Notes on the State of Networking

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(Written for the free theory paper Make World #4, printed in 10,000 copies
and distributed at the Neuro-Networking in Europe-festival in Munich. URL:
www.makeworlds.org).No longer the society, the political party or even the movement, networks
are the emerging form of organization of our time. By marching through the
institutions the idea of networking has lost its mysterious and subversive
character. Sandpapered by legions of consultants, supervisors, and
sociologists, as a buzzword networking superseded the latest fashions of
sustainability, outsourcing, and lean organization.

The hype of networks reveals a conceptual crisis of collaboration and
cooperation. Yet, the confusing aspect of networking is the fact that
large formations of power apparently defy networks. Business and other
large institutions are still in the process of opening up. The
introduction of computer networks within organizations over the past
decade has changed work flows but hasn’t reached the level of decision
making. In this period of transition and consolidation we get confusing
answers to the question whether ‘new media’ are part of mainstream pop
culture. Whereas it is easy to see that networks have become the dominant
mode of power, this is still not the case for ‘power’ in the narrow sense.
This is why the call for openness, transparency and democracy, on both
micro and macro-levels, still potentially contains progressive elements
and should be seen as a counterpart to popular conspiracy theories.

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 a networked globality or: Info-Empire. It is not adequate to
analyse this with Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The networking
paradigm escapes the centrality of the icon to visual culture and its
critics and instead focuses on more abstract, invisible, subtle processes
and feedback loops. There is nothing spectacular about networking. And
this is exactly why most of the leading theorists are not aware of the
current power transformations. They still sit in front of the television
and watch the news or a rental VHS-perhaps they have even bought a DVD
player by now.

The networking paradigm marks the threshold of postmodernity and
characterizes the global governance scenarios of Info-Empire. This
threshold was crossed when digital communications appeared in the
political scene and created a notion of the global that is essentially
different from the predominant values of ‘solidarity’ in internationalism
or ‘multiplicity’ in trans-national corporations. Without referring to
inferior sentiments or noble feeling, a nuclear strike force or massive
drug abuse it was suddenly possible, to think global in absolutely
un-pathetic ways.

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 responds to the pressure 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.
Although the promise of liberation still lures, and works at times,
shifting geographies and social layers, an identity backflip has occurred.
Its pretty hard these days to be a dog on the Internet. There never was
something like privacy on the Net, but after 9.11 things definitely
reached a new level. And once again, theory runs behind the facts or it is
satisfied with great gestures that occupy the moral high ground but reveal
nothing but powerlessness.

When within the nation state techniques of localization and
identification, communication surveillance and motion control have been
temporarily suspended it was the direct result of the social struggles of
a mass of individuals against the corruption of state sovereignty. Within
the ‘state of networking’ these techniques and technologies tend to become
redundant. Furthermore Info-Empire is constituted by including and
simultaneously excluding the tracks of localized and identifiable life.

Internet research, now having reached its ethnographic phase, has great
difficulties in catching up conceptually, let alone provide us with
speculative visions that capture the permanent flux of global immaterial

The classical dichotomies of public/private, global/local, etc. become
useless and even obsolete. These binaries are replaced by flexible
attitudes of managing singularities and fluid differences: rather than
challenging power networking environments act as carriers for virtual
self-management and self-control, up to the point of crashing. Networked
environments are inherently unstable and its temporality is key, much like
events. Networks are dense social structures on the brink of collapse and
it is questionable if there are sustainable models that can ‘freeze’ them.

Maybe it is better to understand networking as a syncope of power, a
temporary loss of consciousness and posture, rather than a panacea against
corruption, commodification, resentment and the general dumbness of
traditional hierarchies. The result of networking often is a rampant will
to powerlessness that escapes the idea of collective progress under the
pretext of participation, fluidity, escapism and over-commitment.

Participants easily get lost in the overload of email messages, weblogs
and chat exchanges. The subjective feeling, having to swim against a tidal
wave of noise and random tension, can no longer be explained by a lack of
media literacy. Software and interface solutions can be helpful, but often
only temporarily assist users to get a handle of complex information
flows. This often results in the abandoning of collective communication,
somewhere half-way, leaving the online participants with the
unsatisfactory feeling that the online conversation got stuck, unable to
reach a conclusion. After an exciting first phase of introductions and
debates, networks are put to the test: either they transform into a body
that is capable to act, or they remain stable on a flatline of information
exchange, with the occasional reply of an individual who dares to

At the same time we are facing a backlash towards romantic and outdated
forms of representation, hierarchies and command on many terrains. Due to
the ‘conceptual wall’ that online communities often find hard to cross,
classic ‘informal’ forms of representation fill up the gap. This is part
of a larger process of ‘normalization’ in which networks are integrated in
existing management styles and institutional rituals.

But the progress of networking technologies is not that linear or
unstoppable, as it appears in the techno-naivety of some NGO’s. It is
often hard to admit that the realm of power (agenda setting,
decision-making) exists relatively autonomous of the techno-sphere as B2B
(“breast to breast”) meetings. Instead, we would all love to believe that
decentralized networks somehow dissolves power, over time. Meanwhile,
networking environments also create specific dispositives, that are
coordinating new forms of power and that consist of a variety of elements.
To research these new statements, norms, standardizations, practices and
institutions as an ensemble that organizes the transactions from power to
knowledge and knowledge to power goes far beyond the current talk about
the information society as well as the attempts to find and replace
information with knowledge or any attempt to locate and identify an object
of networking, let alone a purpose.

In retrospect, one can say that the radical critique of the information
society does not yet exist. That was the lesson of the World Summit of the
Information Society (WSIS), held in December 2003 in Geneva. There is the
NGO civil society story about human rights and unequal access, but that’s
it. What’s so weak about this approach is it’s charity mentality: please
donate us some computers and share some of your bandwidth. What is lacking
is an informed autonomist perspective. Let’s say, an ‘Empire’ for the
Internet generation. This programmatic work should have been written
during the raving nineties. Instead, we got stuck with remnants of the ’68
generation, and the mess they made, characterized by this particular blend
of utopia, violence and sell-out. In the past decade collective work on
ideas has been replaced by informal networking, a move away from politics
towards culture and the arts, shifting the focus towards software,
designing interfaces. and just playing around. Instead of blaming the
‘nettime’ generation one could also stress that theory can only grow out
of reflected experiences. In that sense we might be too impatient. The
question should rather be: how can theory come into being in an age of
real-time events?

WSIS made evident that there are only few forces willing and able to
analyse and then criticize the ‘information society’ concept. The air in
Geneva was filled with the spirit of network naivety-no matter on what
side. Both the hegemonic and the alternative view of the information
society is characterized by a persistent transcendentalism, as if the
spread of ICT would increase development, as if access to the Internet
would improve living conditions, as if free software would override
capitalism, as if file sharing equals altruism, as if open publishing
would promote democracy.

Instead of endlessly deconstructing the ‘New Economy meets NGOs’ agendas,
we believe it the task of the next media activists to investigate the
limits of networking in order to be in a better position to overcome those
boundaries. This era is blinded by the light. As technologies are still an
expanding universe it is hard to see its limits, to recognize its damages,
without falling back into technophobia and cultural pessimism.

Quixotic projects and idealism pervaded the rhetoric of the vast majority
of those who have not ignored the summit. That was the disappointment of
the WSIS process but it did not really come as a surprise. But what could
it mean to put the information society under a radical critique? One has
to track down the material basis of information and communication in order
to turn the whole discourse downside up. For instance one could research
the impact of precarious and migrant labour in hardware and software
industries, within the service sector such as the call centres, with its
temporary workers. This means to tear down the exclusive notion of
information as something ephemeral, spiritual and immaterial, and reveal
the dirty side of the technology.

It would be a mistake to look at this other or, better to say, the real
information society with an attitude of charity and to commiserate these
poor things who have to work so damned hard that we can play with ever
cheaper computers. Often this perspective comes along with a romantic,
anti-technological attitude or full of ignorance and resentment against
informatization, de-regularisation and globalization. These processes that
are constituting the current situation are direct and indirect results of
struggles (against the working day, for a better living, at for least a
job etc.) that are disconnected and abstracted from a common, daily

A radical critique always implies practical consequences. There is no
other way out of the intellectual stagnation than to stage unlikely
encounters and unexpected alliances, between coders and solders, activists
and researchers, artists and unionists. We have to bring on irrelevant
moments and leave the programmed density of the event-time for what it is.

Shouldn’t a radical critique of the information society in the first
instance confront the common notion of sovereignty and it’s mediatisation
with something that reaches out beyond the increasing banality of
networking? What happens after the excitement of encounter has faded away?
Should the motor of creativity and subversion continue to be supplied with
an ever-changing focus on yet to-be discovered, soon to be exploited
cultural differences?

Does it make sense, as a possible way out, to demand a ‘cultural
exception’ for the digital commons? How can the making of a digital public
domain be pushed out of beta, beyond the usual ‘revolution or reform’
choice? The digital commons obviously have left the sandbox and are
out-there, in the wide world. As a ‘high potential’ meme the digital
commons is growing at a pace way beyond the worthy Gutenberg project,
which, in the thirty years or more of its existence has only added 10,000
book titles to the public domain. But this is exactly why digital commons
is a potentially fragile concept. It involves risk taking, in terms of
civil disobedience. It asks of digital artisans to take a firm stand when
they negotiate with publishers and distributors. The creative multitudes
have to wake up out their numbed state and have the courage to refuse. No
more bad contracts. Don’t sign away your rights. To publish under the
creative commons licence is the very least one can do. This shift not only
requires public awareness; it also needs ‘best practices’ stories of those
who stood up and actually tore up contracts. A critical mass of IP-
refuseniks will only come into being if such individual stories can find
the public forums and inspire people to say no. Otherwise it will remain
everyone’s individual problem.

February 2004