The utility of network analysis to regain political holds on technology

11 06 2009

As an extension of my research in political theory, I had begun to think about the value of the concept of network to rebuild a political project suited to our times. In broad outlines, the idea was to trace the networks of our world in order to keep a grasp of them and especially to build up possibilities of reconfiguration (the full published article can be downloaded here). Some readers of this work criticized me for having ignored or neglected the technical dimension (see also a friendly comment here). So I started to rework some lines of reflection and, while waiting to work on them again in more detail, I take this blog as an opportunity to bring them into discussion, in case other readers were interested in the topic.

In view of the densification of technological presence in most human activities, one of the challenges is actually to keep the preferred options visible in the devices and technical systems, similar to what is available on computer networks to make sure that codes are accessible and protocols are open[1]. Echoing the approach of hacking in a political and activist form, “hacktivism” restores such a reflexive relation to technology[2]: it is a way to open the black boxes of computer networks. However, “hacktivism” is limited to the universe of computers and the issue is whether this idea can be generalized to the whole technical world. In order to carry out this step, a major effort would be necessary to develop an expanded form of “reverse engineering” (the study of an artifact in order to find its principles and mechanisms). However, allowing the generalization of such an approach would precisely lend support to studying technical networks in a direction going backwards from the products to their design and deployment.

Indeed, the use of certain technical systems rather than others has implications that are not simply technical. In terms of electricity supply for example, different choices may lead to different logics and different networks. Between supporting decentralized technologies such as solar power and prioritizing technologies based on heavy infrastructure such as nuclear power, the consequences are not actually the same. Similarly, using bicycles or automobiles is not only a choice of means of transport, but also a way to participate in various technical systems, as part of their organization as well as in their relationship with the rest of the world[3]. The challenge is for citizens to be able to comprehend technical developments, in particular to remain aware of the consequences of these developments and of the trajectories on which they may be embarking[4]. This means that information sources and spaces of discussion should be available, but it should be reminded that these are supports to be built according the resources and opportunities available at that time. Compared to traditional channels of communication, the development of the Internet could, for example, be seized by militants groups to set up a space of vigilance, i.e. both a new and broad space of publication, circulation, exchange and debate, usable according to the needs and opportunities[5].

Internet has indeed generated a lot of hope as a new horizon of thought and of political experimentation. Efforts are increasing to develop its potentialities. The challenge, which goes far beyond technical aspects, is similar to that of movements that defend free and open source software[6]. If digital tools and infrastructure are becoming hubs of electronic communication networks, their nature and their form also have a philosophical and political dimension. To go beyond too optimistic invocations towards “new information and communication technologies,” social, cultural, political conditions remain to be constructed or maintained so that these digital networks can become an entry point to the opening of spaces of discussion about technical options and the development of new forms of citizenship (and certainly not of new control devices).

[1] On the not just technical but also potentially political and cultural role and challenges of these protocols, see Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol. How Control Exists after Decentralization, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2004.

[2] Cf. Paul A. Taylor, « From hackers to hacktivists: speed bumps on the global superhighway? », New Media & Society, vol. 7, n° 5, 2005, pp. 625-646.

[3] Cf. Zack Furness, « Biketivism and Technology: Historical Reflections and Appropriations », Social Epistemology, vol. 19, n° 4, October 2005, pp. 401-417.

[4] Cf. Richard E. Sclove, Democracy and technology, New York, Guilford Press, 1995.

[5] On the advantages of the Internet and the opportunities opened on a large scale, see John Naughton, « Contested Space: The Internet and Global Civil Society », in Helmut Anheier, Marlies Glasius and Mary Kaldor (eds.), Global Civil Society 2001, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 147-168.

[6] Cf. Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, London, Routledge, 2007.



2 responses

18 06 2009

« Similarly, using bicycles or automobiles is not only a choice of travel mode, but also a way to participate in various technical systems, as for their organization as well as their relationship to the life-world »

This possibility for participation in technical systems is itself contingent on the altered status of the historical world. The introduction of automobiles provided an opportunity for rapid travel across large distances, enhancing the human foot. The ‘historical world’ present at this moment which impels individuals to use cars to travel various places, is both human and nonhuman.

The presence of such technical grids itself alters the context of human action. In particular, technical artifacts can mediate our relation to other people, through their formal roles. For instance, the ultrasound alters the relation that a mother has to her growing fetus. Using them, she can detect abnormalities and other features of the fetus growing within her, and thus comes to have a new relation to the fetus. Now (with the ultrasound, as opposed to before it was present), she relates to her fetus as a separate part of her body, and is responsible for making a decision as to whether to abort the fetus (or even to take the test). Thus the ultrasound alters the moral framework for individual action, in the case of the contemporary Western woman who is obliged to take the test.

Likewise the internet mediates the human relation to each other. This is especially interesting and though I haven’t read anything on this besides your paper, I do think a network-style analysis is very useful for understanding the mediating role that the internet plays in concrete political situations. The internet enables humans to interact with one another in patterns and demographics previously not present.

One particularly interesting example I think, is Iran. In relation to Iran, I might comment on your last point:

« Beyond too optimistic invocations towards “new information and communication technologies,” social, cultural, political conditions remain to be constructed or maintained in order that these digital networks can become an entry point to the opening of spaces of discussion about technical options and the development of new forms of citizenship (and certainly not of new control devices). »

The interesting thing, I think, about Iran is that in Iran, these communication technologies (the politically relevant ones today) were not constructed by the authorities, and in fact often proliferate in explicit opposition to the reigning authority figures. Things like Facebook and independent websites for politicians in Iran play important political roles in organizing and deploying Iranians who want to throw out the current set of authorities in Iran, replacing them with more « reformist » politicians.

In relation to your last point though (which I agree with), we can note that even given the construction and maintenance of these networks for new information and communication technologies enabling new concepts of political identity, still, these networks are never immune to the circumstances in which they’re stationed. For instance, in Iran the political authorities blocked access to political websites such as Facebook, and are suppressing foreign media from covering the current election protests.

20 06 2009

Of course, the question of unequal opportunities in exploiting new technology remains and some networks (institutional, economic, etc.) that are more able to accumulate capacities may continue to do so for quite a long time.

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