Habits of Living: Global Networks, Local Affects

Posted by Wendy Chun, Kelly Dobson, Matthew Fuller and Eivind Rossaak at Mar 23, 2012 05:15 AM |
“Networks” have become a defining concept of our epoch. From high-speed financial networks that erode national sovereignty to networking sites like Facebook that transform the meaning of the word “friend,” from blogs that foster new political alliances to unprecedented globe-spanning viral vectors that threaten world-wide catastrophe, networks allegedly encapsulate what’s new and different.


To understand the impact of networks, most analyses—scholarly, popular, and strategic—have focused on mapping networks.  Using network tools to describe networks, this move conflates description and explanation (it assumes that simply discovering the existence of networks is enough) and transforms specific persons/things and relations into interchangeable nodes and lines in a diagram.  Not surprisingly, most analyses also privilege technology as the unifying power behind networks: the term “twitter revolution,” for instance, widely used to describe events from Moldavia to Egypt, erases local political concerns in favour of an internet application.  Although understanding universal characteristics of networks is important, this emphasis also risks making the concept of a “networked society” a banal cliché, incapable of addressing the differences between various “networks,” or the odd transformation of networks from a planning tool—a theoretical diagram, a metaphorical description—into actually existing phenomena, into lived experiences.

To renew the conceptual power of networks, Habits of Living: Networked Affects, Glocal Effects—a global collaborative project of which the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University will be an important locus—concentrates on changing habits of living.  Habits are crucial to understanding networks not simply as broad organizational structures, but also as structures created through constant actions that are both voluntary and involuntary.  As Pierre Bourdieu has famously argued, “habitus” is a “system of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function … as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends.”[1]; Habits are things that individuals hold that in turn define and hold individuals: they link the individual to society through repeated actions that also tie a person’s inner state (their mind) to their outward appearance (a habit is traditionally a type of clothing).  Habits are ‘man-made nature’: they are automatic seemingly instinctual and at times uncontrollable actions (for instance, drug habits) that are learned.  Habits in this sense are closely aligned with “affects”: unconscious emotional responses to environmental stimulants that are central to the formation of individual perception.  Thus although habits let us address similarities across human, animal, physical and non-physical realms (the characteristic growth of a crystal is a habit), habits are also uniquely personal and societal, and thus allow us to address important differences usually elided in network analyses.  Habits are “glocal”: local actions that spread globally, but not necessarily universally; they spread the effects of local actions elsewhere through specific trajectories.

The point, to be clear, is not to oppose habits to networks, but to understand the subtleties and power of connectivity by bringing these two concepts into dialogue with one another. Habits scale from the individual to the network in a number of ways, from the twitchy 'Lifestream' checking of Twitter enthusiasts, to co-ordination arranged by mobile phone and GPS, to the very conceptual foundation of computer science for which classic problems, such as the Travelling Saleman or Dining Philosophers combine strong technical requirements of resource allocation and network design with fables about everyday life.  As the work of Dr. Matthew Fuller (a foundational new media theorist / artist and co-organizer from Goldsmiths) reveals, the cross-over between the technical and the experiential is what produces value and novelty in contemporary computing. The point is also to think through habits of living as possible points of transformation and intervention: as the term habitat makes clear, they also imply a certain sheltering and practice of care, something which the SARAI collective in New Delhi has addressed in their work in new media.  This notion of habitat and change has also been further addressed, specifically in terms of “the archive in motion,” by Eivind Rossaak—an international expert in film and media—and his research group at the National Library of Norway, Oslo.  Their creative rethinking of the archive and the role of media technologies is crucial to understanding the radical mobilization, perpetuation and preservation of habitual media and memory practices.  The work of Nishant Shah—the director of the Bangalore Center for Internet and Society and co-editor of the groundbreaking Digital AlterNatives with a Cause —highlights that, to understand how new media affects habits of living, we need to rethink assumptions about “digital natives” and imaginings of “netizens.”  He has also started a far-reaching research program investigating the relationship between affect and participation.  Dr. Kelly Dobson’s—chair of Digital + Media at RISD and an innovative and much lauded new media artist—work focuses on the intimate “caring” relationship between machines and humans, which emerges from mainly non-intentional interactions, such as noise and vibrations.  Lastly, Habits of Living: Networked Affects, Glocal Effects seeks to change the focus of network analyses away from catastrophic events or their possibility towards generative habitual actions that negotiate and transform the constant stream of information to which we are exposed. (This is the focus of my current book project).

As the above paragraph outlines, this inter-disciplinary project will be a global interdisciplinary collaboration.  This project initially emerged from discussions between members of SARAI and myself and quickly expanded to include the Center for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, the Digital + Media Department at RISD, the Bangalore Center for Internet and Society and the National Library of Norway.  In addition, we plan to invite participants from: Amsterdam, Buenos Aries, Sao Paolo, Shanghai, amongst other places.  At Brown, in addition to faculty in the Department of Modern Culture and Media, we would like to involve people from the Cogut Center for the Humanities, the Pembroke Center for the Study of Women, and the Watson Institute for International Studies.

The project, will comprise a series of workshops, artist residencies, a large public conference to be held at Brown University, and eventually leading to an edited online and a print publication. Each workshop will be attended by a core group of five scholars/artists who will participate in all the workshops and the conference, as well as group of participants that will vary according to the location. Ideally, this will continue as a three-year project, with each group playing a major role in convening the events for one year.

Collaborators: Wendy Chun (Professor, Brown University), Kelly Dobson, Chair, Digital + Media, RISD, Providence, Matthew Fuller, David Gee Reader in Digital Media, Center for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London, London and Eivind Rossaak, Associate Professor, Department of Research, National Library of Norway, Oslo.

[1].Pierre Bourdieu. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977), 72.