Networks matter because they are the underlying structure of our lives. And without understanding their logic we cannot change their programmes to harness their flexibility to our hopes, instead of relentlessly adapting ourselves to the instructions received from their unseen codes. Networks are the Matrix.
Manuel Castells, “Why Networks Matter”
ON MAY 31, 2010, an estimated thirty-three thousand people committed suicide in a collective wave of global proportions. In the opinion of the media, however, the aggregated death of those thousands was essentially insignificant. Thankfully, no blood was spilled that day, since the act of annihilation in question involved permanently deleting one’s Facebook account in what came to be known as Quit Facebook Day—an expression of rage over the company’s privacy policies for some, and of disillusionment with virtual life for others. In the words of an early advocate, “The movement could reach epidemic levels if more users kill off their electronic selves rather than submit to corporate control over their friendships. Facebook, and the other corporate lackeys, will then learn that they can’t exploit our social relationships for profit. From viral growth will come a viral death as more people demand that Facebook dies so our friendships may thrive.”
Availing themselves of how-to advice from the movement’s main website (Quitfacebookday.com), as well as tools like the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine (Suicidemachine.org), people removed themselves from the popular social networking site because they agreed with the general sentiment that “Facebook doesn’t respect you, your personal data, or the future of the web.”
While thirty-three thousand is a trivial portion of what was then a five hundred million membership base, Quit Facebook Day was deemed a success even as it failed. The mass exodus that was hoped for did not materialize, but at least the movement generated a public relations disturbance that led Facebook to reconsider its policies or at least to try to do a better job of explaining them. Thus the events surrounding Quit Facebook Day shed some light on today’s frequently tense relation between the rights of the user and the interests of the corporations that operate digital social networks.
Quit Facebook Day, as an expression of the desire to kill one’s networked self, illustrates the need for a language to talk about these tensions, to talk about the darker aspects of the relationship between platforms and individuals. It is obvious that digital information and communication technologies, such as Facebook, act as templates for organizing sociality, for building social networks. They arrange individuals into social structures, actively shaping how they interact with the world. But during the process of assembling a community, not every type of participant or every kind of participation is supported by the technology. While some things can be assimilated or rendered in terms that can be understood by the network, others cannot. As participation in social and civic life becomes increasingly mediated by digital networks, we are confronted by a series of disquieting questions: What does the digital network include in the process of forming an assemblage and, more important, what does it leave out? How does the network’s logic of exclusion shape the way we look at the world? At what point does the exclusion carried out by the digital network make it necessary to question its logic and even dismantle it, and to what end exactly? These are the questions this book seeks to address.
A network, defined minimally, is a system of linked elements or nodes. While a network can be used to describe and study natural as well as social phenomena (everything from cells to transnational corporations), what is relevant here is the use of networks to describe—and give shape to—social systems linked by digital technologies. For our present purposes, then, any and all kinds of electronic technosocial systems will simply be referred to as “the digital network.” We can broadly define a digital network as a composite of human and technological actors (the nodes) linked together by social and physical ties (the links) that allow for the transfer of information among some or all of these actors. While the Internet is the most notorious example of a digital network—and the main focus of attention in this book—digital networks can encompass other technologies not based on the Internet, technologies such as mobile phones, radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices, and so on. To make this analysis as broadly applicable as possible, however, the collective label of “digital network” will be used to encompass both the Internet and other assemblages constituted by various digital information and communication technologies.
While not unproblematic, the conceptual grouping of all digital networks into a discussion of the network is, I believe, timely and necessary. Modern contributions to social theory, science and technology studies, and even critical theory have shown us that networks are plural, fluid, and overlapping; we do not belong to a single network, but to a variety of them, and our participation in them is variegated and complex. To propose a critique of the digital network might seem, therefore, to reify, essentialize, and reduce the object being questioned. But as I will be arguing throughout this book, it has become necessary to isolate the network as a single epistemic form in order to launch a comprehensive critique of it. We have indeed gained a lot by looking at the world as a plurality of networks. But we are starting to lose something in terms of identifying common characteristics and, more important, common forms of violence found across all forms of networked participation. The essentialism behind discussing the network, therefore, is a strategy meant to clarify the relationship between capitalism and the architecture of digital networks across a variety of instances; to facilitate, in short, a structural critique or unmapping of the network.
Why talk about unmapping the digital network in the first place? The very project that the title of this book suggests seems unnecessarily antagonistic at a time when it is almost universally accepted that digital networks—everything from cell phones to social networking sites—are bringing humanity closer. At least this would appear to be the case if we go merely by adoption rates. More than a quarter of the world’s 6.7 billion people are already using the Internet. With only a few exceptions, Internet penetration has surpassed 50 percent of the population in most of the thirty countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And while developing nations obviously continue to face a digital divide (e.g., there are 246 million Internet users in North America, while only 137 million in Latin America), they are by no means unconnected: according to a UN report, there are 4.1 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, which means more than half of the planet’s population now owns a cell phone; in Africa alone, 90 percent of all telephone services are now provided by mobile phones. In the face of all this connectivity, any talk about undoing digital networks—however theoretical it might be—seems to suggest a halt to this march of progress.
Furthermore, critiquing the digital network would seem like critiquing the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the corporations that brought us the information revolution. If anything, the media seems to be telling us that this should be a time to celebrate and emulate the success of these digital captains of industry: Google, incorporated in 1998, now has a market value of $200 billion; Facebook, launched in 2004, now has the biggest social networking service, with more than a billion users, growing by 5 percent a month. There are social media pioneers like Twitter and Tumblr that have redefined the way we communicate, hardware companies like Apple and Cisco that have redesigned the devices needed to access the network, and even “old guard” telecom companies like Comcast and Time Warner that make it possible for us to connect to the wired world. These companies are economic forces, industry innovators, and, some would say, cultural icons. Our lifestyles (and in many cases, our livelihoods) depend on them. Yes, increased competition in the marketplace and stronger consumer advocacy would be welcome, but there is no denying that the information revolution these companies have facilitated is changing the world.
To find supporting evidence for this sentiment, one need do nothing more than to take a quick look at recent titles in the computer and Internet culture section of any bookstore (which would probably be done online, anyway). The volumes suggest that, among other things, digital networks are revolutionizing the way commerce, domestic and foreign politics, socioeconomic development, and education work. In the midst of this wave of improvement, with networks seemingly making possible practical solutions to many of the major problems that we face, is it not irresponsible to question their power? Yet in the chapters to come I attempt to do just that, find the motivations and conditions under which it becomes not only desirable but also necessary to disidentify from the digital network. But why?
Jacques Ellul proposed that whereas “primitive man” was socially determined by taboos, rites, and rules, the technological phenomenon represents the most dangerous form of determinism in the modern age. Our tools shape our ways of acting, knowing, and being in the world, but some of their influence can unfold without our consent or even awareness, and this determinism is particularly dangerous. Thus to Ellul technology occupies today the place rites and rules did before modernity, both because they direct our actions and because they frequently go unquestioned. Without even realizing it, we become slaves not so much to the technology, but to the assumptions about what they are for, what they do for us, and so on. The goal of this book, therefore, is to attempt to specify the kind of threat that the determinism of the digital network poses.
Organization of the Book
The book is divided into three main parts. The first part, “Thinking the Network” (chapters 1 through 4) concerns how networks shape us, and how we, in turn, shape them. Chapter 1 (“The Network as Method for Organizing the World”) introduces the notion of the network as a template for knowing and acting up the world and establishes the initial framework for arguing that the logic of the network (with its nodocentric politics of inclusion and exclusion) is part of a capitalist order that exacerbates disparity. Chapter 2 (“The Privatization of Social Life”) engages in an examination of the political economy of networks and the process of commodification that allows them to increase participation while simultaneously increasing inequality. Digital networks, it is argued, are not that different from other for-profit media systems in the patterns of ownership conglomeration they exhibit, insofar as these corporations strive to eliminate competition in order to acquire larger audiences. The chapter thus proposes that monopsony (a form of competition characterized by many sellers and one buyer) has emerged as the dominant market structure in the era of user-generated content. A critique of participatory culture is put forth that frames it as both a form of pleasure and a form of violence that subordinates the social to economic interests. Chapter 3 (“Computers as Socializing Tools”) takes a closer look at the scientific and technological paradigms behind digital networks and how they have been applied in the assemblage of digital social networks. Since a true understanding of digital networks is impossible without a good grasp of modern network science, the scientific study of networks—with its discrete set of metrics and measures—is discussed as an exercise not just in describing social networks but in designing them. In chapter 4 (“Acting Inside and Outside the Network”), the relationship between the network and the self is considered in more detail. Specific biases in the manner in which the network mediates the social reality of the individual in terms of immediacy, intensity, intimacy, and simultaneity are discussed. Different models for conceptualizing how the network and the individual codetermine opportunities for action are reviewed, including actor–network theory. The chapter then looks at how the network shapes the individual’s opportunities for political action. The question of whether digital networks promote the formation of publics or masses is addressed as a way to introduce a discussion of whether the network has come to replace or merely supplement the role of the state.
The second part of the book, “Unthinking the Network” (chapters 5, 6, and 7) begins to address the issue of how and why unthinking the network episteme is necessary and possible. Chapter 5 (“Strategies for Disrupting Networks”) lays out the theoretical grounds for doing this by discussing an ontology that accounts for the virtuality of networks. Digital networks give shape to social forms that were before only virtual possibilities. However, in the process of actualizing them (giving them concrete form as templates), they become rigidified social behaviors. Using the work of Gilles Deleuze, the chapter explores how the process of unmapping the digital network involves reengaging the virtuality of possibilities. This chapter also theorizes some general tactics for unmapping the network (obstruction, interference, misinformation, intensification, etc.), identifies the analytical spaces where such strategies can be applied, and suggests the personal and collective stances that unmapping might entail. Chapter 6 (“Proximity and Conflict”) begins to examine the motivations for unmapping the digital network by focusing on the concepts of space and surveillance. While the uniform distancelessness of nodocentric space does not diminish social opportunities, it changes what counts as proximal and relevant and redefines our relationship with the local, and therefore must be questioned. Similarly, the chapter considers how network logic has changed the way in which dissent, security, and war are manifested and countered, and asks what some of the implications of this new order are. Chapter 7 (“Collaboration and Freedom”) applies a similar approach to unthinking the network episteme when it comes to discourses related to commons-based social production and Internet freedom. The chapter questions the efficacy of peer-to-peer as a mode of social production that attempts to democratize resources. This mode exemplifies the limits of applying network logic to unthink networks because it simply manages to build a digital commons on top of an infrastructure that is thoroughly privatized. Likewise, the contradictions in the trope of “Internet Freedom”—as exemplified in the speech made in early 2010 by Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton—are carefully scrutinized. The capitalist state and the corporation are typically portrayed as the stewards of the Internet, in charge of guaranteeing the rights of global citizens to freedom of speech, economic opportunity, and so on. In practice, however, the chapter examines how their actions undermine the rights and autonomy of individuals by utilizing digital networks to promote surveillance, repression of minority voices, and disparities.
Of the strategies for unmapping the network, one that might be particularly productive is intensification, since it involves not rejecting the digital network but using its own logic to subvert it, in the process creating alternative models of subjectivity that change what it means to participate in the network. This is the approach that concerns the third and final part of the book, “Intensifying the Network.” Chapter 8 (“The Limits of Liberation Technologies”) discusses the use of digital networks during the Arab Spring movements to point out how certain discourses prevent a critique of the tools and the market structures in which they operate. In this chapter, I also review some experimental work I am doing with alternate reality games as educational tools for intensifying the digital network. Chapter 9 (“The Outside of Networks as a Method for Acting in the World”) expands the discussion of intensification by focusing on the importance of the outsides of networks and offers a conclusion that provides additional thoughts about the unmapping of networked participation.
While this is a book about ideas and concepts, I have tried my best to stay away from the overly abstract language that often accompanies the formulation of critical theory. If, indeed, there is nothing more practical than a good theory, as Kurt Lewin suggests, I have endeavored to make the ideas in this book as clear and applicable to as many different types of readers as possible.
- Kiss, "Facebook." ↵
- Warren, "Quit Facebook Day Falls Flat"; Spring, "Quit Facebook Day Was a Success Even as It Flopped." ↵
- White, "Facebook Suicide." ↵
- From the banner at Quitfacebookday.com. Ironically, in 2009 the website Seppukoo (www.seppukoo.com), whose goal was to “assist your virtual identity suicide,” received a cease-and-desist letter from Facebook accusing them of malicious appropriation of the personal data of users. ↵
- Wellman, Networks in the Global Village. ↵
- Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of rhizomatic thinking, for instance. See Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. ↵
- Tryhorn, “Nice Talking to You.” ↵
- Eskelsen, Marcus, and Ferree, The Digital Economy Fact Book, 6. The exceptions are Mexico, Turkey, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland. ↵
- Eskelsen, Marcus, and Ferree, The Digital Economy Fact Book, 6. ↵
- Tryhorn, “Nice Talking to You.” ↵
- Eskelsen, Marcus, and Ferree, The Digital Economy Fact Book, 60 ↵
- See for example Scoble and Israel, Naked Conversations; Micek and Whitlock, Twitter Revolution. ↵
- See for instance Feld and Wilcox, Netroots Rising; Roberts, How the Internet Is Changing the Practice of Politics in the Middle East. ↵
- Weis and Andrews, The Business of Changing Lives. ↵
- Bonk, The World Is Open. ↵
- Ellul, The Technological Society, xxxiii. ↵
- Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science, 169. ↵