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Society

Network notion

It seems that societies organise themselves as networks, an idea brought into sharp relief with the development of online social networks. People with online profiles are the nodes, hubs or cells, and there are linkages with other people through their personal directories of friends and followers, who are similarly linked.

Threads from spools in cotton mill

It’s easy enough to trace through the linkages from your own friends or associates to friends of friends and their friends, ad infinitum. Social networks are vast, highly interconnected, and extremely difficult to draw as a diagram. They are also the subject of suspicion. Think of the “old boy/girl network,” and terror networks, and the project to break up the latter, to isolate nodes (terror cells) and sever links.

A network is a collection of interconnected entities. This simple definition belies an array of associations, passions, and ideologies that accords the network much of its authority. The architectural theorist Mark Wigley provides one of the few critical accounts of the network in modernist discourse, as exemplified in the enthusiasms of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller. Wigley argues that the network is an outdated notion whose perennial revival comes about through a historically ignorant enthusiasm for new technologies.

The idea of the network is not easily dismissed. It has influence in contemporary thinking about complexity, design, the computer, digital media, and the prevailing techno-social condition.

In their influential book, The Network Nation, Hiltz and Turoff point to the extension of digital networks, satellite communications, and video transmission as a means of forming the world into a “total communicative structure,” drawing on McLuhan’s concepts of the “global village.” Writing at the end of the 1970s they identified this totalising network with a new opportunity to revive democracy, to enable people to communicate in a way that is open, free and that bypasses the problems of class and ethnicity.

They also align the network to human thought processes. Electronic networks extend the mind, and engender opportunities for communication at the level of highly informed, uninhibited reason.

More recent commentary introduces dynamism into the network theme. From a critical, social science perspective, Manuel Castells identifies the distinctive feature of the network society as “its ability to reconfigure, a decisive feature in a society characterized by constant change and organizational fluidity” (p.62).

The network is evident in design research, including applications of systems theory, cybernetics and autopeisis that resort to networks of interconnected processes, the interdependence between design disciplines, accounts of publishing non-linear texts, and urban topologies. Of course, the network notion is not entirely new.

Design theorists often contrast loosely-formed, egalitarian and liberal network structures with less desirable, autocratic, linear, sequential and ordered organisation. For some commentators, an appeal to the network society, or network processes, is ostensibly an appeal against logic. The socio-technical digital network is a complex, relational, trans-logical, cultural and social phenomenon, in which we participate in ways that are liberating, consensual, and unconstrained by the strictures of formal organisation and logic. Society is formed as a complex series of conversations. Society and design are dialectical, as if constituted by a vast combination of conversational pairings in which truths and opinions are negotiated and propagated, as in a network.

Plato had something to say about networks, through the metaphor of weaving, though here there is also an appeal to bureaucratic order and control. We might think of a fabric as a network of loops and knots, overlays and connections. But here weaving subjects an understanding of the social condition (of the polis) to a formal frame, an intertwining of warp and woof (Statesman, 283a-b) measuring and dividing, marrying together dissimilar natures: the courageous and the temperate, the bold and the gentle, which are the warp and the woof of society.

There is the firm texture of the warp and the looser texture of the woof. Plato says that the beneficent ruler brings their life together in agreement and friendship and makes it common between them, “completing the most magnificent and best of all fabrics and covering with it all the other inhabitants of cities, both slave and free” (311c).

The brave, loose, slightly rhizomic woof, becomes subjugated by the constraints of the warp. The Platonic network is not a loosely-woven anarchic structure, but a gridded fabric with its logic of binding, constraint, covering, hierarchy, striation and order.

To use another weaving metaphor, this doctrine hints of a tension evident in all networks, between order and disorder, what is in the network and what is outside it, what gets trapped in the net and the stuff that falls through, the taut and well-connected threads contrasted with the loose ends — all endemic to the network notion.

Also see

  • Coyne, Richard. 2008. The net effect: Design, the rhizome, and complex philosophy. Futures, (40)552-561. academia.edu

Some references

  • M.E.J. Newman, The structure and function of complex networks, SIAM Review 45 (2003) 167–256.
  • M. Wigley, Network fever, Grey Room 4 (2001) 82–122.
  • S.R.Hiltz, M. Turoff, The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993.
  • M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1962.
  • M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA, 1996.
  • A. Tapia, Graphic design in the digital era: the rhetoric of hypertext, Design Issues 19 (2003) 5–24.
  • R.G. Smith, World city actor-networks, Progress in Human Geography 27 (2003) 25–44.
  • G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi, 1988, Athlone Press, London.
  • C. Alexander, A city is not a tree, in: J. Thackara (Ed.), Design After Modernism, Thames and Hudson, London, 1988, pp. 67–84.
  • Plato, C.J. Rowe, Statesman, Hackett Publishers Co., Indianapolis, IN, 1999.
  • G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, The Smooth and the Striated, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Athlone Press, London,
  • P. Steadman, Architectural Morphology: An Introduction to the Geometry of Building Plans, Pion, London, 1983.
  • M.L. Minsky, The Society of Mind, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986
  • J. Hadlaw, The London underground map: imagining modern time and space, Design Issues 19 (2003) 25–35.
  • S.H. Strogatz, Exploring complex networks, Nature 410 (2001) 268–276.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Network notion

  1. I cannot imagine life without these social media and technological communication tools. Getting rid of the national boundaries and the limitation of geography, people can “touch” everyone in the network nation. For example, I log in Facebook more than twice everyday to have fun with my friends in my hometown. And everyday, I use SKype to chat with my parents without paying any money. In the past, it cost a lot if I telephone them.

    It is true that network nation make people stay close and communicate with each other more conveniently and efficiently. For ordinary people, it makes their lifes more fascinating and colorful. However, in the business world, when everyone has the same efficiency to get in touch with their target customers or partners, they have to face new and more challenges in order to win the support of customers in the competition world. Thus, they have to contemplate their new advantages at the same time when they celebrate the popularity of network nation. What should they do to take advantages of to enjoy more efficient production process, distribution channels and larger markets?

    Posted by Xinxin Yuan | December 13, 2011, 3:30 pm
  2. That “the medium is the extensions of man” is one of the three well-known laws of Mcluhan. He believes that printed medium is the extension of vision, broadcasting is the extension of audition and television is the extension of both vision and audition. So, I want to say that ubiquitous social media nowadays are the extension of individual’s mind and spirit. As the popularization of 3G networks and the wider application of smart mobile devices, almost everyone’s life is full of social media. People can use social network tools like Facebook and Twitter to satisfy their mental needs more easily. They have built a bridge between people and people whether they are familiar with each other or not. For example, in the past days the only way to know their friends is calling them but now they can get current matters posted online and comment following those matters in a networks of friends. However, at the same time social media erode our mind if we have too much psychological dependence on it. I find myself spend too much time on surfing in my blog circle without any objective, which has became my inherent model of thinking and behavior.

    Posted by serenacc | November 10, 2012, 6:17 pm
  3. I can’t help but think of the possible effects these self composed networks can have on our political and social systems. On the one hand, people forming into groups for a cause or an ideology can be a good thing, but also a scary thing. Facebook is a good example of a platform where people form groups and vent their views – but Facebook has been blocked intermittently in several countries including the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh and Syria based on governmental policy that aims to control publicly accessible information. Why would governments block Facebook or Twitter? Exactly for the reason mentioned above.

    When people become nodes to network and the network becomes to big, governments can potentially have a problem on its hands. Social networks certainly liberated people from being limited to information supplied by governments and brought about dynamic changes to how the masses behave both online and offline – in recent years, it has proven to have a considerable impact on social and political causes. Large networks can elect presidents but also topple dictatorships.

    Information and communication technologies have been an important component in online social interaction for some time now – everything from protests to revolutions streaming across an invisible word of mouth. However, with the introduction of technology and the internet, both the networking and the interaction itself has become far more convenient, where advocates and anarchists are able to spread their views with a single tweet, post, petition or email. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects to offline activism that cannot be replicated behind the shadowy confines of a computer. While both have their advantages and disadvantages, as protests in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt have recently shown, at times it is a combination of both that proves most effective.

    Posted by W Hattingh | December 13, 2012, 7:34 pm

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