In hopes of getting more comments, I had been planning to serialize my network culture essay on this blog for some time (under network culture none of us have time to read). A positive email about the essay from my friend Lev Manovich last night inspired me to finally do so. So here goes. 5-6 daily installments of roughly 1,000 words each should take care of it. Serialization will eliminate footnotes, so for those, see the original. The essay starts out by referring to the Networked Publics book, a draft of which is available at netpublics.annenberg.edu. It is by no means a prerequisite.
Naturally, I will make an effort to excerpt each day's writing to make it as digestable as possible…
The Rise of Network Culture
Taken together, the essays in this book point to the development of a new societal condition spurred by the maturing of the Internet and mobile telephony. In this conclusion, I will reflect on that state, which I will call “network culture,” as a broadly historical phenomenon. Defined by the very issues that these essays raise—the simultaneous superimposition of real and virtual space, the new participatory media, concerns about the virtues of mobilization versus deliberation in the networked public sphere and emerging debates over the nature of access—network culture can also reveal broader societal structures just as modernism and postmodernism did in their day.
If subtle, this shift in society is real and radical. During the space of a decade, the network has become the dominant cultural logic. Our economy, public sphere, culture, even our subjectivity are mutating rapidly and show little evidence of slowing down the pace of their evolution. When we buy our first cell phone we are unaware of how profoundly it will alter our lives. Soon, we find that shopping lists are hardly necessary when it is possible to call home from the store. Similarly, dinner plans with friends seem overly formal when they can be made by phone at the last minute, on the way to a particular neighborhood. When telepresence makes constant touch possible, moving out-of-state no longer means saying goodbye to close friends and family. One morning we note with interest that our favorite newspaper has established a Web site, another day we decide to stop buying the paper and just read the site, then we realize that we are spending as much time reading blogs as we are reading the paper. Or perhaps, as happened to me once, we visit a friend’s web page only to learn that he has passed away suddenly. Individually, such everyday narratives of how technology reshapes our everyday lives are minor. Collectively, they are deeply transformative.
Network culture is not merely an extension of the old “information age.” On the contrary, it is markedly unlike the digital model of computation that prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s. In Digital Culture, his incisive historical survey of the first computational era and the developments that led up to it, Charlie Gere describes the digital as a socioeconomic phenomenon instead of merely as a technology. The digital, he observes, is fundamentally a process of abstraction, reducing complex wholes into more elementary units. Tracing these processes of abstraction to the invention of the typewriter, Gere identifies digitization as a key process of capitalism. By removing the physical aspect of commodities from their representations, digitization enables capital to circulate much more freely and rapidly. Thus, Gere suggests, the universal Turing machine—a hypothetical computer first described by Alan Turing in 1936, capable of being configured to do any task—is a model for not only the digital computer but also for the universalizing ambitions of digital culture. But the digital culture that Gere describes is rapidly being supplanted by network culture.
Today, networked connection replaces abstraction. Information is less the product of discrete processing units than the outcome of the networked relations between them, links between people, between machines, and between machines and people. Contrasting the physical sites in which the digital and the network operate illuminates the difference between the two. The site for the former is the desktop microcomputer, displaying information through a heavy CRT monitor, connected to the network via dial-up modem or perhaps through a high latency first generation broadband connection. In our own day, there is no such dominant site. To be sure, the Wi-Fi enabled laptop is now the most popular computing platform, but the mobile phone, Keitai, and smart phone compete with and complement it. What unites these machines is their mobility and interconnectivity, making them more ubiquitous companions in our lives, key interfaces to global telecommunicational networks. In a prosaic sense, the Turing machine is already a reality. A supercomputer, smart phone, laptop, iPod, wireless router, xBox game platform, Mars rover, video surveillance camera, television set-top box, and automobile computer are essentially the same device, running—or capable of running—operating systems derived from UNIX such as Linux or VxWorks and becoming specific only in terms of scale and their mechanisms for input and output, for sensing and acting upon the world. Instead, the new technological grail for industry is a universal, converged network, capable of distributing audio, video, Internet transmissions, voice, text chat and any other conceivable networking task.
Increasingly, the immaterial production of information and its distribution through the network dominate the global economy. To be sure, we certainly still make physical things and that making still has consequences. Far from being free of pollution, Silicon Valley contains more EPA superfund sites than any other county in the nation. Nevertheless, regardless of our continued dependency on the physical, the production of information dominates economies today, even at the cost of obscuring the global environmental consequences of material production.
Although other ages have been networked, ours is the first modern age in which the network is the dominant organizational paradigm, supplanting centralized hierarchies. The ensuing condition, as Manuel Castells suggests in The Rise of the Network Society, is the product of a series of changes: the change in capital in which transnational corporations turn to networks for flexibility and global management, production, and trade; the change in individual behavior, in which networks have become a prime tool individuals seeking freedom and communication with others who share their interests, desires, and hopes; and the change in technology, in which people worldwide have rapidly adopted digital technology and new forms of telecommunication in everyday life.