Monday, November 23, 2009

Where are the Cliff Notes when really needed?

I've got to be honest with you guys. I am completely clueless about what to say about Galloway and Thacker's The Exploit. Even Habermas seemed to make more sense than this. That doesn't mean that I necessarily understood Habermas, but this is practically undecipherable.

Network theory seemed like such an easy concept, until I started reading this. To me, network theory is the science behind how people, objects, diseases, graphs are all interrelated and connected to one another. It's useful for explaining the spread of diseases such as influenza and AIDS, but it also has applications in fields as diverse as particle physics, economics, operations research and sociology, as noted on the Wikipedia entry concerning the theory.

Network theory and networks, in general, are limited, however, by their inability to predict where something like H1N1- commonly referred to as swine flu - will strike next.

This is supported on page 95, when the authors write:
"While individuals, groups, or organizations may be responsible for 'causing' emerging infectious diseases, it is notoriously difficult to predict the exact consequences of such decisions or to foresee the results of such actions. This is because emerging infectious diseases are not weapons like missiles, planes, or bombs; they are networks, and it is as networks that they function and as networks that they are controlled."
Scientists can use past examples to hypothesize where something like H1N1 might strike next, but it's nothing more than a hypothesis, a guess based on data collected about previous incidences. This is part of the problem researchers are facing with the current pandemic strain of H1N1. They know how it is transmitted and which groups are most likely to be impacted based on the genetic make-up of the strain, but the network doesn't reveal precisely who or when it will strike. The network also doesn't explain why people who are otherwise perfectly healthy and have no underlying medical conditions have died from H1n1.

That said, networks are extremely powerful.

As stated on the back of the book:
"The network has become the core organizational structure for postmodern politics, culture, and life, replacing the modern era's hierarchical systems. From peer-to-peer file sharing and massive multiplayer online games to contagion vectors of digital or biological viruses and global affiliations of terrorist organizations, the network form has become so invasive that nearly every aspect of contemporary society can be located within it."
This is particularly apparent when you consider the hierarchy of mainstream media, which has changed dramatically with the advent of both the Internet and more recently, social media. Whereas mainstream media once remained largely one-directional with networks distributing content directly to the user with little to no feedback, current media entities are all but required to be in constant interaction with their users/clients/viewers. In a sense, they have given up some control in order to be relevant and remain connected to the larger network.

As stated on page 124:
"...the unidirectional media of the past were ignoring half the loop. At least television did not know if the home audience was watching or not. As mathematicians might say, television is a 'directed' or unidirectioal graph. Today's media have closed the loop; they are 'undirected' or bidirectional graphs. Today's media physically require the maintained, constant, continuous interaction of users. This is the political tragedy of interactivity...Television was a huge megaphone. The Internet is a high-bandwidth security camera."
Another and probably bigger point the authors emphasize throughout the text is the idea that there's a substantial division between networks and sovereignty. While sovereign powers involve an entity - generally one individual - having supreme, independent authority over a territory, there are no widely accepted leaders or codes of law for forming or governing networks. Companies like Google may exert a lot of influence but they are not sovereign powers in the sense that they do not officially 'control' the space. Their influence is not codified in or by law. Thus, to the authors, the very idea that networks, particularly the Internet, are either naturally or intentionally egalitarian is misleading.

As written on page 4:
"The network, it appears, has emerged as a dominant form describing the nature of control today, as well as resistance to it."
And then on page 5, when the authors write:
"Perhaps there is no greater lesson about networks than the lesson about control: networks, by their mere existence, are not liberating; they exercise novel forms of control that operate at a level that is anonymous and non-human, which is to say material."
Overall, I find this book extremely confusing. The authors supposedly challenge the "assumption that networks are inherently egalitarian" and "contend that there exist new modes of control entirley native to networks," yet they never move beyond mere speculation to offer their own theory about the actual effects of networks. It probably would have helped if I had made it through the whole book, but the authors seem to come up short when it comes to offering definitive solutions to the questions they raise.


Mary Goes To School said...

I also had real trouble understanding this book, even though I did finish it. I followed the "skim part 1, read part 2, read part 1" directions, but that didn't really work very well. And the fact that they didn't really come to any conclusion bothered me too, though I'm beginning to see that as a trend for the last few readings. More questions than answers really.

This is theory that seems pretty straight forward up front, but has been somehow lost in the language.

Chelsea said...

Ah, I'm glad I wasn't the only one kind of lost in the reading. I think you got some of the key points like me. For example, that networks are powerful, and again I think this class has been showing us how the 'new media' is a whole new game compared to radio/television/newspapers. Like you said, the internet allows the information to be omni-directional instead of broadcast. There is still some hierarchy to it, but it's not the same as it was, that's for sure.

KEHS said...

I also tried the skim part 1, read part 2, go back to 1, but was still unable to finish. Hopefully, I'll make it through before tonight's class.

Aline McKenzie said...

I don't think the authors ever used the exact word, but the concept of the "panopticon" came to mine several times while reading this -- the very structure of new media means you're being watched.

The good side is that a service can tailor its offerings to your taste, as calculated by your previous consumption compared to others with similar usage habits.

Bad side is that they're tracking your usage and that of others.

That's the unhuman at work.

THe human equivalent is the comics store I've been patronizing for 14 years -- they know what I like, they know what others like, and when a new title comes out, they often say "Hey, bet you'll really like this!" But that's warm, personal service. When Amazon or Facebook does it, I have very mixed feelings.

Gary said...

I enjoyed reading some of this book out loud because the sentences were so convoluted at times. I just decided to wade through it from page 1 to 158. There were times when it was extremely dense, and other times incredibly insightful. I will also look forward to hearing it discussed tonight. Like Aline, I referenced the Panopticon several times: the authors obviously like Foucault, as well as Marx and Nietzsche.