Networked: Politics in the Age of Information
by Gregory Flaxman — University of North Carolina
October 05, 2012 – 00:00
The subject of political networks has become common parlance over the last several election cycles, often with respect to grassroots efforts or donors, but why speak of politics in relation to "networks"? This conjunction may seem obvious to social scientists, but we ought to approach the matter cautiously. The earliest recorded instances of networks, which appear to come out of Hebrew (maʿăśeh rešeṯ) and Hellenistic Greek (ἔργῳ δικτυωτῷ), describe the weaving of threads, such that the word initially signifies both fabric and fabrication. The subsequent genealogy of the term traces its gradual immaterialization, and I would argue that this eventuality entails both the political possibilities and problems of political networks.
Historically, the term “network” was initially detached from actual fabric in order to figure similar imbrications—spider webs, veins, and later transportation grids. Especially with industrialization, the metaphorical sense of network began to change as well: instead of envisioning the meshwork of lines and deriving intersections, the terminology increasingly prioritized nodes and then derived their connections. Islands, cities, and finally people were described in terms of networks, and far from reasserting the substantial nature of the term, this new sense insinuated that, even between material entities, complex and invisible linkages exist. Thus, nineteenth century descriptions of networks of telegraph and electrical lines give way, in the twentieth century, to the use of the term in relation to atomic structures and broadcast transmissions, conspiracies and computer arrays.
In this context, "network theory" has emerged to map unsuspected relations, influences, and group dynamics, often with respect to political movements—but the analytic power of this “modeling” is belied by worrisome appropriations. In an age when our purchases and predilections are tracked, we are quickly becoming algorithmic functions within a massive information network: political campaigns now calculate and tailor their appeals for contributions on the same basis that Amazon personalizes recommendations, or Google personalizes advertisements, or Target customize coupons by deducing out when a shopper is pregant (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?pagewant...). Thus, the political promise of networked culture and new media needs to be evaluated against the backdrop of the steady encroachments of networks into our lives. Perhaps the final step in the genealogy I’ve described, a step already pioneered by the pharma-colonization of the brain, consists in networking our synapses. Inasmuch as we have no choice but to be “plugged in,” we can already envision this "micro-political network" in the treatment and triggering of our neurons.