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.