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Understanding Cartopolitics: The Logic of Networks, from Visualization to Organization

By Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter

To organize is not to give structure to weakness. It is above all to form bonds – bonds that are by no means neutral – terrible bonds. The degree of organization is measured by the intensity of sharing – material and spiritual.
The Invisible Committee

There has long been a relation between aesthetics, culture and systems of knowledge. The rise of the network society has not been exempt from this, with a vast range of efforts seeking to represent any manner of networks: activist movements, migration patterns, corporate monopolies, stock-market flows, neurological systems, to say nothing of the proliferation of social network cultures. Some of these representations can be very sophisticated analytical tools and aesthetically fascinating. Bureau d’études comes to mind, but also Lev Manovich’s cultural analytics. We get a mighty, and humble, feeling of planetary overview. Ask the kosmonauts. Yet there is a danger emerging: politics runs the risk of being displaced by aesthetics. Walter Benjamin already warned of this in the 1930s and the aestheticization of politics has been a traumatic signal of social decline ever since. This is the problem of representation as such. Whereas visualization tools make it easy to create interactive maps, the question we ask here comes from inside the (visualized) networks themselves: it might be handy for researchers to be able to navigate through these data sets, but what’s the point of this for the actors themselves? The empowering aspects, outside the safe walls of universities and NGOs, are often unclear. Do the conceptual insights of a cartographic overview lead to critical practices, as its promoters claim? What can you do if you are networked yet resist being mapped? We need to know more about the ever-present Will to Visualize.

Is it useful to distinguish between networks as living, ever-changing entities and dead information? Maybe there is nothing wrong with the visual porn of slick database visualizations if they make it easier for us to search and browse through millions of files, entries, pictures or tags. Just as it is hard to imagine a world without search engines, is this also the case for data visualizations? These days networks are vital forms of social life. And in turn, they shape the social. People will almost intuitively organize themselves into networks, meaning that they have a commitment to some and ‘weak ties’ with many of the possible members within the network. A network can grow quickly and have thousands involved, but can also remain very small. They can happen overnight and disappear again the next week. Having mixed-up private friends and work contacts helps campaigners to reach millions, but also gives operators of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (and affiliated secret services) an unprecedented insight into our lives. The question of the visibility of such processes is accompanied by another question – who does this visibility serve? Do we eagerly display our network of sociality for all on Facebook in order to be subject to data-mining economies? Does it matter that your future boss, or perhaps even the cops, knows about your dirty weekend, which books you read, music you prefer, party you voted for? Or is the representation of networked life really something more self-referential, therefore prompting the hypothesis that perhaps indeed networks are always invisible, beyond representation?

Let’s take the case of Wikileaks. There is an aestheticization of Wikileaks in the move from informal activist network to Big Media. Politics becomes secondary to the spectacle. The celebrity transcends the network, displacing the logic of organized networks as new institutional forms. The small cohort of insiders involved with network governance (system administrators, programmers, lawyers, editors, advisory board members) is collapsed into the individual who signs the book deal for a million bucks. For Wikileaks the trans-institutional relations are not so much between a network of networks, but between a network and broadcast media institutions. The potential network of chapters distributed around the world, based on investigative teams or some other form of collaborative analysis, building on expertise from Wikipedia to Indymedia, did not materialize. Instead, the work of analysis was outsourced to mainstream newspapers.

Whereas civil society organizations such as NGOs tend to play by the rules and seek legitimacy from dominant institutions, Wikileaks’ strategy is a populist one that taps into widespread public disaffection with mainstream politics. Political legitimacy, for Wikileaks, is no longer something graciously bestowed upon minor actors by the powers that be. Wikileaks bypasses this old world structure of power and instead goes to the source of political legitimacy in today’s info-society: the rapturous banality of the spectacle. The missionary zeal to enlighten the idiotic masses and ‘expose’ the lies of government, the military and corporations is reminiscent of a media-culture paradigm of the 1940s-50s. Think Adorno, Horkheimer, Lazarsfeld and later Katz.

The work of interpreting leaked files, very oddly, is left up to the few remaining on-staff journalists in select ‘quality’ news media. Later on, academics pick up the scraps and spin the stories behind the closed gates of publishing stables. But where is the critical networked commentariat? For sure, we are all busy with our minor critiques, but it remains the case that Wikileaks generates its capacity to inspire irritation at the big end of town precisely because of the transversal and symbiotic relation it holds with establishment media institutions. There’s a lesson here for the multitudes – get out of the ghetto and connect with the Oedipal other. Therein lies the conflictual terrain of the political.

Leaving the skepticism about the need to visualize networks aside we should address the politics of code. What is the code that makes possible connections in and across networks? The so-called open culture of networks – derived from the transparent, readily available source code of programmers – is closed in a cognitive sense. The goal of openness is the culture of the club. For the network it is social ties that matter. Networks can be open and grow in all directions. They can also go through an inward-looking phase and strengthen ties. This is what we call organized networks – a process of scalar transformation that institutes social-technical capacities in ways that rival or indeed take over traditional institutions that have defined modern life (government, unions, universities, firms). They remain virtual in that they use the benefits of translocal, global communication, while overcoming the down-side of the famous ‘weak ties’ that are the cause of hyper-growth, but also non-commitment. What we need is destiny design. Software with consequences.

Amidst all the accumulating crises it is clear that we need to do something. The old models of commitment (party, church, movement) no longer appeal to most of us. It is not enough simply to inform, to network. We organize to attack. Networks are created to take initiative, to lead us into new situations, not merely to ‘keep updated’. Twitter shouldn’t ask ‘What’s going on?’, but ‘Do you join me?’. In this respect, networks are the ground of invention that accommodates internal hacks or a collective capacity to make decisions within techno-cultures. Yet, as Wayne Price notes, ‘Organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves’. So how would crowdsourcing interpretation be organized in the event of something like Wikileaks? The aesthetics of representation offers the image of organization, but not a strategy or method of movement and transformation. Returning to the central planning committee special to the Leninist party form, as Jodi Dean and others would have it, does not particularly help either: ‘The party must prepare the revolution. Here the party is producer and product (feedback, networks, self-organization, emergence). It is an exclusive organization that interacts with, and learns from, the struggles and suffering of the people’.

There’s a form of deep romanticism at work here, grown out of a real-existing despair speaking from inside the Empire in decline, and an analytical failure to think through the logic of the party, the contemporary media environment and the work of politics as we know it. There’s not a question of a lack of critical intelligence or political passions here, but an insufficient understanding of the relation between networked media and forms of self-organization and politics. Again, we see a return to the logic of representation, organizational form and politics. Despite softening the claim to engage ‘the struggles and suffering of the people’ with the appeal to ‘feedback, networks, self-organization, emergence’, at its heart the structure of the party can only ever be about representation. And at this point politics vacates the territory of organizational form, since the logic of networks is about relations not representations, processes not procedures.

We find more purchase in the work of architect Keller Easterling with her interest in hidden organizations, global infrastructures, the production of protocols and the role of multipliers: ‘Perhaps because these organisations operate in the background, in an active and relational rather than nominative register, their political outcomes are often at once pervasive and mysterious’. What we need to understand is how today’s networks are (dis)organizing us. What is the mystery of these invisible, still unknown protocols that shape our social life that we fail to grasp? And how do we register the distribution of passions and their mobilization of politics across seemingly immaterial networks? These are the key tasks for the work of organization today.

[Catalogue essay for Networks (cells & silos), Monash University Museum of Art, 1 February - 16 April, 2011]

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Organized Networks by Ned Rossiter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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