Munster & Lovink: bringing network down to earth

While some writers have embraced or extended the concept of ‘network’ as a tool to imag(in)e the media ecology or information topology emerging around and through the Internet, others have been wary. Prefiguring many of the current discussions about ‘cyber-scpeticism’ (Lanier 2010, Turkle 2011, Carr 2010, Morozov 2011, Harkin 2009), Anna Munster and Geert Lovink argue that: “networks cannot be studied as mere tools or as schematisations and diagrams. They need to be apprehended within the complex ecologies in which they are forming. This can easily become an empty statement. By complex we mean unpredictable, often poor, harsh, and not exactly “rich” expressions of the social. To project positive predictions, hopes and desires onto networks is deceptive as it often distracts by focusing solely on the first, founding and euphoric phase of networks” (2005). Their critique is more fundamental than an attack on network optimists. They say: “Theorising networks… must struggle with the abstraction of dispersed elements – elements that cannot be captured into one image. The very notion of a network is in conflict with the desire to gain an overview”.

Munster and Lovink warn against allowing talk of networks as topologies and diagrams to fall into imag(in)ing that one can map those assemblages and ecologies as if from an ariel view. “The map is not the network,” they point out – a pertinent critique again in terms of the burgeoning interest in data visualisation in both the mass media (see and academia (Manovich 2010). Echoing Galloway and Thacker’s emphasis on political enfolding (2007), they say: “the increasing abstraction of topological visualisation removes us from an analysis of the ways in which networks engage and are engaged by current political, economic and social relations”. “We should analyse the rise of networks as an all too human endeavor, as a tragic fall, and not as post-human machines that automate connections for us,” they argue. “Networks are fragmentors”.

It is not that ‘networks’ do not exist or that ‘network’ is not a useful concept or focus. Rather the question is whether ‘network’ has become too powerful an imaginary for its own good, focusing analytical and political energy, even that of critique on a mythic hetrogeneity. A Google ‘Ngrams’ visualisation shows a hockeystick curve of adoption – the rise of a network society, perhaps. The issue is how that object has been articulated, not as as a simple homogenous or stable entity but as an overarching, heterogenous field of relations ready to be mapped onto a ‘control society’ (Deleuze 1992), a political order (Hardt and Negri 2000) or a geography (Mcquire 2008) often through the operations of ‘software’, an object which suffers from its own over-imagination. Like ‘network’ it is not that ’software’ is over-homogenised – rendered as simple monolith or force – but rather than an emphasis on heterogeneity has its own disciplinary effects, rendering software instances (like network nodes) as points in seamless map, a visualisation of light points from space, a mosaic of forces forming an overall picture.

Munster and Lovink look to disturb that ariel view. They conclude with a call for a ‘more complex conception’ of networks, network sociality and software. “What we need is to be more specific about how the social and its myriad aesthetics are operating through and in software. How is a network really being sustained – computationally and through creative labour? How is the network experience to be thought as felt? Whose labour – creative, manual, skilled, disorganised, etc – keeps it moving along? What intrusions of rhetoric from other images of the social – neo-liberal democratic theory and its dreams of customised participation, for example – break into and intrude upon the fragile links that tentatively form within networked experience?” Just as Adrian Mackenzie, drawing on William James, articulates wireless ‘network’ in terms of experience (Mackenzie 2010), so Munster and Lovink demand that the multiple scales of human actant/action are fully enfolded into any network diagram.

This focus on creative labour, echoed by Tiziana Terranova (2004), is not an exercise in politicisation or materialisation but an acknowledgment that network is the fragmentary, failing, sum of its actants and relations. This diagram is not a clear imag(in)ing. “We don’t need allegorical readings of networks. Networks are not proposals, constructions, metaphors or even alternatives for existing social formations such as the church and company, the school, the NGO or the political party. Instead, we should analyse the rise of networks as an all too human endeavor, as a tragic fall, and not as post-human machines that automate connections for us”.

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