Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The meaning of network culture by Kazys Varnelis

Very interesting article from Eurozine.

The meaning of network culture

by Kazys Varnelis

Whereas in postmodernism, being was left in a free-floating fabric of emotional intensities, in contemporary culture the existence of the self is affirmed through the network itself. Kazys Varnelis discusses what this means for the democratic public sphere.

Not all at once but rather slowly, in fits and starts, a new societal condition is emerging: network culture. As digital computing matures and meshes with increasingly mobile networking technology, society is also changing, undergoing a cultural shift. Just as modernism and postmodernism served as crucial heuristic devices in their day, studying network culture as a historical phenomenon allows us to better understand broader sociocultural trends and structures, to give duration and temporality to our own, ahistorical time.

If more subtle than the much-talked about economic collapse of fall 2008, this shift in society is real and far more radical, underscoring even the logic of that collapse. During the space of a decade, the network has become the dominant cultural logic. Our economy, public sphere, culture, even our subjectivity are mutating rapidly and show little evidence of slowing down the pace of their evolution. The global economic crisis only demonstrated our faith in the network and its dangers. Over the last two decades, markets and regulators had increasingly placed their faith in the efficient market hypothesis, which posited that investors were fundamentally rational and, fed information by highly efficient data networks, would always make the right decision. The failure came when key parts of the network – the investors, regulators, and the finance industry – failed to think through the consequences of their actions and placed their trust in each other.

The collapse of the markets seems to have been sudden, but it was actually a long-term process, beginning with bad decisions made longer before the collapse. Most of the changes in network culture are subtle and only appear radical in retrospect. Take our relationship with the press. One morning you noted with interest that your daily newspaper had established a website. Another day you decided to stop buying the paper and just read it online. Then you started reading it on a mobile Internet platform, or began listening to a podcast of your favourite column while riding a train. Perhaps you dispensed with official news entirely, preferring a collection of blogs and amateur content. Eventually the paper may well be distributed only on the net, directly incorporating user comments and feedback. Or take the way cell phones have changed our lives. When you first bought a mobile phone, were you aware of how profoundly it would alter your life? Soon, however, you found yourself abandoning the tedium of scheduling dinner plans with friends in advance, instead coordinating with them en route to a particular neighbourhood. Or if your friends or family moved away to university or a new career, you found that through a social networking site like Facebook and through the every-present telematic links of the mobile phone, you did not lose touch with them.

If it is difficult to realize the radical impact of the contemporary, this is in part due to the hype about the near-future impact of computing on society in the 1990s. The failure of the near-future to be realized immediately, due to the limits of the technology of the day, made us jaded. The crash only reinforced that sense. But slowly, technology advanced and society changed, finding new uses for it, in turn spurring more change. Network culture crept up on us. Its impact on us today is radical and undeniable.

Network culture extends the information age of digital computing.[1] But it is also markedly unlike the PC-centred time that culminated in the 1990s. Indeed, in many ways we are more distant from the era of PC-centred computing than it was from the time of centralized, mainframe-based computation. To understand this shift, we can usefully employ Charlie Gere's insightful discussion of computation in Digital Culture. In Gere's analysis, the digital is a socioeconomic phenomenon as much as a technology. Digital culture, he observes, is fundamentally based on a process of abstraction that reduces complex wholes into more elementary units. Tracing this process of abstraction to the invention of the typewriter, Gere identifies digitization as a key process of capitalism. By separating the physical nature of commodities from their representations, digitization enables capital to circulate more freely and rapidly. In this ability to turn everything into quantifiable, interchangeable data, digital culture is universalizing. Gere cites the universal Turing machine – a hypothetical computer first described by Alan Turing in 1936, capable of being configured to do any task – as the model for not only the digital computer but also for that universalizing aspect of digital culture.[2]

But today connection is more important than division. In contrast to digital culture, in network culture information is less the product of discrete processing units than of the networked relations between them, of links between people, between machines, and between machines and people.

Perhaps the best way to illuminate the difference between digital culture and network culture is to contrast their physical sites. The digital era is marked by the desktop microcomputer, displaying information through a heavy CRT monitor, connected to the network via dial-up modem or perhaps through a high-latency first-generation broadband connection. In our own day, there is no such dominant site. The desktop machine is increasingly relegated to high-end applications such as graphic rendering and cinema-quality video editing, or is employed for specific, location-bound functions (at reception desks, to contain secure data, as point-of-sale terminals, in school labs, and so on) while the portable notebook or laptop has taken over as the most popular computing platform. Unlike the desktop, the laptop can be used anywhere: in the office, at school, in bed, in a hotel, in a café, the train or plane. Not only are networks an order of magnitude faster than they were in the dial-up days of the PC, but Wi-Fi makes them easily accessible in many locations. Smart phones such as the Blackberry, Google G1, and the iPhone complement the laptop, bringing connectivity and processing power to places that even laptops cannot easily inhabit, such as streets, subways or automobiles. But such ultra-portable devices are also increasingly competing with the computer, taking over functions that were once in the universal device's purview.[3] What unites these machines is their mobility and their interconnectivity, making them ubiquitous companions in our lives and key interfaces to global telecommunications networks. In a prosaic sense, the Turing machine is already a reality, but it takes the form not of one machine, but of many. With minor exceptions, the laptop, smart phone, cable TV set top box, game console, wireless router, iPod, iPhone, and Mars rover are the same device, becoming specific only in their interfaces, their mechanisms for input and output, for sensing and acting upon the world. Instead, the new technological grail for industry is a universal, converged network, capable of distributing audio, video, Internet, voice, text chat, and any other conceivable networking task efficiently.

Increasingly, the immaterial production of information and its distribution through the network is the dominant organizational principle for the global economy. To be clear, we are far from the world of immaterial production. We manufacture physical things, even if increasingly that manufacturing happens in the developing world. Moreover, the ease of obtaining goods manufactured far away is due to the physical network of global logistics. Sending production offshore – itself a consequence of new network flows – may put it out of sight, but doesn't reduce its impact on the Earth's ecosystem. And, beyond global warming, even in the developed world there are consequences: Silicon Valley contains more EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) Superfund sites than any other county in the nation.[4] But as Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells have concluded, regardless of our continued dependency on the physical, the production of information and the transmission of that information on networks is the key organizing factor in the world economy today. Although other ages have had their networks, ours is the first modern age in which the network is the dominant organizational paradigm, supplanting centralized hierarchies.[5] The ensuing condition, as Castells suggests in The Rise of the Network Society, is the product of a series of changes: the change in capital in which transnational corporations turn to networks for flexibility and global management, production, and trade; the change in individual behaviour, in which networks have become a prime tool for individuals seeking freedom and communication with others who share their interests, desires and hopes; and the change in technology, in which people worldwide have rapidly adopted digital technology and new forms of telecommunication in everyday life.[6]

As we might expect, the network goes even further, extending deeply into the domain of culture. In the same way that network culture builds on digital culture, it builds on the culture of postmodernism outlined by Fredric Jameson in his seminal essay "Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism," first written in 1983 and later elaborated upon in a book of the same title. For Jameson, postmodernism was not merely a stylistic movement but rather a broad cultural determinant stemming from a fundamental shift to the socioeconomic phase of history that economist Ernest Mandel called "late capitalism". Both Mandel and Jameson concluded that society had been thoroughly colonized by capital under late capitalism and any remaining pre-capitalist forms of life had been absorbed.[7] Mandel situated late capitalism within a historical model of long-wave Kondratieff cycles. These economic cycles, comprised of twenty-five years of growth followed by twenty-five years of stagnation, provided a compelling model of economic history following a certain rhythm: fifty years of Industrial Revolution and handcrafted steam engines culminating in the political crises of 1848; fifty years of machined steam engines lasting until the 1890s; electric and internal combustion engines underwriting the great modern moment that culminated in World War II; and the birth of electronics marking the late capitalism of the postwar era.[8]

If digital culture flourished during late capitalism, then it should not be surprising that Jameson observed that in that period, everything became interchangeable, quantified and exchangeable. With the gold standard done away with, capital would be valued purely for its own sake, no longer a stand-in for something else, but pure value. The result was the disappearance of any exterior to capital and with it the elimination of any place from which to critique or observe capital. As a consequence, postmodern culture lost any existential ground or deeper meaning. Depth, and with it emotion, vanished, to be replaced by surface effects and intensities. In this condition, even alienation was no longer possible. The subject became schizophrenic, lost in the hyperspace of late capital.

As capital colonized art under late capitalism, Jameson suggested, even art lost its capacity to be a form of resistance. The result was cross-contamination, as art became not just an industry but an investment market, and artists, fascinated by the market, began to freely intermingle high and low. With the art market calling for easy reproducibility and marketing, and with authenticity no longer a viable place of resistance, some artists began to play with simulation and reproduction. Others, finding themselves unable to reflect directly on the condition of late capital but still wanting to comment upon it, turned to allegory, foregrounding its fragmentary and incomplete nature.

History, too, lost its meaning and purpose, both in culture and in academia. In the former, history was recapitulated as nostalgia, thoroughly exchangeable and made popular in the obsession with antiques as well as through retro films such as Chinatown, American Graffiti, Grease, or Animal House. In academia, a spatialized theory replaced historical explanation as a means of analysis.

Modernism's obsession with its place in history was inverted by postmodernism, which, as Jameson points out, was marked by a waning of historicity, a general historical amnesia. But if postmodernism undid its ties to history to an even greater extent than modernism, it still grounded itself in history, both in name – which referred to its historical succession of the prior movement – and in its delight in poaching from both the premodern past and the more historically distant periods of modernism itself (e.g. Art Nouveau, Russian revolutionary art, Expressionism, Dada).

Today, network culture succeeds postmodernism. It does so in a more subtle way. No new "ism" has emerged: that would lay claim to the familiar territory of manifestos, symposia, museum exhibits, and so on. Instead, network culture is a more emergent phenomenon.

Evidence that we have moved beyond postmodernism can be found in economic cycles. If late capitalism is still the economic regime of our day, it would be the longest lasting of all the Kondratieff cycles. Assuming the Kondratieff cycles are accurate, Jameson's theorization would come in a downswing on the cycle that began after World War II. Indeed, given the protracted economic downturn of post-Fordist restructuring during the 1970s and 1980s, this seems entirely reasonable. A critical break took place in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the integration of China into the world market, instantiating the "new" world order of globalization. In turn, the commercialization of the Internet during the early 1990s set the stage for massive investment in the crucial new technology necessary for the new, fresh cycle. New Kondratieff cycles are marked by spectacular booms and bust – the delirious dot-com boom and the subsequent real estate boom are hence legible as the first and second booms of a Kondratieff cycle on the upswing. It is this second upswing, then, in which network culture can be observed as a distinct phenomenon.

Even if we abandon Kondratieff cycles as overly determinist, no cultural movement since the turn of the twentieth century has lasted more than twenty-five years. It would require special dispensation to argue that we are still in the same moment as Jameson when he first formulated his thesis.

The closest thing we have to a synthetic understanding of this era is the political theory laid out in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire. In their analysis, the old world order based on the imperialist division of the globe into spheres of influence has been superseded by "Empire", a diffuse power emanating not from any one place but, rather, from the network itself. Empire's economy is immaterial, but its power stems not only from the economic force of capital, it is also constructed by juridical means. As nation-states fade away under globalization, to ensure mobility and flexibility of capital across borders, Empire turns to transnational governing bodies such as the United Nations to establish a universal global order. In doing so, however, Empire re-inscribes existing hierarchies and, as the wars in the Middle East show, must resort to violence. Hardt and Negri identify networked publics, which they call the multitude, as a counterforce. For them, the multitude is a swarm intelligence, able to work within Empire to demand the rights of global workers. The networking of individuals worldwide gives them new links and new tools with which to challenge the system, but whether networked publics can come together to make decisions democratically is still unclear.[9]

If Empire is a political theory, my goal here is to sketch out a cultural theory of this networked age. Although postmodernism anticipated many of the key innovations of network culture, our time is distinctly different.[10] In the case of art and architecture, Jameson suggests, a widespread reaction to the elitism of the modern movement and the new closeness between capital and culture led to the rise of aesthetic populism. Network culture exacerbates this condition, replacing the populist projection of the audience's desires onto art with the production of art by the audience and the blurring of boundaries between media and public. If appropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant process. A generation after photographer Sherri Levine reappropriated earlier photographs by Walker Evans, dragging images from the Internet into Photoshop is an everyday occurrence, and it is hard to remember how radical Levine's work was in its redefinition of the Enlightenment notions of the author and originality.[11]

Art critic Nicholas Bourriaud states that this lack of regard for originality is precisely what makes art based on what he calls postproduction appropriate to network culture. Works like Levine's still relied on notions of authorship and originality for the source of their meaning. More recently, Bourriaud explains, artists like Pierre Huyghe, Douglas Gordon, or Rirkrit Tiravanija no longer question originality but rather instinctively understand artworks as objects constituted within networks, their meaning given by their position in relation to others and their use.[12] Bourriad observes that, like DJs or programmers, these artists "don't really 'create' anymore, they reorganize".[13]

The elements that artists choose to remix, however, tend to be contemporary.[14] The nostalgia culture so endemic to postmodernism has been undone and a world in the throes of modernization is long gone. Unable to periodize, network culture disregards both modern and premodern equally, as well as the interest in allegory.[15] As T. J. Clark describes it, modernism is our antiquity, the unintelligible ruins of a vanished civilization. For Clark, like Jameson, modernism was rendered anachronistic once the process of modernization was complete.

Instead of nostalgia and allegory, network culture delivers remix, shuffling together the diverse elements of present-day culture, blithely conflating high and low – if such terms can even be drawn anymore in the long tail of networked micropublics – while poaching its as-found contents from the world.[16] Correspondingly, reality increasingly dominates forms of cultural production: reality television shows are common, film documentaries such as Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth, and Fahrenheit 911 proliferate, popular sites Web such as eBaum's World or YouTube are filled with videos that claim to be true. In The Office, the sitcom is reconfigured into a pseudo-documentary. When fiction is deployed on Internet video sites, it poses as reality for viral marketing methods (e.g. Lonelygirl15 or Little Loca). The vision William Gibson had in Pattern Recognition of an exquisite movie released cut-by-cut on the Internet is replaced by low-quality clips of snarky teenagers in front of webcams or low-quality clips of actors playing snarky teenagers in front of webcams.[17]

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