Networks: analysis not ontology


First of all, I lost my password and couldn’t retrieve it (thank you wordpress for blocking me every time!) and it s been hell because wordpress sends me dead links to restore the password. Anyway, enough of my personal life. The title deserves attention and so does the topic I want to discuss or address (or simply write about).

There is a growing attention towards network analysis and mapping; flashy (sort of) tools have been developed and are still developed in the world of “digital sociology”. I was somewhere recently; some students presented themselves as “digital sociologist”; apart from the enormous respect (and genuine envy I suppose) I have for those who dare call themselves sociologist after a degree or a master (are doctors ever -or worse, always- doctors? but this is another story) I want to focus on the stress I have picked up in some contexts, literally, the stress of squeezing theoretical frameworks into tools developed to “map” the net.

Do we have to squeeze our theoretical thinking into the capturing of relations as happening online? I haven’t got an answer of course; the question is problematic. We are in a situation where new media are becoming old and where words are moving away leaving space to images; we live in a situation of short lived ideologies that must be taken into consideration not in terms of how they can be seen as co-word or co-occurence phenomena but in terms of specific digital phenomena not suitable for old “digital sociologists”. At the same time, I would say that the idea that the link will be the constant of the web is wishful thinking. The constant will be the code; try get a short link to work after some time!

But also, how about the idea of emergence in relation (or vicinity) to epistemology and ontology? It took me four years and loads of readings to understand where the difference stands and the discourses around the two. If we talk about a network, aren’t we talking about something that -although recognising the difference between epi and onto- tries (attempts, strives) to overcome the difference and see how the idea of the network can point at a socio-technical imbroglio, a human-non-human quasi-cyborg dimension?

I like the idea of looking at the inner differences of Facebook and Twitter, their being rather heterogenous ecosystems, layers where connectivity takes control and networks become inevitable and much-necessary “tools” of visualisation but, really, do we want to declass network to a “method of analysis and not ontology”? Are we slowly going back to the dichotomy that 30ish years of STS and ANT (and non-clustered philosophers like Barad) have tried to overcome? Are we really risking this for, let’s say, Facebook where activity is decreasing and Target Audience is older and less active?

Although I see the logic of looking at the hyperlink as the constant of our current reality, I think the real constant is code. And as history has taught us, it is probable that digital evolutions will bring us somewhere different; somewhere we still cannot envision. For example, there is a come-back of TV with its important digital enhancements; more and more behavioural attitudes are being used to launch very tailored, sophisticated campaigns (contextual advertising, semantic advertising etc…). Although academia is not focused on the commercial use of these hybrids, what will happen when Instagram (now Facebook) will be scraped for common facial/background/contextual features and data borrowed by a TV channel/company? It is only a hypotheses of course. What when the alleged software used to allegedly find Bin Laden through the analysis of the background will become commodity? Surely we will still be justifying the choice of the network as an analytical tool but, what will this switch tell us? Will we become a digital version of Modern Times where we will mechanically  collect and collate URLs and visualise networks or will we still be able (or have the courage) to think critically in terms of interpretation of data and its sociological (or ethnographic) nature?

I think these questions should make us question the complexity of the reality we are living in; where we could see Google as the necessary point of passage (to use Latour) I would argue the necessary point of passage is the digital in its many forms, the code that allows traffic to be disciplined. Let’s not forget that cybernetics was inspired by the behaviour of cats and cows!

Is a network a purely ontological or a purely analytical entity? is it an entity? I think it is both things; the idea of mapping the network is not that of focusing on one page, representing the comments, likes, but it is about asking ourselves how is this particular aspect of my research altering, shaping or even contributing to the complexity of the reality I am observing and -as we all know- immersed into? I really think we should very much focus on our ideas of the map and topology and network as complex onto-epistemological concepts that are pointing us to our every-day life: technology has become a prosthetic extension (this is the genius of McLuhan/Braidotti, surely not mine!) and data will further extend our techno-existence.

 

Although I completely agree with the idea of the heterogenous ecosystem, ecosystem is a very networked idea too. I think the thing we are missing at the moment is the cross-platformed forma mentis. Let alone the relevance of looking at the multi-layered context. But of course, that is not generalisable.

 

 

 

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