Sunday, March 27, 2005

On the Limits of the Limits of Networking

Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker's essay on "The Limits of Networking" highlights some of the weaknesses of the discussion of "networks" and "networking" and the "network form" on the Left.

Galloway and Thacker's piece is a response to another piece by Gert Lovink and Florian Schneider, "Notes on the State of Networking" that appeared in the February, 2004 makeworld paper #4. The title is a pun on "state" as a physics term and "state" as a political term, as in the exercise of class power. "Networks", they write, "are the emerging form of organization in our time." But like assertions that we participate in a "knowledge economy" or live in the "information society", such statements are redundancies. All organizations are networks of some sort; an economy is impossible without knowledge, no matter what the level of technological development; society without information would not be a society.

I am being deliberately obtuse here, because there is common conflation of "networks" and the "network form". "Network" is device for talking about any process as the interaction of nodes via links -- a universal architectural structure, a powerful device for comprehending phenomena. "Network form" attempts to describe a means of organization in contrast to "hierarchical form". Discussions about the "network form" fail to appreciate the insights that network science has to offer. The result is a shallow conception (networks are conceived as "ahistorical entities" per Galloway and Thacker) doomed to political and organizational failure.

Per Lovink + Scheider:

"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 networked globality or: Info-Empire....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 [counterposed to "networking" jd] responds to the presence 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."

For Galloway + Thacker, their "point of departure" with L+S is that "Info-Empire" "must be defined at the level of the medium itself." They critique the popular conception of networks amongst the new new Left -- really, the "network form":

"In many current political discussions, networks are seen as the new paradigm of social and political organization. The reason is that networks [that is, the "network form" - jd] exhibit a set of properties that distinguishes them from the more centralized power structures. These structures are often taken to be merely abstract, formal aspects of the network -- which is itself characterized as a kind of meta-structure... What we end up with is a 'metaphysics of networks.'... What we question is not the network concept itself for, as a number of network examples show, they can indeed be effective modes of struggle. What we do question is the undue and exclusive reliance on the metaphysics of the network, as if this ahistorical concept legitimizes itself by merely existing."

I think G+T correctly challenge the fetishization of networks. Without a deepening of understanding of networks -- that they are expressions of a "law system" that binds the network to an operative environment -- we are left with the "metaphysics of networks". By "operative environment" I mean certain conditions which exist which render the necessary connections -- the law system -- operable. In the social world, this would be, for example, the mode of production, or more broadly, "history". The connections in a pre-agricultural economy are not constrained by the law of the maximization of profit that defines a capitalist economy. The links of "worker/boss" or property are, in the language of computers, no-ops -- not operative.

In the modern environment of electronics. with all of the production and communication possibilities they enable ("to free the user from the bonds of locality and identity"), the contest is not over "power" vs "network", but rather the law system itself that defines or gives a particular character to the network. The political challenge is to overthrow the law system, to re-make the network.

Galloway and Thacker use the narrower concept of "protocols" as the "what" that defines the network. In computer networking terms, "protocols" are the agreed upon rules that nodes use to enable links or communication. An agreement on protocol is a pre-requisite for links to be established. So in this sense, the protocols will determine, to a great extent, the nature of the links and hence the dynamics of the network. Political work then, needs to be "counter-protocological." And they clarify, the action is not counter-anything. "Counter-" implies reaction, restoration, conservation, preservation. Rather, political work needs to be "hypertrophic" -- pushing beyond, creating the new, exploring and claiming the undiscovered country.

Protocol is really a kind of grammar, or syntax. Inasmuch as the syntactical rules of language constrain our imagination, I can accept the notion of protocol as a form of control. But at the same time, communication is impossible without syntax. As Florian Cramer noted in her response on nettime-l to the G+T piece:

But as with any play, consisting of a ruleset and its free execution, control is never total to the extent that it wouldn't permit freedom... Freedom and control thus are not mutually exclusive, but mutually dependent on each other. To envision communication systems without control - i.e. languages without rules, networks without protocols - and find them desirable, would be utterly an infantilist vision of a pre-language paradise.

To focus in on "protocol" as the description of what defines the network misdirects, or does not go far enough. In computer networks, protocols are probably some of the most neutral aspects of the network, and to push the metaphor into the social network obscures too much. "Law system" is total and comprehensive, and not "neutral" in the way that "protocols" can be read as neutral, as the floor on which the great social contest plays out.

For the network of society, the fundamental relationship of private property in the age of electronics defines the network behavior. "Private property" describes only one possible mode of linking. If "private property" is the protocol in the most general metaphoric sense -- a system of constraints on the interactions between human beings -- well then bring on the counter-protocological practice and lets hypertrophe the network.

In any case, it's that understanding of network dynamics, the historical context and constraints and opportunities -- the law system that informs, binds, sets boundaries, describes, defines etc. etc. that seems to have been missing in the Discussion. And without the comprehension of those network dynamics -- what is and what needs to be done -- progress will be impossible.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"Close Doesn't Always Count in Winning Games" by Benedict Carey (New York Times, 3/7/05):

[S]ocial scientists who have studied group performance under pressure say that often it is decentralized groups (like the Yankees) that prove more resilient than strongly connected ones (like the Red Sox); they are better able to weather outside criticism and internal quarrels.

Evidence from personality profiles and from studies of military, corporate and space flight crews suggests that looser ties between group members can be a strength, if the team includes individuals who can generate collective emotion when needed. And the Yankees have several of them.

Some other key points:

-- "Winning is more likely to create team unity than vice versa, Torre has said repeatedly, and the evidence backs him up, said Dr. Richard Moreland, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Pittsburgh."

-- "When a common purpose is shared, loosely tied groups can function better than strongly bonded ones when it comes to containing dissent or bickering, research suggests." It allows individuals to withdraw from squabbles without disrupting the group's work.

-- "On a tightly knit team, by contrast, a falling out between key members can divide a squad, forcing people to take sides, psychologists say."

-- "Whether such independent, loosely tied people ultimately succeed as a unit depends not only on strong management, researchers say, but on the presence of individual group members who can circulate through disparate parts of the team, reduce conflict and help generate collective spirit when it is needed."

Sunday, March 13, 2005

This flurry of activity is the result of poking around and seeing what there is on the net regarding networks, etc. And reflects to a great extent on my ignorance or dis-connectedness from the discussions that are taking place both in science and political circles. For example, from a year ago...

"The Limits of Networking" (also available in a prettier form at c u l t u r e k i t c h e n by Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker is a response to a piece by Gert Lovink and Florian Schneider, "Notes on the State of Networking" which may also have appeared on the nettime-l list; the link is to the makeworlds site, previously mentioned in this blog. A response (also on nettime-l) to the Galloway/Thacker piece by Florian Cramer is good.

Comments will be forthcoming.

Friday, March 11, 2005

On the horizon: The Quantum Theory of Trust: How Networks Work and Organizations Behave; The Secret of Mapping and Managing Human Relationships. Anticipated publication date: September, 2005. There's an outline on the announcement page. Network science used to understand and enhance corporate culture; concepts look to apply to any organization.

A bit more on network motifs:

A taxonomy of network motifs exists. For some clear descriptions and diagrams, see Network motifs. This page describes gene regulation, but it's not too hard to extrapolate from motifs like "autoregulatory", "feedforward", "multi-component loop", etc.

To understand how complex transcriptional regulatory networks produce gene expression programs, it is useful to identify the simplest units of commonly used network architecture. We imagine that these simple units, or network motifs, provide specific regulatory capacities such as positive and negative feedback loops. The frequency with which cells use individual motifs reveals the regulatory strategies that were selected during evolution. These motifs can be assembled into network structures that help explain how a complex gene expression program is regulated.
(from site above).
Network motifs

Connections or actions between nodes have a property of "direction". A can act on B, B can act on A, or A can act on B and B can act on A. In dialectical terms the latter case would be an interaction or interconnection. Throw in a third node, and the number of possible connection types grows to 13?; add a fourth, and the number jumps to 199. (I'm not sure of the math of this, the numbers are from the article referenced below.)

In a 2002 Science article, "Network Motifs: Simple Building Blocks of Complex Networks" six researchers studied various types of networks, and found "the striking appearance of motifs in networks representing a broad range of natural phenomenon."

The researchers studied various real-world networks, including gene regulation, neurons, food webs, electronic circuits, and the World Wide Web. Out of the range of all of the possible connections types, a small number of connection types -- that is, motifs -- showed up much more frequently than the others. Not all networks, though, have the same motifs. The presence of different motifs in different networks suggests a way of distinguishing types of networks.

"None of the network motifs shared by the food webs matched the motifs found in the gene regulation networks or the World Wide Web. Only one of the food web consensus motifs [their term, consensus motifs are "motifs shared by networks of a given type" - jd] also appeared in the neuronal network. Different motifs were found in electronic circuits with different functions. This suggests that motifs can define broad classes of networks, each with specific types of elementary structures. The motifs reflect the underlying processes that generated each type of network [my emphasis - jd]; for example, food webs evolved to allow a flow of energy from the bottom to the top of the food chains, whereas gene regulation and neuron networks evolve to process information. Information processing seems to give rise to significantly different structures than does energy flow.

Two more observations: (1) "In general, the larger the network is the more significant the motifs tend to become;" and (2) motifs "may be interpreted as structures that arise because of the special constraints under which the network has evolved."

Somehow this concept of "motif" is related to the concept of the "law system" (or, the necessary connections) that govern or constrain the interactions between nodes in the network. Or perhaps they are evidence of the existence of the law system? (These would be in part "the special constraints under which the network has evolved" -- internal constraints, while there are also external or environmental constraints as well?)


Thursday, March 10, 2005

This is a column I did a few years ago, relevant to this blog.


The dumbest networks

Found on the Internet: The best network is the dumbest network. But... it's not the most profitable...

So we won't see it.

That's the implied conclusion in David Isenberg and David Weinberger's online essay "The Paradox of the Best Network".

A "dumb network" is a network that is optimized to move bits -- any kind of bits, all bits -- as fast as possible. "Only then is the network truly open to any and all services that want to use it, no matter how innovative or how unexpected. In the best network, the services live at the edges of the network and use the network to transport bits; they do not rely on any special characteristics of the network itself."

But, they argue, the simpler the network, the easier it is for any network operator to provide the service -- capacity grows, prices fall, all is good. Right? Except.

Telecom companies can't make money that way. (Witness the telecom carcasses along the road over the past two years: Northpoint, PSINet, CAIS/Ardent Communications, to name a few; and a number of companies like Global Crossing are teetering on the curb).

The telecom companies make money off of complicated, premium services that aren't versatile. So they have no incentive to develop the kind of networks that (a) serve the most people and (b) realize the possibilities of a well-networked world.

Isenberg and Weinberger argue that "[i]ncumbent communications company clout has forestalled delivery of a variety of radically simplified, extremely affordable technologies," like wireless and fiber optic networks.

It gets better: "Telephone companies are not the only institutions goaded by new network technology. We can see from the reaction to today's Internet that the Paradox of the Best Network is not kind to the recording industry, to book publishers, or to any other group that makes its living by controlling access to content. These groups have already called in the lawyers and lobbyists to protect their current business models. Nor will the new network be popular with any institution — economic, political or religious — that seeks to shield itself from conflicting cultures and ideas."

The apologists for our great economic system like to argue that yeah, capitalism might be rough, but the competitive spirit ensures that new technologies get developed and deployed. The paradox of the best network is just another example that this is a Big Lie.

Capitalism cannot make the most of new technologies. The above is just one more example. The best networks are not being built because they are too hard to make money from. An economic system that favors maximum profit over maximum satisfaction, maximum usability, maximum access, maximum information, etc. etc. is a bundle of chains on society, keeping it down.

Isenberg and Weinberger pose the obvious question: "But if the best network is also the cheapest and hardest to make money from, who will build it?"

The essay goes on to propose some ways to ensure the development of big, dumb networks. They plainly state that "Arguably, building the best network is a Public Good." But between the rock of telecom capitalism and the hard place of Enron-ized government -- here's where we need everyone's imagination and initiative.

What kind of society do we want? We have a world to win, And, well, nothing to lose but our chains.

* * *

Another reason why capitalism sucks: Harold Russell, the disabled World War II vet and non-actor who won an Academy Award for his remarkable performance in William Weller's classic movie "The Best Years of Our Lives", died in January. He was 88. In 1992 he was forced to sell his Oscar -- he needed the money to pay for his sick wife's medical bills.

Jim Davis

This originally appeared at, now living at