introducing network culture, 2

Part 2 of the Network Culture essay … Since questions of periodization arise, you may also want to look at this post if you haven't already.

But the network goes even further, extending deeply into social and cultural conditions. As network culture supercedes digital culture, it also supercedes the culture of postmodernism outlined by Fredric Jameson in his seminal essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” first written in 1983 and later elaborated upon in a book of the same title. Postmodernism, as Jameson explains, was not merely a stylistic movement but rather a broad cultural condition stemming from a fundamental change in the mode of production, the phase of history that economist Ernest Mandel called “late capitalism.” Both Mandel and Jameson argued that in this era society had been thoroughly colonized by capital, any remaining pre-capitalist forms of life absorbed.

Mandel situated late capitalism within a historical model of long wave Kondratieff cycles. These economic cycles, comprised of twenty-five years of growth followed by twenty-five years of stagnation provide a compelling model of economic history following a certain rhythm: fifty years of Industrial Revolution and handcrafted steam engines culminating in the political crises of 1848, fifty years of machined steam engines lasting until the 1890s, electric and internal combustion engines underwriting the great modern moment that culminated in World War II and the birth of electronics marking the late capitalism of the postwar era.

Jameson observed that under late capitalism, everything was interchangeable, quantified and exchangeable for money or other items. After the most distant reaches of the globe and most archaic work practices were reshaped by investment and the market as well as the thorough capitalization of art, culture, and everyday life, Jameson observed a new condition of postmodernism. In his analysis, the thorough capitalization of art, culture, and everyday life led to a new condition in which any separation between interior and exterior, even in the subject itself, disappeared and, with it, the end of any place from which to critique or observe. Late capitalism, Jameson concluded, would produce postmodernism, a cultural logic dominated by the schizophrenic play of the depthless, empty sign.

Under late capitalism, Jameson suggested, even art lost its capacity to be a form of resistance. Postmodernism undid all meaning and any existential ground outside of capital. Depth, and with it emotion, vanished, to be replaced by surface effects and intensities. In this condition, even alienation was no longer possible. The subject became schizophrenic, lost in the hyperspace of late capital.

No longer a place of resistance, art—under postmodernism—was colonized by capital. The result was a cross-contamination as investors began to see art as something to capitalize while artists, fascinated by the market, began to freely intermingle high and low. So too, with authenticity bankrupt as a position and capital calling for the easy reproducibility and marketing of art, artists began to play with simulation and reproduction. Others, finding themselves unable to reflect directly on the condition of late capital but still wanting to comment upon it, turned to allegory, which foregrounded its own fragmentary, incomplete state instead.

Under postmodernism, history lost its meaning and purpose, both in popular culture and in academia. In the former, history was instead recapitulated as nostalgia, thoroughly exchangeable and made popular in the obsession with antiques as well as in retro films such as Chinatown, American Graffiti, Grease, or Animal House. In academia, a spatialized theory replaced historical means of explanation as a means of analysis.

Modernism’s concern with its place in history was inverted by postmodernism, which, as Jameson points out, was marked by a waning of historicity, a general historical amnesia. But if postmodernism undid its ties to history to an even greater extent than modernism, it still grounded itself in history, both in name—which referred to its historical succession of the prior movement—and in its delight in poaching from both the pre-modern past and the more historically distant periods of modernism itself (e.g. the Art Nouveau, Russian revolutionary art, Expressionism, Dada, and so on).

Today, network culture succeeds postmodernism. It does so in a more subtle way. It does not figure itself as an “ism” that would lay claim to the familiar territory of manifestos, symposia, definitive museum exhibits and so on, but rather servers as a more emergent phenomenon. That we should have moved away from postmodernism should be no surprise. To insist that late capitalism is still the economic regime of our day would be to suggest that it be the longest lasting of all such cycles. Instead, I see a critical break taking place in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the integration of China into the world market instantiating the (“new”) world order of globalization while the commercialization of the Internet set the stage for massive investment in the crucial new technology necessary for the new, fresh cycle. The delirious boom and the more docile, seemingly more sustainable upswing of “Web 2.0” become legible as the first and second booms of a Kondratieff cycle on the upswing. It is this second upswing, then, in which network culture can be observed as a distinct phenomenon that concerns me in this essay.

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introducing network culture

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 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.

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