Chapter 9: The Outside of Networks as a Method for Acting in the World

The Outside of Networks as a Method for Acting in the World


IMAGINE A NETWORK MAP, with its usual nodes and links. Now shift your attention away from the nodes, to the negative space between them. In network diagrams, the space around a node is rendered in perfect emptiness, stillness, and silence. But this space is far from barren. We can give a name to that which networks leave out, that which fills the interstices between nodes with noise, and that which resists being assimilated by the network: paranode. In neuroscience, the paranodal defines a specific type of cellular structure that, while not part of the neural network, plays an important role in excitatory signal transduction. Here, I use the term to refer to the space that lies beyond the topological and conceptual limits of the node. This space is not empty but inhabited by multitudes that do not conform to the organizing logic of the network. As far as the network is concerned, the paranodal exists only to be bypassed or collapsed in the act of linking, of reducing the distance between nodes. But whether it is acknowledged or not, this space gives nodes their history and identity. In other words, the paranodal is not passive; its existence shapes nodes and the relationships between them (much like in urban planning, a “bad” neighborhood “forces” city planners to build a highway around or across it, so that cars can bypass it). The instability of paranodal space is what animates the network, and to attempt to render this space invisible is to arrive at less, not more, complete explanations of the network as a social reality.

To the extent that nodocentrism becomes the dominant model for organizing and assembling the social, only the paranodal can suggest alternatives that exist beyond the exclusivity of nodes. Digital networks create new templates for organizing sociality, but it is only by going beyond the logic of the network that difference from established social norms can be claimed. Furthermore, the paranodal is a site for correcting the nodocentrism that reduces social interaction to self-­interested exchange. It is the launching pad for social desires that cannot be contained by the network. These new desires end up causing new shifts and transformations within the network. The paranodal is what forces nodes to react and rearrange themselves according to possibilities that before only existed virtually, causing the network to expand in new directions or even cease to exist. The node, with its static identity and a predefined place and purpose, dissolves into something that can occupy other modes of being and evolving.

The point of conceptualizing the paranodal is not simply to locate and identify what is outside the network in order to bring it within, to assimilate it. Rather, the point is to uncover the politics of inclusion and exclusion encoded in the logic of the network, and to suggest strategies for disidentifying from it. As Rancière suggests,[1] new forms of political subjectification (of shaping consciousness) are always accompanied by disidentification, as certain parts of society reject the whole. The paranodal becomes, to use Rancière’s terminology, the part of those who have no part. If digital networks are machines of capitalist subjectification, producing social subjects capable of operating in the privatized pseudopublic space of the network, then it is only in the paranodal where disidentification can take place and alternative subjectivities can emerge.

While the primary directive of the network is linking, paranodality is concerned—­to paraphrase Lovink[2]—­with whatever the mirror phantom of linking is. A few examples of paranodalities might help to illustrate the concept: a close friend or family member who refuses to participate in the latest social media craze and remains a conspicuous hole in our social network is an example of a paranode; broken web links pointing to pages that no longer exist or cached versions of pages no longer active are paranodal because they represent phantom nodes; signal jammers such as RFID (radio-­frequency identification) blockers that prevent network devices from being found are examples of technologies that create paranodality; public spaces without surveillance cameras are paranodal spaces; radio operators without a license (pirate radio) are paranodal because they function without validation from the network; any kind of wilderness where signal reception cannot be established is paranodal; digital viruses and parasites that obstruct the operations of a network are also examples of paranodal technologies; obsolete technology is paranodal because its usage is no longer required to operate the network; digital noise and glitches are paranodal because they interfere with the flow of data in the network; paranodality is a lost information packet on the Internet; populations in a dataset that are excluded or discriminated against by an algorithm become paranodal; punk or rogue nodes—­nodes who belong to a network only in order to destroy it—­are paranodal.

Given the multiplicity of networks an individual can belong to at any given time, being paranodal in relation to one network can obviously serve as the basis for belonging to another network. As a starting point, a theory of paranodality can help us account for our participation across these multiple, complex, and open networks. Traditionally, we have thought of the outsides of networks merely in terms of nonmembership, a definite in-­or-­out status that defines the subject. For instance, Sally Wyatt, Graham Thomas, Steve Woolgar and Tiziana Terranova[3] mapped four types of Internet nonusers: the resisters, the rejecters, the expelled, and the excluded. These categories can be easily transposed to our study of the peripheries of any digital network. The resisters encompass those subjects who have decided voluntarily not to belong to the network; the rejecters used to be nodes in the network but then decided to disidentify from that network voluntarily; expelled nodes also used to be part of a network, but they have been forcefully pushed to the outside; finally, the excluded subjects have always occupied the outside, although not necessarily by their own choice. While these categories are useful for defining what is excluded in terms of a lack of access to the network, they provide too limiting a framework for the construction of manifold networked identities. When it comes to networks, the outside is not just without but within—­an outside that is everywhere. The paranodal is a multiversal space that coexists simultaneously with other outsides as well as other insides of networks. It unfolds across various spatiotemporal domains and facets of consciousness. Instead of neatly occupying one of the aforementioned four categories and assuming the corresponding identity, we often find ourselves simultaneously inhabiting a combination of these categories vis-­à-­vis different networks: one can simultaneously belong to digital technosocial network A, while rejecting network B; find oneself expelled from network C, while continuously resisting belonging to network D; and so on. Furthermore, the peripheries of nodes can involve different kinds of actors (human and nonhuman, material and immaterial) and occupy different topological positions (from the space between nodes, to the borders of networks, to their outsides). Their disassembly can implicate different strategic responses (from passive resistance to active refusal). Each of these possibilities can impact the formation of identity inside and outside the network differently. The point is that across sites, moments, and identities, we simultaneously occupy the place of resisters, rejecters, expelled, and excluded in relation to different digital networks.

A theory of the outside of networks should give us more sophisticated ways to talk not only about nonuse as a mode of disidentification but also about nonparticipation as a mode of resistance. In other words, apart from a more nuanced taxonomy of participation and nonparticipation, the paranodal can help us question the idea of the network itself, in particular with respect to digital networks. Accordingly, the paranodal can provide sites for subverting the idea of the monopsony as the dominant template for our social lives.

Theorizing the outside of networks is about uncovering the paranodal contributions that nodocentrism renders invisible. According to Nick Lee and Paul Stenner, “[W]hatever variable shapes the network may take, the energy required to maintain those shapes is taken, indirectly to be sure, from those who are excluded from the networks.”[4] The wealth of networks, in other words, is premised on the ability to create systems of exchange that transfer part of the production cost to an external third party: the suppliers of labor, the colonized, the weak, the exploited, and so on. In economics, the term used to describe this deferral is called, aptly enough, an externality (e.g., when a company is able to dispose of industrial waste without paying any cleanup costs, this represents an external cost to society or the environment). The surplus value that is created by not fairly or fully compensating the paranodal creates the wealth that propels the growth of the network. Even within the network, this wealth disproportionally benefits some parts of the network more than others, which is a way of explaining why in scale-­free networks some nodes are more fit than others (i.e., they are able to acquire links at a faster rate than others[5]).

It is under these circumstances that the resistance of the outside becomes important. Following David Couzens Hoy,[6] we can say that the resistance that the outside poses to the logic of the inside is an ethical resistance because of the kinds of obligations it imposes on nodes. By its mere presence, the outside discloses a site of opposition, making the network aware of the refusal of the unnetworked. Nodes are confronted with a certain obligation to acknowledge the resistance of the outside, even if they opt to actively ignore it or do nothing about it. Nonetheless, this resistance is the only thing that brings the inequalities of the network to the fore. The paranodal can therefore shape the network in very powerful ways, focusing the attention of nodes on the limits of the technosocial systems used to structure their reality. In other words, it is only when nodocentrism is perceived or experienced as an injustice that inequality (between those who participate and those who capitalize on participation) becomes apparent, usually in the form of questions about the politics of network inclusion and exclusion. Through its encounter with the outside, a node can thus run against the limits of its own logic, and be forced to search for horizons beyond its existence and experience as a node in the network.

Standing in the way of such realizations is the fact that the network template has become like the map in the story by Jorge Luis Borges[7] in which a document was drawn with such meticulous detail that it ended up being of the same scale as the territory it sought to depict (in other words, one could overlay the map over the actual space and they would match exactly). Likewise, digital networks do not merely map our current social realities; they organize them and operationalize them so enticingly (promising more friends, more opportunities, and more fun) that the new map replaces the actual territory as the preferred social reality. Thus instead of the map becoming useless—­abandoned in the desert like in Borges’s allegorical story, populated by the occasional beast and beggar—­we increasingly live in the (privatized) network maps created for us.

To talk about disrupting the network under these circumstances may seem like an impossible endeavor. Even if monopsonies are responsible for privatizing and commodifying social relations, it could be argued that they have made sociality more vibrant and interconnected, making it easier (not harder) to express oneself, exercise one’s rights, organize against injustice, give voice to minorities, democratize knowledge and cultural production, and so on. By many accounts, the benefits outweigh the costs, making it unrealistic and undesirable to say no to the network. There is much that is valuable in networked participation, and it would be folly to call for its complete rejection. But to engage in a critique of network logic is not to advocate a simplistic form of network rejection. It is to strive to specify the ways in which the network episteme orders our reality. As a philosophical project, disrupting the network is about challenging the determinism of network logic, pointing out the limits of nodocentrism as a form of othering that subsumes difference to the contours of the node. As a political project, the point of unmapping the network is to develop the (non)participatory strategies for disrupting the monopsony as a model for organizing the social along profit considerations. Paranodal resistance might take the form of a refusal to do business with certain companies, or a rejection of the premise that we must upload our content to the network with the most users. It might actualize itself as the struggle to get corporations to change their terms of service; or the promotion of open-­source, open-­content, or peer-­to-­peer alternatives to monopsonies. It might take messy forms of intensification like the ones Haisam Abu-­Samra describes, when Egyptian activists faced an Internet shutdown and were forced to rethink their strategies. Or it might unfold as a form of intensification, which starts within the digital network but moves beyond it, as when some members of the hacker–­geek collective Anonymous went from simply “trolling for the lulz” (engaging in various acts of cyber mischief and vandalism just for laughs) to organizing actual on-­the-­street protests against institutions (the Church of Scientology) and governments (Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, Wisconsin, etc.). According to Gabriella Coleman, the Anonymous “care packet” distributed to participants in the Tunisian operation included language that recognized the limits of cyber activism and encouraged participants to go beyond it: “This is *your* revolution. It will neither be Twittered nor televised or [sic] IRC’ed. You *must* hit the streets or you *will* loose [sic] the fight.”[8]

Any kind of project that seeks to give users more control of the data they generate while participating in digital networks should be encouraged: for example, projects that give participants real ownership and portability of their social networking profiles, allowing them to maintain control of privacy settings as they subscribe to various digital networks; or projects that guarantee anonymous searching and browsing of the Internet; and so on. Likewise, the public needs to be better represented when corporations draft the policies that govern their interaction with participants and spell out their rights. The public needs to put pressure on the government to ensure that these agreements are fair, transparent, and binding. Currently, corporations can abuse and exploit users with impunity, and while they are acting within the bounds of legality, a dialogue needs to be started about corporate responsibility in the age of social media. These forms of involvement might not be enough; they merely seek to improve the network rather than unthink it, and they continue to frame participants as somewhat passive recipients of corporate largess—­but at least it would be a start.

Perhaps the movement to disrupt digital networks will be akin to what the slow food movement is to fast food: an opportunity to stop and question the meaning of progress. To unthink the digital network would be to constantly decode the relationship between the map and what it represents and the ways in which the map determines or shapes our interaction with the world. Langdon Winner’s notion of “epistemological Luddism”[9] might be useful here. Winner argues that we should be able to evaluate technologies based on the following criteria: the degree to which they incorporate participation in their design by the people who will use them, the degree of flexibility and mutability the technologies exhibit (their capacity to be altered and tweaked), the degree of dependency they create, and the degree to which they can be dismantled. But disassembly to Winner is not merely a destructive Luddite reaction to the technology (as justified as that may be, at times). Rather, it is a method, a learning opportunity, a chance to better understand how the technology works, and to better understand how our relationship to it is constituted. This kind of Luddism (what I am calling paranodality as method) might help rogue nodes exploit the entropy that envelops digital networks (an old network is replaced by a newer one; a forced upgrade eliminates a whole category of nodes; users simply stop using a service once the novelty wears off; and so on). In this manner, disassembly would mean the acceleration of the decay of the network, bringing about a reversal of its effects by causing the annihilation of the networked self.[10]

More egalitarian models of social participation might be achieved in the future by challenging the logic of the network. But realistically, today, the paranode might not be able to completely secede from its host and actualize alternatives. As tentative as they may be, strategies like the ones previously suggested can ensure that a critical theory of networks is of practical use to those of us whose social lives are already inexorably intertwined with the services provided by monopsonies. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that none of these proposals and tactics is sufficient or unproblematic. They must be undertaken along with the work of theorizing disidentification from the network, differentiating between what is made possible by the network (the models of participation it affords) and what remains possible only outside of it, and accounting for those parts of the node’s own identity that are excluded from the network, preventing it from fully actualizing itself. Thus the scope of what it means to unthink the digital network in the present time should be, beyond the strategies mentioned earlier, to illustrate how the network episteme has molded us, to explain how the network—­as cultural metaphor and technological artifact—­acts as a social determinant.

Even as we continue to participate in digital networks, we should keep in mind that participation is full of contradictions, and those contradictions define our contemporary existence. In an economy where profit is derived by capitalizing on the participation of users (through advertising, data mining, etc.), and where a handful of buyers acquire and distribute the bulk of user-­generated products, great power can be exercised by corporations in setting the conditions under which social exchange can take place. The more participants are willing to accept the conditions defined by the monopsony, the more opportunities there will be for exploitation, and the more the participants will experience an impoverishment as their wealth is reconfigured into immaterial social capital (which is, in any event, managed by the monopsony). An inequality is thus instituted between those who control the network and those who participate in it, an inequality that expresses itself through contradictions: Produce more, own less. Say more, communicate less. Participate more, matter less. Using paranodality as a method means to critique the ways in which the structures of networked participation seemingly make us more versatile actors, while making invisible the manner in which we are being acted on for someone’s benefit. In describing the propensity of the public to consume interactive media that creates the illusion of empowerment while solidifying the status quo, Andrejevik observes that “people will not only pay to participate in the spectacle of their own manipulation, but . . . thanks in part to the promise of participation, they will ratify policies that benefit powerful elites and vested interests at their own expense, as if their (inter)active support might somehow make those vested interests their own.”[11]

The admission that participation can work against our interests, while seemingly empowering us, should also be a reminder that participation and nonparticipation represent choices laden with values. Increasingly, we will see the question of networked inclusion and exclusion, participation and nonparticipation, framed in ethical terms. For example, students are already being urged by school administrators to forgo participation in some “unethical” digital networks—­like the College Anonymous Confession Board[12]—­where cyberbullying is prevalent. Similarly, state employees were explicitly told not to participate in the “unethical” WikiLeaks network by reading the released cables, while corporations like Amazon, Bank of America, and Apple[13] also took measures to prevent users from accessing or supporting the “unethical” WikiLeaks through their networks). But apart from considerations of whether it is right or wrong to participate in certain kinds of networks, the resistance of the paranodal must be read in terms of a principled negation of the network. It is only in exclusion (voluntary or involuntary) that alternatives are engendered, and only in exclusion can we find possibilities for disrupting the network, rejecting it, or fleeing from it. Paranodality is nonconformity, and at a time when the logic of the network has found its largest application in privatized systems where the compulsion to participate drives the maximization of profit and endangers the democratization of cultural production, paranodality as method means revitalizing nonconformity as the site of important debates.

Digital networks and the network episteme (the network as a strategy for knowing the world) have already transformed who we are and how we interact with each other—­at least for the third of the world’s population who have access to the Internet and the 70 percent who have access to mobile phones. It is impossible, perhaps even undesirable, to turn back the clock to a time of pre(digitally)networked societies. Thus the more realistic strategies for unthinking and unmapping networks will rely not on abandoning them in a technophobic reaction; they will rely on the intensification of the network: questioning the terms under which it includes and excludes, engaging in creative acts of disassembly by pushing the limits of its logic, and conceptualizing alternative modes of being through the paranodal. We are just beginning to imagine what disrupting the network might look like.

  1. Rancière, Disagreement.
  2. Lovink asks, “What is linking and how could we describe its mirror phantom?” Lovink, Zero Comments, 235.
  3. Wyatt, Thomas, and Terranova, “They Came, They Surfed.”
  4. Lee and Stenner, “Who Pays?,” 105.
  5. Barabási, Linked.
  6. Hoy, Critical Resistance.
  7. The story is “Del rigor en la ciencia” (“On Exactitude in Science”).
  8. Coleman, “Anonymous,” para. 15.
  9. Winner, Autonomous Technology.
  10. This entropy is captured in what I call the bang-­boost-­burst-­and-­purge life cycle of digital networks: Bang: an initial period of rapid growth, as early adopters rush to join the hot new app; emergence of rich nodes (which will become richer through preferential attachment). Boost: a period of capitalization; investment accelerates growth, and the network achieves critical mass, as the inequality between rich nodes and poor nodes is converted into wealth for investors. Burst: a period when hyperinflation leads to bubble popping. Purge: in the aftermath of the crisis, investors reap the rewards, while users loose their content (their wealth) or are forced to accept new terms of use; unwanted nodes and modes of participation (fake profiles, for instance) are purged from the network.
  11. Andrejevic, iSpy, 243
  12. For an example of one such plea, see for instance
  13. Amazon refused to host WikiLeaks’s website; Bank of America stopped processing contributions to the organization; and Apple removed the WikiLeaks iPhone app from its market.