Jagoda’s “Network Ambivalence” #optorg

Between EMU and WSU, several graduate students have set out to rebegin a reading group. The first meet-up of the summer is later today, and they’ve selected Patrick Jagoda’s “Network Ambivalence” as the reading. In the spirit of keeping with the group’s goals of teasing out a few notes before we meet, here goes nothing. Er, something. A few thoughts, reactions, ambivalences.

  • One leading premise here–an organizing question from Jagoda–is What is not a network? Jagoda suggests that networks have flourished into an encompassing mythology, engulfing a too-muchness in their applicability to all systemic phenomena. He details something akin to network normativity, fairly regular and predictable representations of networks as link-node or edge-node schematics. And these webs, according to Jagoda, with their ubiquity, coalesce into a “network imaginary-and a claim that reality itself is structured as a network” (p. 109).Two reactions: Mark Taylor contrasted networks and grids, and I find this distinction durably compelling (perhaps one of only a few ideas from Moment of Complexity that were sticky enough to hold on, for me at least, for a decade). Grids are not networks, exactly, and neither are networks grids. They operate according to slightly different structuring principles. Grids are more topoi-like, exacting predictable metrics of separation and juncture; networks are more choric, allowing a structural flexibility that neither abandons structure altogether nor regulates it into a rigid and ongoing pattern. Second, how we imagine networks has much to do with our vocabulary for deepening the concept. For instance, all networks are not equal, of course, depending upon whether we think of them as articulations of open systems or closed, or fluid structures or momentary snapshots/slices/cross-sections. That is, their durativity, encompassing thickness or thinness, volatility, and flows of resources, power, attention, and activity/energy have the potential of being anything but normative, regular, or degraded into a stagnant mythos. That is, relative to grids, networks are oftentimes decidedly queer. So, sure, at a glancing pass, networks might seem like they are normative, but that level of generality is not especially helpful for the work of involving networks in the description of complex systems.
  • Networks bear out a descriptive adequacy. They are limited in what they can account for, as are all attempts to engage depth-complexity, heterogeneity, relationships conducted irregularly amidst any messy, frayed ecology (usually my own interested in ecology or complex systems keys on material and discursive dimensions, though recent work that inflects such systems with traceable intensities or which attempts to visualize pulsatile and affective dimensions is fascinating, promising, though notably also not the only uses to which networks can be put). Oftentimes networks generate perspective on infrastructure, or on infrastructural activity. I mention this because networks could be considered infrastructuralism’s mouthpiece. Networks, however contingent we imagine them to be, speak for infrastructuralism, though sometimes only in a hushed whisper or using a language whose decipherablity is enigmatic.
  • It’s not an especially halting point of contention, but there is a baseline for networks here that suggests them as open, expansive, boundless (p. 111, bottom). Sure, we can imagine them that way, but why not counter this with iterations of networks that suppose them to be simplifying models, temporarily useful for peeking into non-obvious structural-relational systems, and whose outsides only matters but so much for now?
  • The second half of this short article entertains network much more as a verb and suggests ambivalence (in a special flavor) as a means of coping with networked ways of being. This reminds me of Jim Corder’s discussions of living with paradoxes, or buying into two seeming at cross-currents philosophies or worldviews. Jagoda frames this drawing on Berlant, as an “uncertainty, which does not require an evacuation of one’s passions and convictions, requires being present to an unsatisfying present” (p. 114). To extend this, Jagoda explains, “Ambivalence…is a process of slowing down and learning to inhabit a compromised environment with the discomfort, contradiction, and misalignment it entails” (p. 114). This is in some ways a call for reflection and noticing, but I am not quite satisfied with the relationship of agency and articulation to this means of coping. That is, what does being ambivalent look like? How does it speak or write? What are its rhetorical activations that are externalized–not merely as means of coping with a dissatisfying condition but as participates in change at whatever rates and whatever scales? I wonder this upon reading, though I don’t think it’s necessarily Jagoda’s aim to address it in this excerpt from his book, Network Aesthetics.
  • The final sections of the selection trail off somewhat, insofar as there is as an example of ambivalence reference to a video game called Speculation. Maybe it’s just me, but references to video games I have never played before, where they appear in academic writing, leave much to be desired. My experience is too limited here to follow along wholly convinced that Speculation performs this network ambivalence pedagogically, in the way Jagoda contends. So while I don’t want to seem dismissive of the example, neither is there any crispness to the frame for application. And to be fair, this is exactly one such moment where an article setting up and calling attention to a forthcoming book deliberately hints at the something more that, once we pick up Network Aesthetics, readers very well may find carried out more completely there.

Open Source Ecology

This morning I came across this short video on efforts by the Open Source Ecology initiative to develop prototypes for easy cast, easily assembled, low cost farming and building technologies, what they’re calling the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS). It connected with some of the things I’ve been thinking about for ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology this fall.

Global Village Construction Set in 2 Minutes from Open Source Ecology on Vimeo.

How? First, we hear nowadays about everything “ecology.” And I have ideas about how “ecology” in many cases functions as a metonym for rhetorical action, which of course includes readily identifiable material qualities in the case of OSE. The video itself is not all that different from Marcin Jakubowski’s short TED Talk, and I haven’t spent much time going carefully over what’s posted at the site and wiki (wish there was an RSS feed or date stamps for their blog). But I can already see issues of modularity and scale foregrounded here, which, combined with the ideals of open source might be enough to return to this as a rich case for further consideration.

Everything Inventive Is Good For You

Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of
Air
, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable
Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and
ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to
keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160
pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple
of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever
so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative
than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in
the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same
"congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that
helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this
section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing
with Priestley’s tinkering with plants.

Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley’s life with
the phrase "long zoom":

Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways,
but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a
"long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline
to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of
bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global
patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains
how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. (45)

The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley’s intellectual
manner and also Johnson’s method of developing the biography. "Long zoom"
is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems
and through an invited talk he gave to the
Long Now Foundation
in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I
doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as
Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the
"long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of
the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly
vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or
some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long
pan" or "long track" (here I’m thinking of the extended camera metaphors–pan,
track, zoom–adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about
inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that
Johnson’s "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The
Invention of Air
, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally,
as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while
alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another
(Latour).

Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot
hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year
"long hunch" he’d been following (70). The "long zoom"–a kind of
scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach–allows Johnson to pin down
Priestley’s knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point,
Priestley’s success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack
for ‘socializing’ with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist
sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley’s affinity for socializing with
his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product
placement ad for DevonThink–almost to the point of making me thing I’d

read about it before
(re: Johnson, not Priestley).

There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I’m out of
time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs.
theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).

Pull the Plug?

A couple of months ago, D., Is., and I were out strolling around the streets of Syracuse, along Colvin Ave., in fact, huffing up the big hill.

“I think it’s time to cut the blog loose and set it out to sea, put an end to it,” I said.

I went on to explain why I was thinking this way, although today I can’t recall what were the reasons so clear to me at the time (realizing recently that “chicken” won as the Big Word of the Month at EWM in September was a sobering reminder of the conversation). This is just to say that merciful blogicide has crossed my mind. It’s not like the blogosphere of 2008 has half the pulse it did for me 2005 or 2006.

Wired’s Paul Boutin pressed a similar point today, suggesting in an article titled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004” that blogs are out of fashion, succumbing to some of the latest online developments:

Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

There’s some obvious polemic framing at play here, some baiting, some stick-poking, as if to imply, “Yo, bloggers, still at it?” To which I say, “Maybe.” And, “For now.”

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Naming the Smarter Surrounds

In what few minutes I’ve had today to reduce various folders in Bloglines, I
picked up on a few strands of the "Web 3.0" fracas initiated by yesterday’s NYT
article

"Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense."
In the article, John
Markoff anticipates what he refers to almost glibly as "Web 3.0", which
proponents contend will usher in "an era when machines will start to do
seemingly intelligent things." There is no shortage of responses and reactions,
ranging from doubt,
charges of idiocy,
mild
humanism
,

clarification
,
dismissal of the name
, and
damning
refutations
. While I don’t want to rile more ire, I am intrigued by the
range of reactions, especially from the standpoint of how we account for
transformations of such a complex creature as the web with singular terms. In
some niche vocabularies, Web 2.0 refers to a class of applications; in
others, Web 2.0 describes web-supported co-presence (interaction and
connection). I mean that the label has been highly adaptable, a loose and
generous signifier. I tend to think that it is reasonable to wish for (and even
to tinker with) a better vocabulary for describing the complex and rapidly
evolving nets.

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