Because the wickedness of man is universal, it is a given fact that others will try to take the property that is not theirs, so a clear territorial boundary has to be marked between those who have pledged allegiance to the state and respect private property and those who do not. In the process of defending those boundaries, the state reserves the right to employ violence to defend its territory from both external and internal threats. Later, as notions of human rights evolved, the protection of the state was extended to cover all citizens, regardless of individual differences. This equality meant that, from the perspective of the state, individuals became subsumed under one totalizing category, “the people,” which eclipsed all internal differences “through the representation of the whole population by a hegemonic group, race, or class.”[35] The resulting formulation of collectivity and governability was expressed in the belief that the people elect their government with a single will, and the government rules on behalf of the people. Differences in the people are subordinated to the fact that they all enter into the same social contract with the state.

In contrast to this Hobbesian model that gave shape to the construct of “the people,” Baruch Spinoza proposes the concept of “the multitude,” the many not as one (“the people”), but as many. Even in Hobbes’s account, the many predate the one; they precede the state—­which is what makes them somewhat of a dangerous and unmanageable entity. Hobbes sees them as rejecting unity and flaunting authority. They recognize no sovereign. Hence the need to establish order and respect for private property by replacing the multitude with the more “civilized” and homogenous concept of the state-­bound “people.” But authors like Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Paolo Virno take Spinoza’s ideas about the multitude and revitalize them into a concept that recaptures the importance of difference and diversity in political affairs: “The multitude is composed of innumerable internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity—­different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations; different forms of labor; different ways of living; different views of the world; and different desires. The multitude is a multiplicity of all these singular differences.”[36]

According to Virno, this difference is the basis for a more egalitarian politics: “For Spinoza, the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action, in the handling of communal affairs, without converging into a One, without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many: a permanent form, not an episodic or interstitial form. For Spinoza, the multitudo is the architrave of civil liberties.”[37]

In this view, diversity does not result in fragmentation, mistrust, and chaos but instead opens up possibilities for the kind of collective action that networks (to a greater degree than states, perhaps) would seem to make possible. According to Virno, the multitude is more, not less, universal than the state. This kind of universality, Hardt and Negri argue, stands in opposition to the global dominance that empire carries out through control, exploitation, and constant war. It is a form of globalization that creates networked circuits of cooperation and that makes it possible to retain difference while discovering—­or, more exactly, producing—­the commonality that facilitates communication and action. This social production of commonality stands in opposition to capitalist production, which is why capitalism has responded by trying to appropriate social production through digital networks organized as monopsonies.

Statelessness and Networks

The reworking of the Spinozian concept of the multitude did not materialize out of nowhere but follows on the footsteps of a Marxist critique of the state, which sees class divisions as indicative of a separation between the rulers and the ruled. This separation is not based on a social contract, but on the exploitation of workers by those who own the means of production. The modern twist is that in the age of digital networks and monopsonies, this exploitation is experienced as benign, even beneficial, and is extended to the social and cultural production that happens beyond the workplace. Long before the so-­called socialism of social media and user-­generated content, Marx understood that capitalism must seek to commodify not just the worker’s manual labor but their social labor as well. To quote Virno, “[N]obody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labor.”[38]

However, Marxism does not seek the abolition of the state, but rather its transformation to a classless state of democratic socialism. And this is where many contemporary theorists part ways with Marxism. What is interesting about modern theories of the multitude is the way in which many of them propose a move toward complete statelessness: the realization by the multitude that it does not need a state. Jacob Grygiel explains this phenomenon:

Many of today’s nonstate groups do not aspire to have a state. In fact, they are considerably more capable of achieving their objectives and maintaining their social cohesion without a state apparatus. The state is a burden for them, while statelessness is not only very feasible but also a source of enormous power. Modern technologies allow these groups to organize themselves, seek financing, and plan and implement actions against their targets—­almost always other states—­without ever establishing a state of their own. They seek power without the responsibility of governing. The result is the opposite of what we came to know over the past two or three centuries: Instead of groups seeking statehood through a variety of means, they now pursue a range of objectives while actively avoiding statehood. Statelessness is no longer eschewed as a source of weakness but embraced as an asset.[39]

According to this argument, it would seem that digital networks make possible the emergence of multitudes who, in turn, undermine the state. Unlike states that can be targeted, networked multitudes are dispersed. Their cohesion is not necessarily based on shared identity traits like alignment with a particular nationality, culture, religion, ethnicity, ideology, and so on, although in some instances the network actually serves to accentuate or intensify one of these traits (e.g., global networks based on a particular form of religious or political extremism). Before, statelessness translated into powerlessness—­a group without representation in the state did not have any means to assert its political will. Now, however, the statelessness of multitudes is seen as a source of power. While minority groups could always be oppressed within the state, a network allows these groups to organize and act in ways that subvert state control. Or so the theory goes.

Although it has transformed and continues to transform political action—­especially when it comes to how special interest groups confront the state—­the stateless network tends to exhibit three important failures when it comes to challenging the authority of the state. First, the spontaneity of collective action can be a powerful means of expeditiously organizing a critical mass of individuals to challenge the power of the state, but this initial momentum can just as quickly dissipate as nodes find that there is little or no commonality to support long-­term unity and continuity. Large networks that emerge from one day to the other to oppose the state can be powerful political players, but their very size and growth rate work against them when it comes to the slow and painstaking work of negotiating and producing commonality. In short, when it comes to a network’s impact, it is “easy come, easy go.” Second, the dynamics of network growth (specifically “preferential attachment” in which rich nodes with many links get richer as new nodes link to them) means that the selection of messages and ideas that have the potential to reach large audiences may be more decentralized but not much more democratic, open, or horizontal than the mechanisms found within the state apparatus. In essence, networks (not unlike states) encourage the emergence of big players engaged in a race to accumulate the most attention, and nodes or players that are more “fit” have an advantage over others. All nodes are not created equally. Lastly, movements seeking to heighten their impact need to rely on for-­profit networks to quickly increase their membership, In the process, for-profit networks largest number of users. In the process, these for-­profit networks are not only able to capitalize on the activity of stateless networks but also perfectly positioned to collaborate with the state in monitoring, detecting, and—­when necessary—­purging threats to the state. Thus the privatization of stateless space means increased opportunities for surveillance and control on behalf of the state.

Producing Inequality through Inclusion and Exclusion

Despite their differences, states and digital networks share an interesting similarity of sorts: both rely on a kind of contract to organize social collectivity. In exchange for the promise of subsistence, abundance, equality, and security (which is after all just a promise, and may differ radically from what the network actually delivers), citizens sacrifice certain aspects of their individuality (such as their privacy) and “pledge allegiance” to a sovereign authority: in the case of the state, it was the rule of law; in the case of the network, it is the algorithms of network logic itself. This contract not only defines what it means to be a citizen or node but also spells out the parameters for participation. Networked statelessness merely replaces the state with other forms of authority and control. It becomes just as difficult to unthink the network as it was to leave the state, because just like statelessness yesterday, networklessness today means political and strategic insignificance. What Agamben observed of identity and statelessness is equally applicable to identity and networklessness: “A being radically devoid of any representable identity would be absolutely irrelevant to the state.”[40] We have exchanged our representable identity as the people for our representable identity as the nodes: a being devoid of its nodality is absolutely irrelevant to the network.

If the digital network has fallen short of its potential to actualize authentic multitudes, it is perhaps due to its inability to come to terms with its outsides, much in the same way that states failed to come to terms with theirs. What the state (and the network) becomes is a reflection as much of what happened outside it, as inside it. After all, the theories of modern sovereignty briefly discussed earlier were developed “in large part through Europe’s relationship with its outside, and particularly through its colonial project and the resistance of the colonized.”[41] In other words, the enterprise of defining the European subject (and therefore the European state) happened concurrently with the defining of the non-­European subject. The logic of the state was in no small part the result of a system of colonial racism that defined the European self in dialectical opposition to the non-­European other.[42] Likewise, the networked self is defined to no small extent in relation to the unnetworked other, except that this time the other is not in a faraway colony, but everywhere the network is. Thus both (post)colonial states and digital networks share similarities on how they treat the outside. Depending on the circumstances, the outside or other can be an uncharted domain waiting to be assimilated, a standing reserve waiting to be exploited, a security threat waiting to be diffused, or a combination of those things. The difference is that what is included and excluded in the network is not the result of a demarcated territorial boundary or border, but of a permeable limit that is situated beyond the network as well as between the nodes.

This permeable limit is crucial in unmapping the network, in theorizing how participation not only results in inclusion but also simultaneously results in the exclusion of those who cannot or will not participate and therefore generates inequality. Thus the inequality that digital networks generate revolves around inclusion (inequality among nodes within the network), and exclusion (inequality between nodes and the outsides of networks). The network as a template for organizing the social creates disparity through enforced participation inside, and exploitation outside. Because of preferential attachment, the rich get richer on the inside. But the wealth of the network is also premised on the availability of an outside to exploit and profit from. “Our wealth depends on their poverty.”[43]

In the transition from metaphor to template, the network emerges as a logic or episteme that normalizes this inequality. This logic is accepted because we are told that digital networks create more open and equal social structures. In some ways they do, but there are other processes at work. The dual processuality of networks means they can enable both more freedom (more opportunities for participation and expression) and, paradoxically, more repression (new ways of circumscribing, commoditizing, and monitoring or otherwise controlling the parameters for those new opportunities for action). Not only do we see the creation of new public spaces, but we also see these spaces becoming more vulnerable to monitoring and surveillance, data mining, and the commodification of social labor. When what we gain is overshadowed by what we surrender, it becomes imperative to unmap or unthink the whole structure.


  1. Borgmann, “Is the Internet the Solution to the Problem of Community?,” 64.
  2. Ibid., 63.
  3. Ibid., 65.
  4. Ibid., 77.
  5. Ibid., 78.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Dreyfus, “Telepistemology,” 49.
  8. According to Dreyfus, pragmatics, existential phenomenologists, and language philosophers (such as Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein) eventually began to question the notion of a brain external to the world and with indirect access to reality. Instead, they proposed that we make sense of the world as a result of being embedded right in it, inseparable from it. “[A]ttempting to prove that there is an external world presupposes a separation of the mind from the world of things and other people which defies a phenomenological description of how human beings make sense of everyday things and of themselves,” Dreyfus, “Telepistemology,” 53.
  9. Walther, “Computer-­Mediated Communication.”
  10. Ibid., 32.
  11. Walter Ong, for instance, writes that “electronic technology has brought us into the age of ‘secondary orality,’” which resembled the older oral forms in “its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment” At the same time, Ong recognized the importance of literacy in this new form of orality, which is “based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for it use as well.” Ong, Orality and Literacy, 133–­34.
  12. Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, 102.
  13. Ibid., 143. It is true that some social relations that take place in a web-­enabled social network can be with consociates and not just with contemporaries (e.g., my wife—­a consociate—­might also be part of my ‘friends’ in a social networking website).
  14. Rivers, “An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Technology.”
  15. Ibid., 575.
  16. Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays.
  17. Rivers, Contra Technologiam, 10.
  18. Brey, “Artifacts as Social Agents.”
  19. Disco, “Back to the Drawing Board,” 58.
  20. For an overview of ANT, see Callon, “Society in the Making”; Latour, “Where Are the Missing Masses?”
  21. Brey, “Artifacts as Social Agents,” 62.
  22. Ibid., 74.
  23. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 8.
  24. Wise, Exploring Technology and Social Space, 58.
  25. Brey, “Artifacts as Social Agents,” 79.
  26. Dourish, Where the Action Is, 97.
  27. See for example, Wellman, “Networks in the Global Village”; Dijk, The Network Society; Castells, The Rise of the Network Society; Castells, “Why Networks Matter.”
  28. Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Dewey, The Public and Its Problems; Lippmann, The Phantom Public; Mills, The Power Elite; Habermas, The Structural Transformation.
  29. Mills, The Power Elite, 303–­4.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Deleuze, Negotiations 1972–­1990, 129.
  32. Mills, The Power Elite, 303–­4.
  33. Rivers, “An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Technology.”
  34. Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.
  35. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 104.
  36. Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, xiv.
  37. Ibid., 21.
  38. Ibid., 63.
  39. Grygiel, “The Power of Statelessness,” para. 2.
  40. Agamben, Coming Community, 86.
  41. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 70.
  42. See Colombres, La Hora del Barbaro; Sardar, Nandy, and Davies, Barbaric Others.
  43. Lee and Stenner, “Who Pays?,” 105.