Notes on the State of Networking

For Make World #4 paper, February 2004

No longer the society, the political party or even the movement, networks are the emerging form of organization of our time. By marching through the institutions the idea of networking has lost its mysterious and subversive character. Sandpapered by legions of consultants, supervisors, and sociologists, as a buzzword networking superseded the latest fashions of sustainability, outsourcing, and lean organization.

The hype of networks reveals a conceptual crisis of collaboration and cooperation. Yet, the confusing aspect of networking is the fact that large formations of power apparently defy networks. Business and other large institutions are still in the process of opening up. The introduction of computer networks within organizations over the past decade has changed work flows but hasn’t reached the level of decision making. In this period of transition and consolidation we get confusing answers to the question whether ‘new media’ are part of mainstream pop culture. Whereas it is easy to see that networks have become the dominant mode of power, this is still not the case for ‘power’ in the narrow sense. This is why the call for openness, transparency and democracy, on both micro and macro-levels, still potentially contains progressive elements and should be seen as a counterpart to popular conspiracy theories.

A radical critique of the information society implies analyzing the passages from the state of territory and the state of population to the state of a networked globality or: Info-Empire. It is not adequate to analyse this with Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The networking paradigm escapes the centrality of the icon to visual culture and its critics and instead focuses on more abstract, invisible, subtle processes and feedback loops. There is nothing spectacular about networking. And this is exactly why most of the leading theorists are not aware of the current power transformations. They still sit in front of the television and watch the news or a rental VHS—perhaps they have even bought a DVD player by now.

The networking paradigm marks the threshold of postmodernity and characterizes the global governance scenarios of Info-Empire. This threshold was crossed when digital communications appeared in the political scene and created a notion of the global that is essentially different from the predominant values of ‘solidarity’ in internationalism or ‘multiplicity’ in trans-national corporations. Without referring to inferior sentiments or noble feeling, a nuclear strike force or massive drug abuse it was suddenly possible, to think global in absolutely un-pathetic ways.

Rather than a simple application to improve life or increase efficiency life becomes intrinsically networking and networking comes alive as unconditional attribute of social existence.

The ultimate goal of networking has been, and still is, to free the user from the bonds of locality and identity. Power responds to the pressure of increasing mobility and communications of the multitudes with attempts to regulate them in the framework of traditional regimes that cannot be abandoned, but need to be reconfigured from scratch and recompiled against the networking paradigm: borders and property, labour and recreation, education and entertainment industries undergo radical transformations. Although the promise of liberation still lures, and works at times, shifting geographies and social layers, an identity backflip has occurred. Its pretty hard these days to be a dog on the Internet. There never was something like privacy on the Net, but after 9.11 things definitely reached a new level. And once again, theory runs behind the facts or it is satisfied with great gestures that occupy the moral high ground but reveal nothing but powerlessness.

When within the nation state techniques of localization and identification, communication surveillance and motion control have been temporarily suspended it was the direct result of the social struggles of a mass of individuals against the corruption of state sovereignty. Within the ‘state of networking’ these techniques and technologies tend to become redundant. Furthermore Info-Empire is constituted by including and simultaneously excluding the tracks of localized and identifiable life.

Internet research, now having reached its ethnographic phase, has great difficulties in catching up conceptually, let alone provide us with speculative visions that capture the permanent flux of global immaterial labour.

The classical dichotomies of public/private, global/local, etc. become useless and even obsolete. These binaries are replaced by flexible attitudes of managing singularities and fluid differences: rather than challenging power networking environments act as carriers for virtual self-management and self-control, up to the point of crashing. Networked environments are inherently unstable and its temporality is key, much like events. Networks are dense social structures on the brink of collapse and it is questionable if there are sustainable models that can ‘freeze’ them.

Maybe it is better to understand networking as a syncope of power, a temporary loss of consciousness and posture, rather than a panacea against corruption, commodification, resentment and the general dumbness of traditional hierarchies. The result of networking often is a rampant will to powerlessness that escapes the idea of collective progress under the pretext of participation, fluidity, escapism and over-commitment.

Participants easily get lost in the overload of email messages, weblogs and chat exchanges. The subjective feeling, having to swim against a tidal wave of noise and random tension, can no longer be explained by a lack of media literacy. Software and interface solutions can be helpful, but often only temporarily assist users to get a handle of complex information flows. This often results in the abandoning of collective communication, somewhere half-way, leaving the online participants with the unsatisfactory feeling that the online conversation got stuck, unable to reach a conclusion. After an exciting first phase of introductions and debates, networks are put to the test: either they transform into a body that is capable to act, or they remain stable on a flatline of information exchange, with the occasional reply of an individual who dares to disagree.

At the same time we are facing a backlash towards romantic and outdated forms of representation, hierarchies and command on many terrains. Due to the ‘conceptual wall’ that online communities often find hard to cross, classic ‘informal’ forms of representation fill up the gap. This is part of a larger process of ‘normalization’ in which networks are integrated in existing management styles and institutional rituals.

But the progress of networking technologies is not that linear or unstoppable, as it appears in the techno-naivety of some NGO’s. It is often hard to admit that the realm of power (agenda setting, decision-making) exists relatively autonomous of the techno-sphere as B2B (“breast to breast”) meetings. Instead, we would all love to believe that decentralized networks somehow dissolves power, over time. Meanwhile, networking environments also create specific dispositives, that are coordinating new forms of power and that consist of a variety of elements. To research these new statements, norms, standardizations, practices and institutions as an ensemble that organizes the transactions from power to knowledge and knowledge to power goes far beyond the current talk about the information society as well as the attempts to find and replace information with knowledge or any attempt to locate and identify an object of networking, let alone a purpose.

In retrospect, one can say that the radical critique of the information society does not yet exist. That was the lesson of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), held in December 2003 in Geneva. There is the NGO civil society story about human rights and unequal access, but that’s it. What’s so weak about this approach is it’s charity mentality: please donate us some computers and share some of your bandwidth. What is lacking is an informed autonomist perspective. Let’s say, an ‘Empire’ for the Internet generation. This programmatic work should have been written during the raving nineties. Instead, we got stuck with remnants of the ’68 generation, and the mess they made, characterized by this particular blend of utopia, violence and sell-out. In the past decade collective work on ideas has been replaced by informal networking, a move away from politics towards culture and the arts, shifting the focus towards software, designing interfaces. and just playing around. Instead of blaming the ‘nettime’ generation one could also stress that theory can only grow out of reflected experiences. In that sense we might be too impatient. The question should rather be: how can theory come into being in an age of real-time events?

WSIS made evident that there are only few forces willing and able to analyse and then criticize the ‘information society’ concept. The air in Geneva was filled with the spirit of network naivety-no matter on what side. Both the hegemonic and the alternative view of the information society is characterized by a persistent transcendentalism, as if the spread of ICT would increase development, as if access to the Internet would improve living conditions, as if free software would override capitalism, as if file sharing equals altruism, as if open publishing would promote democracy.

Instead of endlessly deconstructing the ‘New Economy meets NGOs’ agendas, we believe it the task of the next media activists to investigate the limits of networking in order to be in a better position to overcome those boundaries. This era is blinded by the light. As technologies are still an expanding universe it is hard to see its limits, to recognize its damages, without falling back into technophobia and cultural pessimism.

Quixotic projects and idealism pervaded the rhetoric of the vast majority of those who have not ignored the summit. That was the disappointment of the WSIS process but it did not really come as a surprise. But what could it mean to put the information society under a radical critique? One has to track down the material basis of information and communication in order to turn the whole discourse downside up. For instance one could research the impact of precarious and migrant labour in hardware and software industries, within the service sector such as the call centres, with its temporary workers. This means to tear down the exclusive notion of information as something ephemeral, spiritual and immaterial, and reveal the dirty side of the technology.

It would be a mistake to look at this other or, better to say, the real information society with an attitude of  charity and to commiserate these poor things who have to work so damned hard that we can play with ever cheaper computers. Often this perspective comes along with a romantic, anti-technological attitude or full of ignorance and resentment against informatization, de-regularisation and globalization. These processes that are constituting the current situation are direct and indirect results of struggles (against the working day, for a better living, at for least a job etc.) that are disconnected and abstracted from a common, daily experience.

A radical critique always implies practical consequences. There is no other way out of the intellectual stagnation than to stage unlikely encounters and unexpected alliances, between coders and solders, activists and researchers, artists and unionists. We have to bring on irrelevant moments and leave the programmed density of the event-time for what it is.

Shouldn’t a radical critique of the information society in the first instance confront the common notion of sovereignty and it’s mediatisation with something that reaches out beyond the increasing banality of networking? What happens after the excitement of encounter has faded away? Should the motor of creativity and subversion continue to be supplied with an ever-changing focus on yet to-be discovered, soon to be exploited cultural differences?

Does it make sense, as a possible way out, to demand a ‘cultural exception’ for the digital commons? How can the making of a digital public domain be pushed out of beta, beyond the usual ‘revolution or reform’ choice? The digital commons obviously have left the sandbox and are out-there, in the wide world. As a ‘high potential’ meme the digital commons is growing at a pace way beyond the worthy Gutenberg project, which, in the  thirty years or more of its existence has only added 10,000 book titles to the public domain. But this is exactly why digital commons is a potentially fragile concept. It involves risk taking, in terms of civil disobedience. It asks of digital artisans to take a firm stand when they negotiate with publishers and distributors.
The creative multitudes have to wake up out their numbed state and have the courage to refuse. No more bad contracts. Don’t sign away your rights. To publish under the creative commons licence is the very least one can do. This shift not only requires public awareness; it also needs ‘best practices’ stories of those who stood up and actually tore up contracts. A critical mass of IP- refuseniks will only come into being if such individual stories can find the public forums and inspire people to say no. Otherwise it will remain everyone’s individual problem.