Back When the Past had a Future: Being Precarious in a Network Society

Posted by Nishant Shah at Feb 12, 2013 05:40 AM |
We live in Network Societies. This phrase has been so bastardised to refer to the new information turn mediated by digital technologies, that we have stopped paying attention to what the Network has become. Networks are everywhere. They have become the default metaphor of our times, where everything from infrastructure assemblies to collectives of people, are all described through the lens of a network.

This article by Nishant Shah was published in a peer-reviewed newspaper Researching BWPWAP. The write-up is on Page 3.


We are no longer just human beings living in socially connected, politically identified communities. Instead, we have become actors, creating archives of traces and transactions, generating traffic and working as connectors in the ever expanding fold of the network.

The network is an opaque metaphor, conflating description and explanation. So it becomes the object to be studied, the originary context that produces itself, and the explanatory framework that accounts for itself. In other words, the network was our past – it gives us an account of who we were, it is our present – it defines the context of all our activities, and it is our future – where we do everything to support the network because it is the only future that we can imagine for ourselves. It is this flattening characteristic of networks that are diagrammatically mapped, cartographically reproduced, and presented outside of and oblivious to temporality, that produces a condition of the future that can no longer be imagined through our everyday lives.

Networks neither promise nor deliver a flattened utopia of coexistence and decentralised power. Networks are, in fact, quite aware of the structures of inequity and conditions of privilege they create and perpetuate: the only way to recognise the existence of a network is to be outside of it, the only aspiration to belong to a network is to be kept outside of it when you recognise it. Networks create themselves as simultaneously ubiquitous and scarce, of everpresent and ephemeral, creating a new ontology for our being human – an ontology of precariousness, contingent upon erasure of our histories, archives of our present, and unimaginable futures; futures we are not ready for, and don’t have strategies to occupy.

I remember the times, before networks became the default conditions of being human, when kids, negotiating the variegated temporalities of their past-present-futures, would often begin their speculations on future, by saying, "When I grow up...". In that hope of growing up, was the potential for radical political action, the possibility of social reconstruction. In network societies, though, time has no currency. It has been replaced by attentions, flows of information and actions, and do not offer a tomorrow to grow into.

There is no future to help mitigate the exigencies of the present. And with the overwhelming emphasis on archiving the present, there is no more a coherent future that can be accounted for in the vocabulary that the network develops to explain itself, and the hypothetical world outside it.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.