Prem Chandavarkar on Thu, 20 Apr 2006 17:01:14 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Network, Swarm, Microstructure

> 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."

Recently, I have been very interested in this question.  Being an architect,
my interest has been in how collective decisions are made regarding
aesthetic objects - traditional cities, traditional crafts, etc. - all
decision making systems that are far removed from the way designers and
artists are currently trained in a model predicated on avant-garde
individual introspective genius.

Some speculation on the subject is in:

Crafting the Public Realm: Speculations on the Role of Open Source
Methodologies in Development by Design

I draw attention to a reference in the paper regarding a distinction drawn
by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (The Social Life of Information) where
they distinguish between "networks of practice" and "communities of
practice" (although both are forms of networks).  Members of a network of
practice have functional or occupational links constituted by electronic and
other networks that bring them together.  They come together within the
narrow horizons of these links and otherwise lead lives that are separate
from the network.  Communities of practice are more tied to geographical
place, depend more on face to face encounters, and collectively carry out
practices that are beyond functional or occupational concerns.  The members
of the community depend on the network a great deal to construct their
everyday lives.   I would emphasise the importance of this distinction,
particularly in reference to the word "commune" that was brought in earlier
in this discussion.

Although it has not been explicitly stated so far, I suspect a great deal of
interest in networks expressed in such forums is to tackle a fundamental
contradiction in the concept of democracy (and someone did express interest
in the links between 'networks' and 'governance').  The premise of democracy
is to provide power to the people, through mechanisms such as universal
adult franchise.  However for its day to day functioning, democracy has to
resort to top-down control structures of governance.  This is further
complicated by the fact that decision making swirls around sporadic events
called "elections", and elections tend to be dominated by the successes
achieved in the mobilisation of single cause constituencies.  Network theory
can then lend itself to the development of forms of organisation which are
more egalitarian, and handle complexity and nuances without trying to
artificially force issues into single unitised descriptions or concepts.

The first issue to be tackled is that networks are not inherently
egalitarian and tend to function according to power laws (as pointed out by
Barabasi in "Linked"), where a large percentage of the traffic tends to
always move through a small percentage of nodes.  This by itself is not a
problem - it all depends on how the hubs behave with reference to
transparency of information - do they immediately pass it on to the public
domain of the network, or are they selective in what they pass on -
retaining something for personal gain.    It appears that two fields of
study need to come together on this: network theory (especially power laws
and how hubs form) on the one hand and legal and ethical theory on property
rights on the other hand.  If anyone knows of any study where this
intersection has been explored, please do let me know.

The second issue I am concerned with is linked to emergence theory, which
explores how bottom up development constructs macro-intelligence in complex
organisations.  Since I do not possess any expertise on this, I can only
speculate (based on some readings oriented towards the layperson), and I
list below some speculations on characteristics that an emergent network
needs to possess:

   - close grained high-synchrony neighbour interaction
   - a major percentage of the interactions are characterised by high
   levels of information symmetry
    - random interaction - a high potential for serendipity
   - indirect control
   - low level of concern for explicit definitions of the macro picture
   at the level of the individual unit (as Steven Johnson says in his book on
   emergence - you would not want one of the neurons in your brain becoming
   individually sentient)
   - an impulse towards pattern recognition where patterns are
   collectively rather than individually owned.
    - pattern recognition is based on systems of tacit knowledge rather
   than explicit knowledge (as Michael Polanyi defines it).

The last point is especially important when we come to human networks, for
unlike the world of insects, human networks are also reflexive - they can
think about themselves.  When this thinking relies on explicit knowledge
then there is a tendency for the individual to pull away from the network
(keeping things at the level of 'networks of practice').  On the other hand,
tacit knowledge encourages the individual to orient towards the network
(allowing for the potential of emergent 'communities of practice').  To
explore this further I have just ordered Walter Ong's book "Orality and
Literacy", but I cite below the quotation that piqued my interest, from
Chris Barlas' essay "The End of the Word is Nigh" (While Barlas does not
mention it, I interpret orality belonging more to tacit knowledge, whereas
literacy relies on explicit knowledge):

"As Walter Ong, the Jesuit scholar, points out, oral creation is totally
different from literate creation. It relies not on interiorisation, but on
community. In his book, Orality And Literacy, he traces the development of
language through oral to literate cultures and on into the computer culture
that may exist in the future. Orality, he suggests, acts like glue within
society. It draws people into groups. It promotes a type of communication
that is communal and open. It also encourages a certain way of thinking.
Orally generated characters tend to the heroic, the generalised, the larger
than life. This can be seen in the early classics of Western literature, The
Iliad and The Odyssey.

What orally composed epic does not have is a more particularising,
individuating tendency that is so crucial in literate society. A written
culture favours the interior, the personal, the reflective. For instance,
unlike our pre-literature ancestors who sat round campfires to share
stories, we do not read in groups. The oral human is caught in a web of
timelessness, almost an unconscious state, where the distinction between "I"
and "you" is not nearly so well delineated. Literacy, on the other hand, is
modernist, productive of an in-built existential loneliness. Without
literacy, says Ong, there can be no continued deepening of consciousness, no
progress towards individuation. So where does all this point? It focuses on
our ability to use language in different ways and the way in which our
thinking is formed by the way we use it. How many people would think of
writing itself as a technology? Yet writing is tool-using, a kind of knife
and fork for the mind. As Ong points out, we are born into orality from the
moment we open our mouths. But literacy, or, to use the word coined by the
computer expert and child psychologist Seymour Papert, letteracy, is an
acquired technology, which has to be painfully learned. Compared to anything
else we are conscious of learning in our lives, reading and writing
constitute the most complicated achievement. And being most complicated,
reading and writing tend to dominate our senses. The task is so great that
for the literate, the capacity is rated above all others. What is written is
always valued above the spoken. The written word has a permanency the spoken
lacks. You can possess a book, but not a speech.

It is for this reason that Papert suggests a distinction between letteracy,
our particularised ability to read and write, and literacy. It is perhaps
the innate and particularised loneliness of literacy that prompted Thatcher
to make her famous remark that there is no such thing as society. While her
representation of this was clearly deviant and presumably unwitting, she was
exemplifying a truth. Modern literate society, in which life is increasingly
inner, is about conflict rather than co-operation. It is a society that
excludes rather than includes, that has consistently narrowed its focus. It
is this type of speculation that could lead a literate individual to
question the health of a commuting society that buries its collective nose
in a newspaper. Wouldn't it be better if travellers on the 8.13 talked to
one another, rather than take refuge in the privacy of interior worlds?"
While one cannot wish away the world of literacy, and to seek return to a
happy oral world is nothing but a romantic fantasy, this issue does merit
further thinking - and it is perhaps more useful to use the opposition of
'tacit/explicit' rather than 'oral/literate' for further exploration of
networks (remaining alert to the distinction that one is dealing with
reflexive networks).

While the tacit centres on the local, it does not mean that larger horizons
are absent.  I illustrate this by citing a discussion I attended a couple of
years ago.  This was a meeting between a group of local architects and
Dinkar Kaikini (a well known vocalist in Indian classical music).  The
purpose of the discussion was to hear Kaikini's views on parallels between
music and architecture.    The first thing that struck me was that the
architects in the group all considered themselves modernists, and would have
rebelled against the label "classical" being applied to their way of
thinking.  Kaikini, on the other hand, rooted himself firmly within a
classical tradition, yet was comfortable with modernity.  But it was a point
that Kaikini made that was most revelatory to me, and to cite it I must
first explain some of the principles of Indian classical music (and I refer
here to the Hindustani rather than the Carnatic tradition).   Unlike Western
classical music, the Indian classical tradition does not rely on
composers.   The foundation is called "raaga".  There is no direct
translation of this word into English, but the closest would be "scale".
The raaga delineates the set and sequence of notes that may be used in a
musical composition.  The raaga has no strong sense of authorship - in that
sense it is open source, for even though a particular raaga may at one point
in time have an individual creator, it belongs to a tradition rather than a
person.  But unlike a scale, the raaga also has links with emotion and
states of being.  Each raaga has strong associations - for example "Durbari"
is associated with the regal, and "Basant" is associated with the seasons.
Each raaga is also linked with a temporal context and has a particular time
of day in which it is to be performed.   Dawn, morning, mid-day, evening,
night all have their own raagas.

Given all this, I was always under the impression that the raaga determined
the emotive depth of the music.  However, Kaikini said that the raaga only
defines a space.  The enclosure that constructs the space sets some limits -
it determines where one can go.  But it does not determine how one moves
across the space - do you hop and skip with happiness, or do you drag your
feet with head bowed, or do you stay close to one spot in contemplation.
It is not the delineation of the space that is important as much as the
manner in which one inhabits it.  Kaikini placed the emotive depth in music
by the level of expressiveness one can put into two concepts: "Meend" which
is the glide from one note to the next, and "Laya" which is the interval of
time between one note and the next.  When one manages this one is
transported into a world that is beyond any sense of self or time (and do we
not all lose our sense of self and time when we are caught up in a beautiful
piece of music).

To me, the power of Kaikini's observations lay in:

   1. The transcendent can be found in what is immediately adjacent.
   2. We inhabit a reality that does not exist only on one level.
   Reality is multi-leveled and complex, and our sense of being shifts between
   mundane, terrestrial and transcendent levels.  All art recognised this, and
   perhaps this is why art has sat so comfortable next to religion over several
   centuries.  Polanyi goes so far as to say that the more tacit the knowledge
   is, the more transcendent it is likely to be.
    3. We tend to assume that tacit knowledge, because it cannot be
   verbalised, is not shareable - and is therefore less tangible and real.  But
   the world that Kaikini (or any other gifted musician) constructs through his
   music, even though it is purely tacit, is tangible, shareable and real
   enough to have commercial value, allowing the musician to earn a living
   through it.

While all this may seem far away from the realm of network theory, I believe
it is crucial.  Emergent networks build on close-grained local links, and
movement between mundane connections and higher levels of being understood
through collectively owned patterns.   When one comes to reflexive networks,
those patterns hold a sense of transcendence that binds communities.  A
theory of reflexive networks must include a theory of knowledge and the
links between epistemic systems and social cohesion.

So if I summarise the propositions that interest me:

   1. It would be useful to situate network theory within a theory of
   sites of practice.
   2. We must distinguish between "networks of practice" and "communities
   of practice"
   3. What are the base conditions required for emergence to occur?
   4. Human networks are also reflexive, and we must be alert to the
   special issues involved with reflexivity.
   5. A theory of reflexive networks must include a theory of knowledge
   and the links between epistemic systems and social cohesion.


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