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Networks: What You Don’t See is What You (for)Get

Posted by Nishant Shah at May 06, 2014 05:30 AM |
When I start thinking about DML (digital media and learning) and other such “networks” that I am plugged into, I often get a little confused about what to call them.
Networks: What You Don’t See is What You (for)Get

Banner image credit: Alexander Baxevanis

The blog entry was originally published in DML Central on April 17, 2014 and mirrored in Hybrid Publishing Lab on May 13, 2014.

Are we an ensemble of actors? A cluster of friends? A conference of scholars? A committee of decision makers? An array of perspectives? A group of associates? A play-list of voices? I do not pose these  questions rhetorically, though I do enjoy rhetoric. I want to look at this inability to name collectives and the confusions and ambiguity it produces as central to our conversations around digital thinking. In particular, I want to look at the notion of the network. Because, I am sure, that if we were to go for the most neutralised digital term to characterise this collection that we all weave in and out of, it would have to be the network. We are a network.[1]

But, what does it mean to say that we are a network? The network is a very strange thing. Especially within the realms of the Internet, which, in itself, purports to be a giant network, the network is self-explanatory, self-referential and completely denuded of meaning. A network is benign, and like the digital, that foregrounds the network aesthetic, the network is inscrutable. You cannot really touch a network or name it. You cannot shape it or define it. You can produce momentary snapshots of it, but you can never contain it or limit it. The network cannot be held or materially felt.

And yet, the network touches us. We live within networked societies. We engage in networking – network as a verb. We are a network – network as a noun. We belong to networks – network as a collective. In all these poetic mechanisms of network, there is perhaps the core of what we want to talk about today – the tension between the local and the global and the way in which we will understand the Internet and then the frameworks of governance and policy that surround it.

Let me begin with a genuine question. What predates the network? Because the network is a very new word. The first etymological trace of the network is in 1887, where it was used as a verb, within broadcast and communications models, to talk about an outreach. As in ‘to cover with a network.’ The idea of a network as a noun is older where in the 1550s, the idea of ‘net-like arrangements of threads, wires, etc.’ was first identified as a network. In the second half of the industrial 19th Century, the term network was used for understanding an extended, complex, interlocking system. The idea of network as a set of connected people emerged in the latter half of the 20thCentury. I am pointing at these references to remind us that the ubiquitous presence of the network, as a practice, as a collective, and as a metaphor that seeks to explain the rest of the world around us, is a relatively new phenomenon. And we need to be aware of the fact, that the network, especially as it is understood in computing and digital technologies, is a particular model through which objects, individuals and the transactions between them are imagined.

For anybody who looks at the network itself – especially the digital network that we have accepted as the basis on which everything from social relationships on Facebook to global financial arcs are defined – we know that the network is in a state of crisis.

Networks of crises: The Bangalore North East Exodus

Let me illustrate the multiple ways in which the relationship between networks and crisis has been imagined through a particular story. In August 2012, I woke up one morning to realise that I was living in a city of crisis. Bangalore, which is one of my homes, where the largest preoccupations to date have been about bad roads, stray dogs, and occasionally, the lack of a nightlife, was suddenly a space that people wanted to flee and occupy simultaneously.

Through the technology mediated gossip mill that produced rumours faster than the speed of a digital click, imagination of terror, danger, and material harm found currency. The city suddenly witnessed thousands of people running away from it, heading back to their imagined homelands. It was called the North East exodus, where, following an ethnic-religious clash between two traditionally hostile communities in Assam, there were rumours that the large North East Indian community in Bangalore was going to be attacked by certain Muslim factions at the end of Ramadan.
The media spectacle of the exodus around questions of religion, ethnicity, regionalism and belonging only emphasised the fact that there is a new way of connectedness that we live in – the network society that no longer can be controlled, contained or corrected by official authorities and their voices. Despite a barrage of messages from law enforcement and security authorities, on email, on large screens on the roads, and on our cell phones, there was a growing anxiety and a spiralling information explosion that was producing an imaginary situation of precariousness and bodily harm. For me, this event, was one of the first signalling how to imagine the network society in a crisis, especially when it came to Bangalore, which is supposed to represent the Silicon dreams of an India that is shining brightly. While there is much to be unpacked about the political motivations and the ecologies of fear that our migrant lives in global cities are enshrined in, I want to specifically focus on what the emergence of this network society means.

There is an imagination, especially in cities like Bangalore, of digital technologies as necessarily plugging in larger networks of global information consumption. The idea that technology plugs us into the transnational circuits is so huge that it only tunes us toward an idea of connectedness that is always outward looking, expanding the scope of nation, community and body.

However, the ways in which information was circulating during this phenomenon reminds us that digital networks are also embedded in local practices of living and survival. Most of the time, these networks are so natural and such an integral part of our crucial mechanics of urban life that they appear as habits, without any presence or visibility. In times of crises – perceived or otherwise – these networks make themselves visible, to show that they are also inward looking. But in this production of hyper-visible spectacles, the network works incessantly to make itself invisible.

Which is why, in the case of the North East exodus, the steps leading to the resolution of the crisis, constructed and fuelled by networks is interesting. As government and civil society efforts to control the rumours and panic reached an all-time high and people continued to flee the city, the government eventually went in to regulate the technology itself. There were expert panel discussions about whether the digital technologies are to be blamed for this rumour mill. There was a ban on mass-messaging and there was a cap on the number of messages which could be sent on a day by each mobile phone subscriber. The Information and Broadcast Ministry along with the Information Technologies cell, started monitoring and punishing people for false and inflammatory information.

Network as Crisis: The unexpected visibility of a network

What, then, was the nature of the crisis in this situation? It is a question worth exploring. We would imagine that this crisis was a crisis about the nationwide building of mega-cities filled with immigrant bodies that are not allowed their differences because they all have to be cosmopolitan and mobile bodies. The crisis could have been read as one of neo-liberal flatness in imagining the nation and its fragments, that hides the inherent and historical sites of conflict under the seductive rhetoric of economic development. And yet, when we look at the operationalization of the resolutions, it looked as if the crisis was the appearance and the visibility of the hitherto hidden local networks of information and communication.

In her analysis of networks, Brown University’s Wendy Chun posits that this is why networks are an opaque metaphor. If the function of metaphor is to explain, through familiarity, objects which are new to us, the network as an explanatory paradigm presents a new conundrum. While the network presumes and exteriority that it seeks to present, while the network allows for a subjective interiority of the actor and its decisions, while the network grants visibility and form to the everyday logic of organisation, what the network actually seeks to explain is itself. Or, in less evocative terms, the network is not only the framework through which we analyse, but it is also the object of analyses. Once the network has been deployed as a paradigm through which to understand a crisis, once the network has made itself visible, all our efforts are driven at explaining and strengthening, and almost like digital mothers, comfort the network back into its peaceful existence as infrastructure. We develop better tools to regulate the network. We define new parameters to mine the data more effectively. We develop policies to govern and govern through the network with greater transparency and ease.

Thus, in the case of the North East exodus, instead of addressing the larger issues of conservative parochialism, an increasing backlash by right-wing governments and a growing hostility that emerges from these cities that nobody possesses and nobody belongs to, the efforts were directed at blaming technology as the site where the problem is located and the network as the object that needs to be controlled. What emerged was a series of corrective mechanisms and a set of redundant regulations that controlled the number of text messages that people were able to send per day or policing the Internet for spreading rumours. The entire focus was on information management, as if the reason for the mass exodus of people from the NE Indian states and the sense of fragility that the city had been immersed in, was all due to the pervasive and ubiquitous information gadgets and their ability to proliferate in p2p (peer-to-peer) environments outside of the government’s control. This lack of exteriority to the network is something that very few critical voices have pointed out.

Duncan Watts, the father of network computing, working through the logic of nodes, traffic and edges, has suggested there is a great problem in the ways in which we understand the process of network making. I am paraphrasing his complex mathematical text that explains the production of physical networks – what he calls the small worlds – and pointing out his strong critique about how the social scientists engage with networks. In the social sciences’ imagination of networks, there is a messy exteriority – fuzzy, complex and often not reducible to patterns or basic principles. The network is a distilling of the messy exteriority, a representation of the complex interplay between different objects and actors, and a visual mapping of things as they are. Which is to say, we imagine there is a material reality and the network is a tool by which this reality, or at least parts of this reality, are mapped and represented to us in patterns which can help us understand the true nature of this reality.

Drawing from practices of network modelling and building, Watts proved, that we have the equation wrong. The network is not a representation of reality but the ontology of reality. The network is not about trying to make sense of an exteriority. Instead, the network is an abstract and ideological map that constructs the reality in a particular way. In other words, the network precedes the real, and because of its ability to produce objective, empiricist and reductive principles (constantly filtering out that which is not important to the logic or the logistics of the network design), it then gives us a reality that is produced through the network principles. To make it clear, the network representation is not the derivative of the real but the blue-print of the real. And the real as we access it, through these networked tools, is not the raw and messy real but one that is constructed and shaped by the network in those ways. The network, then, needs to be understood, examined and critiqued, not as something that represents the natural, but something that shapes our understanding of the natural itself.

In the case of the Bangalore North East Exodus, the network and its visibility created a problem for us – and the problem was, that the network, which is supposed to be infrastructure, and hence, by nature invisible, had suddenly become visible. We needed to make sure that it was shamed, blamed, named and tamed so that we can go back to our everyday practices of regulation, governance and policy.

The Intersectional Network

What I want to emphasise, then, is that this binary of local versus the global, or local working in tandem with global, or the quaintly hybridised glocal are not very generative in thinking of policy and politics around the Internet. What we need is to recognise what gets hidden in this debate. What becomes visible when it is not supposed to? What remains invisible beyond all our efforts? And how do we develop a framework that actually moves beyond these binary modes of thinking, where the resolution is either to collapse them or to pretend that they do not exist in the first place? Working with frameworks like the network makes us aware of the ways in which these ideas of the global and the local are constructed and continue to remain the focus of our conversations, making invisible the real questions at hand.

Hence, we need to think of networks, not as spaces of intersection, but in need of intersections. The networks, because of their predatory, expanding nature, and the constant interaction with the edges, often appear as dynamic and inclusive. We need to now think of the networks as in need of intersections – or of intersectional networks. Developing intersections, of temporality, of geography and of contexts are great. But, we need to move one step beyond – and look at the couplings of aspiration, inspiration, autonomy, control, desire, belonging and precariousness that often mark the new digital subjects. And our policies, politics and regulations will have to be tailored to not only stop the person abandoning her life and running to a place of safety, not only stop the rumours within the Information and communication networks, not only create stop-gap measures of curbing the flows of gossip, but to actually account for the human conditions of life and living.

[1]. This post has grown from conversations across three different locations. The first draft of this talk was presented at the Habits of Living Conference, organised by the Centre for Internet & Society and Brown University, in Bangalore. A version of this talk found great inputs from the University of California Humanities Research Institute in Irvine, where I found great ways of sharpening the focus. The responses at the Milton Wolf Seminar at the America Austria Foundation, Austria, to this story, helped in making it more concrete to the challenges that the “network” throws to our digital modes of thinking. I am very glad to be able to put the talk into writing this time, and look forward to more responses.