Felix Stalder on Wed, 19 Apr 2006 15:18:23 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Network, Swarm, Microstructure

Wow! What an essay. It took me two days just to read it, and I think I'll have 
to read it a few more times. 

For the time being, I'll stick to half a paragraph, which is key in my view.

> I am beginning to think that there are two fundamental
> factors that help to explain the consistency of
> self-organized human activity. The first is the existence of
> a shared horizon - aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, and/or
> metaphysical - which is patiently and deliberately built up
> over time, and which gives the members of a group the
> capacity to recognize each other as existing within the same
> referential universe, even when they are dispersed and
> mobile. You can think of this as "making worlds." The second
> is the capacity for temporal coordination at a distance: the
> exchange among a dispersed group of information, but also of
> affect, about unique events that are continuously unfolding
> in specific locations. This exchange of information and
> affect then becomes a set of constantly changing, constantly
> reinterpreted clues about how to act in the shared world.

All networks can be defined by their protocols, formal rules that set the 
terms of engagement of otherwise independent agents. Protocols enable 
interaction without a hierarchy. Indeed, the protocol creates the space of the 
possible (or, the shared horizon, to use Brian's term) and in order to 
participate in a network, actors have to adhere to the dominant protocols. 
Without a protocol, there is no network.

Now, networks have multiple dimensions, and on each of those protocols 
operate. Most readily distinguisheable are technical and social protocols, 
even though there are obvious interrelations between them. Technical protocols 
are things like TCP/IP, Bittorrent, SMTP or others. Social protocols are 
styles of communication, shared assumptions and values, common projects etc.

Protocols are not fixed, they can be adapted, but since they are what makes a 
network a network, they are very hard to change from the inside. It's 
difficult to cooperatively transform the very condition of cooperation. 
Hence, it's often easier to create new networks, rather than transform old 
ones, particularly since there can be overlap between the two in term of some 
agents agreeing on new protocols. Networks can fork, particularly is 
the resource of the network is digital information.

The reason why we are all speaking about networks now is that information and 
communication technology (ICT) has decisively affected balance between 
flexibility and coordination in social organizations. Until very recently, 
these two aspects stood in an inverse negative relationship to one another. 
As coordination increased, flexibility went down. Large projects (think of 
states, armies, major companies etc) tended to be highly structured in order 
to manage scale (the history of this development is analyzed in Alfred 
Chandler's classic 'The Visible Hand. The Managerial Revolution in American 
Business.'). This was, to a large degree, a function of their information 
processing. Vertically integrated hierarchies are relatively information-poor 
forms of organization. Thus they can handle large coordination tasks by 
passing around slips of paper with information printed on them, at the price 
of turning inflexible (an 'iron cage' as Max Weber saw it at the height of the 
bureaucratic model, 100 years ago).

ICTs are enabling (just enabling, not determining) people and organizations to 
handle much, much more information efficiently, hence they still can scale, 
but to not need to accept inflexibility as the trade-off. In other words, 
even large organizations, or, perhaps to be more precise, large projects 
undertaken my multiple entities, some as small as individuals, are now 
organized as networks (or at least face competition from networks). 

This ability of multiple entities to undertake very large projects, loosely 
coordinated, is what is fuelling the renaissance of notions such as 
"multitude" which aim to express this still hard-to-grasp combination 
flexibility (agents remain semi-autonomous) and coordination (they do 
something larger than themselves).

Such large scale networks, or large scale projects carried by multiple smaller 
networked organizations, are highly communicative, not just because their 
coordination requires lots of exchanges, but also their output is, to a large 
degree, communication as well (new cultural codes, new scientific discoveries 
and procedures, new management methods etc etc). Indeed, geographically 
dispersed networks are held together by nothing but communication. It 
provides their shared horizon.

When stressing the importance of communication, this should not be understood 
as somehow taking place on a different level than production. In fact, the 
activity of communication and production are more and more merging. The 
attempt to expand the proprietary logic of capitalist production into the 
shared space of social communication creates one of the fundamental tensions 
characteristic of informational societies.

In other words, in order to communicate and be productive, one has to join, by 
choice or coercion, a particular networks (or several, more likely), thus 
accept their protocols and have one's view of the world defined by a shared 
horizon. Only within the network, one has access to the resources of 
communication/production. Outside a network, there is nothing but isolation 
and inaction. Hence, Brian, wanting to use Ubuntu, has to join the Ubuntu 
community, and learn how to cope with its particular culture. There's no way 
around it.

Thus, as Brian writes, networks create their own world, by creating a unique 
array of resources enabling entities to become actors, that is, to 
communicate and produce. However, they do so on the basis of particular and 
specific protocols defining the particular character of the network's world. 

The notion of a network's world is not metaphorical, but actual, even 
physical. For example, networks create their own geography of closeness and 
distance. They create their own physical environment (think airports, or 
radical community centers, etc.). They create their own time scale, defining 
the rhythms of interaction, and, more importantly, the temporal horizons 
which bind their actions. And in terms of making worlds, of creating your own 
coordinates of time and space, it go any further than this. There is, 
literally, nothing behind it.

So much for now. Felix 

----http://felix.openflows.org------------------------------ out now:
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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