Networked Publics, or Pareto’s Revenge

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Penn Humanities Forum in a symposium on cores ande peripheries. I enjoyed myself tremendously. It was a welcome opportunity to have an opportunity to expand my work on networked publics and network culture, especially with such a great synergy between speakers, responders, and audience. I gave two talks, first a position statement and second, a talk on how power configures itself in networked publics.

I've uploaded the second talk to Vimeo and am including the text here. I don't have video for the first talk, but I will upload the text soon.


Networked Publics or Pareto's Revenge from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.


In this talk I want to explore how core and periphery might appear in networks and how they are networks reconfigure their structural conditions. 

During the last two decades, networks have become our dominant cultural logic. The Internet and mobile telecommunications devices have revolutionized our lives by connecting us in new ways, but more than that, in a book length study of network culture that I am slowly picking away at, I want to suggest that there has also been a mutation that produces this condition and that this condition is no longer simply postmodernity. 

Now I’m not suggesting technological determinism. On the contrary, it is the widespread technological determinism in society today that serves as evidence of network culture as a distinct period. Contrast the widely held techno-utopianism today with the technological pessimism of postmodernism. As late as the early 1990s, historian of science Leo Marx would declare “‘Technological pessimism’ may be a novel term, but most of us seem to understand what it means. It surely refers to that sense of disappointment, anxiety, even menace, that the idea of ‘technology’ arouses in many people these days.”

Even with the addled sense of overload that too much e-mail, too many SMS messages, too much Twitter, and too much of everything gives us, these voices are fewer and farther between than they were in the 1980s. We see Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr as Cassandras, not as leaders of some kind of neo-luddite movement. In contrast, oppositional movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring not only rely on the familiar technology of smart phones, Web sites, and Twitter but also use distributed networks as models for organization. RAND researchers John Arquila and David Ronfeldt refer to new insurgency movements as “Netwars.” They write that “Strong netwar actors will have not only organizational, but also doctrinal, technological, and social layers that emphasize network designs. Netwar actors may make heavy use of cyberspace, but that is not their defining characteristic—they subsist and operate in areas beyond it.”

So, too, commonplace menaces like Peak Oil and Global Warming are commonly shrugged off as being solvable with technological fixes. 

The network, meanwhile, seems everywhere, spreading far beyond technology, “everting,” turning inside out, as William Gibson suggests in Spook Country. Whether we take neoliberal affirmations of globalization, post-Marxist network collectives, educational institutions, or analytical models of organization in sociology, the network has replaced both the formless mass and the hierarchical tree as our model of collectivity. It has been two decades since Manuel Castells dubbed our social order “the network society.”

The network is the cultural dominant of our time, much as the machine was for the modern era. Like the machine, the network is a technology, and in this, our time shares a return to the modern obsession with technological change. 

In this talk, I want to focus on “networked publics,” a term that I wound up working with as a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication in the 2005-2006 academic year after a semester here at Penn. I want to pose the question of what sort of logics of hierarchy emerge within networks and how do these give form to the public, that meeting ground in which we come together to observe and discuss culture, politics, and other matters of common concern? 

Let’s start with culture since it is key to the public. In Ancients and Moderns Joan DeJean shows  that those debates on cultural matters in the seventeenth century were the theater in which a modern idea of the public first emerged.

 The cultural, of course, is the political; the stakes were high for Boileau and Perrault, no question And what of the decline of the public sphere or rather its metamorphosis into mass media and the development of the mass? Habermas descries the mass media as commodified, “a public sphere in appearance only,” its mission being to encourage consumption.

 But we should remember another meaning to the mass, which is that of a certain Utopic strain of modernity, that strain that can’t help but call forth an absolutist argument, be it Lissitzky, Corbusier, or Eisenstein. There is no alternate viewpoint to be entertained, no debate to be had, only Agitprop for the avant-garde that advocated a universalizing instrumental rationality. 

Postmodernity not only did not return a public sphere, it broke up the mass. After all, postmodernity and postmodernism were defined by the thorough triumph of the culture industry, with postmodernism in Jameson’s words, “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” But with this too, came the fragmenting of mass media in response to the shift from manufacturing to the service industry in postmodernity and the culture industry’s need to expand its market by directly targeting consumer groups.  

But if the rise of the culture industry is a constituent of postmodernity, during the last decade we have witnessed a stunning reversal. Culture has had tricks up its sleeve to foil the market, networked tricks. Just as its triumph seemed complete, the culture industry faced an unprecedented crisis of value. During the last decade, the free availability of information on the Internet has undone entire media ecologies. Just when it seemed to be defeated by commodification, culture decided to fight back and shrug it off. In part, consumers—particularly young consumers—have proven that they have little allegiance to the culture industry’s ideas of ownership, and are glad to pirate what they can. But even when the means are legal, consumers seek to optimize their spending on culture, throwing the media into crisis. That new media corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, and Mog are eager to help in the “creative destruction” only makes this more so. 

More than this though, relationships of producers to consumers have changed fundamentally, even from postmodernism. If Habermas described the privatization of the salon from public to private, now matters are reversed. No longer is the individual’s opinion restricted to the living room, rather they can give vent to their reactions across the Internet

Network culture, then is the age of networked publics. Networked publics are groups of individuals who congregate around issues and media that they share an interest in, regardless of their location. Networked publics do not merely receive information, they communicate bottom-to-top-and side-to-side, sharing opinions, reworking, and redistributing information. In this, networked publics have not only utilized but also greatly shaped the technological platforms that constitute media culture today. Think not of comments on newspaper articles, forums about television shows, YouTube, academic listservs and on and on. 

Networked publics do not, however, coalesce. There is no place in which we come together, no new public sphere. I’d like to point out that Habermas talks a great deal about architecture in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and in that respect, I’d like to draw an analogy with physical space. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop tries to account for how we have seemingly given up any notion of the public sphere for and wound up with a paradoxical country that is remarkably divided. Bishop argues that politics has become subject to a consumption mentality and we choose the places we want to live based on the presence of individuals who think like we do. Bishop: “For companies, there weren't mass markets any longer, only individual consumers to be targeted and then supplied with just the product they wanted. The country sorted into separate groupings of lifestyle and belief. We left behind a country that was striving to be whole in 1965, with the passage of civil rights laws and universal health care coverage for the elderly, and we began to sequester ourselves into tribes of like beliefs, images, neighborhoods, and markets.”

 We can see this sort of segmentation in, for example, the clusters that geodemographic marketing firm Claritas produces. Utilizing data like this, politicians tune their messages to generate the most votes. Now networked publics do link individuals across political boundaries, but the basic problem remains, you dig yourself deeper. 

So networked publics seem to be a set of peripheries that can’t coalesce. But there’s more to it than that and the rest of my talk will address networks themselves. We’ve seen the diagram of distributed networks, but if the nodes in a network are allowed to make their own link, something curious happens. Some nodes will connected more to others. Some of those highly-connected nodes will get even more connections. The result is the emergence of “hubs” that will have vastly more connections than other nodes. Take for example the Web site for this conference and compare it to Google.

Media theorist Clay Shirky has suggested observed that in the case of blogs, what is called a “scale-free” network developed naturally, leading to the disproportionate favoring of certain sites. Shirky: “This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

 As network theory shows, Shirky argues, this is absolutely natural: “Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable.” Shirky suggests that although this might one day be a problem, for now we can content ourselves with knowing that this is a natural property of the network. Fair enough, I suppose but if we see the network as a model for society, then we know that this is going to lead straight into neoliberalism and into the creation of a new set of cores and peripheries, network style. 

More than that, former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson suggests that if we look at media consumption as a scale-free network, then the low section of the graph, or the Long Tail, is particularly rich. Anderson observes that aggregators such as Amazon or iTunes make as much money or more from the Long Tail in their libraries as they do from the hits oat the top. Artists in the Long Tail, Anderson suggests, can make decent livings from a dedicated community of fans, a networked public that revolving around them.

 Curiously, what happens is an evisceration of the middle. We all share knowledge of the big hits, but the middle is now obscured. We have networked publics—our love of Kung Fu movies or noise music or shoegaze—but will we ever meet except at the most basic big hit level?

But ultimately my point, to get back to what I was speaking about this morning is this. There is a power rippling through networked publics and that power is neoliberalism. For the network naturalizes its propensity toward creating ever-greater GINI coefficients. I want to finish by pointing to one particular origin of network theory that also gives rise to my talk’s title. The scale-free network in which 80% of the hits are taken by 20% of the nodes was first formulated by sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto, active in Italy in the first part of the last century. He came to this insight when he sought to explain the development of power in societies. Pareto himself believed that such scale-free networks were just. A ruling class, he argued, would always emerge. In writings that appealed to Mussolini and the fascists, he suggested that since this was the natural order of things, the state should simply get out of the way, allowing the natural social law to maintain itself. 

If recent apologists for Pareto have suggested that had he not died within a year of the Fascist assumption of power, he would have turned against it, it seems to me that our network culture might have been more acceptable to him. For networks may not seem to have cores and peripheries, but make no mistake, they give rise to power structures no less intractable. 

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Tract Homes and Starchitecure


It still strikes me that we haven't made the right links between the housing bubble and starchitecture. If much of the world is economically devastated, high-end architects and developers in global cities find their offices thriving. If starchitecture has pulled back a little, its perhaps in name only as the boom seems to continue, having missed only a beat or two.  

If the self-congratulating promoters of the creative city may pat themselves on the back these days about the failure of vast swaths of tract homes, they still fail to understand that the products of Toll Brothers and the products of Richard Meier Associates are the results of the same economic mutation.

I think we can all agree that there is an obvious relationship between the ill-fated real estate bubble of the 2000s and the new products for real-estate consumers developed and popularized at the time such as interest-only mortgages, balloon payments, subprime mortgages, and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) as well as complimentary instruments for financial investment such as mortgage-backed securities and the credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that backed those securities. The creative innovation that brought us these financial instruments is the highest form of production in the global city, at least from an economic perspective. If the creative class that produced and marketed these instruments worldwide lived in the towers made by starchitects, the relationship also goes deeper than that.  

Tract homes and designer apartment buildings were two sides of the same radical speculation, both precarious constructions of finance, carefully targeted to the appropriate demographic. The endless proliferation of tract home sameness found an echo in the ceaseless production of unprecedented formal innovations. If the latter aimed to always be new and photogenic, such works were not so much the products of polemical statements about architecture as they were of assembly lines capable of endless stylistic variations. Typically utilizing the most advanced computer-aided design and construction technologies available, such work cements a conception of architecture not as a series of enduring monuments but rather as part of a consumer fashion cycle.         

The difference between the repetition of the same and the repetition of the different is not so much an abstract notion of quality as a question of finance and motivation. The tract house was marketed as both a place for a family to dwell and as a lucrative but safe investment, an interchangeable commodity that could be exchanged at will for an ever-greater price. Its ubiquity was assured by the therapeutic figure of the realtor and the process of staging the interior to substitute traces of the unique with the universal. In turn, the high-end residential apartment was billed as a theatrical pied-à-terre, a temporary residence aimed less at existing city populaces than at individuals from abroad seeking to cement their identities as members of a global elite. They sought to join this society while diversifying their real estate investments internationally to hedge against any localized collapse in property values.

Developers of starchitect-designed properties targeted that demographic of the global elite already interested in investing in the art market or owning works of reputed cultural significance. In this, it is instructive to compare the branding of starchitect-designed apartment buildings with how Donald Trump-branded apartment buildings targeted at a market-segment interested in associating itself with more conventional ideas of celebrity and with conventional amenities such as interior waterfalls, high end French restaurants and billiards rooms. Whatever name a luxury building was branded with, be it Herzog and de Meuron or Donald Trump, the deeper pockets possessed by purchasers ensured that after the global downturn in real estate, the market would remain liquid and prices wouldn’t collapse the way they did for suburban tract homes.  

It's really the Pareto priniciple at work. After the collapse, the overproduction of real estate worldwide only served to cement the value of the core of global cities as what David Harvey has called a spatial fix for capital, thus demonstrating its value even further. In other words, it all worked out very nicely for everyone holding the cards, didn't it?  

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