Tracing and reconfiguring networks to build a political alternative

21 10 2009

Just published:

“Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project”

Published in: Twenty-First Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009, pages 277-295.

Abstract:

Modern-day society is increasingly described as an extensive web of networks, but as such, it is often perceived and experienced as elusive. In light of this paralysing description, this paper aims to highlight the potentially political dimension of network analysis, namely as defined in the social sciences, and of the notion of networks itself. It will be shown that a political project could, in this case, be built on the desire to know this reticular world better, but also to be able to act appropriately towards it. Three steps are proposed to specify how such a political project could be built. The first step aims at deploying knowledge of networks and emphasises the usefulness of a procedure to trace them. The second step shows the possibilities that this knowledge offers, particularly in allowing one to find one’s bearings in a world which is frequently described as veering towards an increasing complexity, and by helping to rebuild the selection criteria for connections in this world, thanks to an additional degree of reflexivity. The third step draws on these points to extend them and bring out potentialities with regards to the intervention capacities in network configurations.

21st Century Society

 

 

This article can be accessed on the publisher’s website
and a pdf version is also availablhere.

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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.





Network tracing and global sociology

7 03 2009

 

An interesting and friendly comment about one of my previous drafts is available on The Global Sociology Blog. This is a very rich and very useful blog for those who are interested in globalization from a sociologist’s perspective. It provides stimulating thoughts, bibliographies and book reviews on topics linked to global studies.

 

As I tried to show in this draft, network tracing could be a useful path not only to understand phenomena such as globalization, but also to find new political capacities to collectively act in a reflexive manner. Of course there is a way to find in order not to produce another surveillant or repressive assemblage. But I believe it could be a bridge between socio-political theory and political praxis.





Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project

16 09 2008

 

Here is a draft waiting commentaries.

 

Abstract:

 

Modern day society is increasingly described as an extensive web of networks, but as such, it is often perceived and experienced as elusive. In light of this paralyzing description, this article aims at highlighting the potentially political dimension of network analysis, namely as defined in the social sciences, and a deeper look at the notion of networks itself. It will show that a political project could, in this case, be built on the desire to know this reticular world better but also to be able to act appropriately towards it.

Three steps are proposed to specify how such a political project could be built. The first step aims at deploying a knowledge of networks and emphasizes the usefulness of a procedure to trace them. The second step shows the possibilities that this knowledge offers, particularly in allowing one to find one’s bearings in a world which is frequently described as veering towards an increasing complexity, and by helping to rebuild the selection criteria for connections in this world, thanks to an additional degree of reflexivity. The third step draws on these points to invite the reader to imagine the intervention capacities in network configurations.

 

=> download

 

P.S.: A slightly extended version is published in 21st Century Society (Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences), Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009.