a journal of personal fieldwork experiences and impressions
The past month or so has been so huge. I’m now on a whole new continent, learning and trying to make the most of some truly exciting travel and fieldwork opportunities. I’ll do a proper travel update post soon, but I’ve been sitting on some little ideas and theoretical musings that I wanted to get out first, lest I lose them. (Stay tuned though for cute pics of puppies, Star Trek, and San Francisco!)
As I catch up on some much needed reading in between fieldwork, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around some of the structures, infrastructures, and politics of networks (and of ‘the network’, as a central idea/metaphor). One text I’ve personally found to be thought-provoking and interesting is Grant Bollmer’s recent (2016) Inhuman Networks: Social Media and the Archaeology of Connection (books.google.com.au/books?id=DRBNDAAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s). Using a media archaeology approach, Bollmer takes social media to refer not just to a form of technology, but also to a political rationality of nodal citizenship, wherein the collective group or totality to which we belong becomes not the state, but the network, and the ‘good “citizen”’ is tasked with “the maintenance of connections and perpetuation of flows.” I haven’t finished reading it yet, and as someone who tends towards a relational metaphysics, I’m not sure I’ll agree with all the underlying assumptions and conclusions of the book. That being said, I’ve been finding the formulation of nodal citizenship really great to think with as I explore sociality, possibility, information/knowledge, and access (epistemic and political) in the field, with people who see themselves as working explicitly at humanity’s frontiers through new technology.
So what is the nodal citizen?
“A proper nodal citizen is one that, like networks more broadly, connects socially, economically, biologically, and technologically. It generates data to be uploaded and stored in accordance with norms handed down from history, perpetuated by contemporary technology and the recent fetish for Big Data. A nodal citizen relates to others by connecting and maintaining flows.”
What you get, then, and I think what many of us do feel, is a prescription – a pressure to contribute, connect, upload, produce, consume, share. Why does this matter? Or rather, how does thinking about this in terms of citizenship (a central framework for conceptualising individual responsibilities/duties and rights/freedoms within a collective, governing group) point to and give us purchase on contemporary political issues? Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that many of the areas we would typically think of as being in the domain of traditional state citizenship are digitised and automated, and connected to the network to varying degrees (eg. online banking, online portals tied to digital accounts & profiles as point of access for social services, remote and virtual education services & platforms, employment listings, services and applications through social networking sites, etc.) – the social in the media/network is not just about play, friends, and downtime, it is the social of the public sphere, work, civic duty and involvement, etc. Failing to use, or contribute to the network through these services, applications, and practices is not simply a personal preference here, but a social/moral failing, and ‘bad citizens’ are punished/disciplined. This might include social/peer pressure, or denial of key services until behaviour is changed, or, and here’s the one I find scariest, denial of existence as a human, an agent, an actor, a member of the social world. For Bollmer, “social media produce that which does not connect and flow properly as inhuman…[W]hatever qualifies as human is preconditioned by non-human technologies,” and the boundaries between the two are continually being negotiated, so “what counts as human may exclude biological humans.” If you’re on the margins of the network, you’re in trouble, because you are not fully a part of social life, and access is further compromised by the fact that the rhetoric of the network is one of an all-encompassing totality, so if you’re not connected, then, definitionally, you don’t exist.
The erasure or invisibility of those without access to the technology (software, hardware, infrastructure) and technological literacy of everyday citizenship and social life is a sobering thought. Remote, virtual/digital learning is presented as a great leveller and democratiser of education, and to an extent, I agree. But conversations with participants who work in virtual/digital STEM education and outreach have really highlighted some of the limits of the democratic Internet rhetoric. For some education providers with lower levels of technological literacy, outreach initiatives may be, broadly speaking, accessible to them and their students, but the technical proficiencies and work required in coordinating and setting up the virtual session/workshop/classroom are too steep, reducing uptake. Or, many educators and students never have a chance to access digital resources and programs at all, since they lack the basic hardware and infrastructure to even find out about them, let alone utilise them.
The concern with using new technology to increase access to new technology and thereby contribute to social welfare or equity is, of course, the element of circularity at play. Maybe, as a participant suggested, “the gap just widens”, and a new layer is added to the already ever-present threat of erasure facing those in positions of structural inequity.
The relevance of these issues and this conceptual framework to contemporary social justice debates and movements is something that deserves unpacking in more time and detail. (I’d like to explore the implications of this framework for feminism once I get back from the field.) In broad brushstrokes for now though, this is interesting because it suggests that if social movements and identity politics are to exist at all now, there must be a significant networked component. And, given the structure of many key technological social networks (eg. attention and outrage economies running on clicks, shareability, ads, and capital), we run the risk of making spectacles and commodities of ourselves, in ways that may distance us further from those original goals of equity and positive action.
The politics of equity and access, and values and prescriptions that come packed into ‘the network’ seem to reflect wider discussions in the contemporary moment about technological and scientific systems that often have been seen as neutral, impartial, and objective. The debates and dialogues around tomorrow’s March for Science are a really interesting example, with marchers seeing the denial of scientific methods and evidence in political institutions as a social issue requiring a response from the professional and extended scientific community. For some of those, the march is not about science being political, because science is universal and rational and extends beyond human concerns, values, politics. For others of those marching, it is specifically about politicising science so that it can be part of the political process, and then those opposed to science or certain empirical claims and results (eg. climate change deniers) resent the intrusion of what they see as scientists’ political agendas into processes of governance and policy. Many others still have been alienated from the march and its goals by a feeling that organisers have failed to properly recognise that science has already always been fundamentally political in its exclusion and exploitation of many sectors of society, eg. women, people of colour, and without engagement and care for these experiences, the march is limited to an elite and problematic activity.
Lauren Young's recent article is worth looking at if you haven’t been following the March for Science activity and want a speedy summary (sciencefriday.com/articles/what-is-the-march-for-science/), and Dr Zevallos' (The Other Sociologist) tweets and recent article for Latino Rebels are so incredibly great if you're looking for a more detailed recap and exploration of the kinds of concerns people have around justice, diversity, equity, access, inclusion, and politics in scientific practice (www.latinorebels.com/2017/03/14/the-march-for-science-cant-figure-out-how-to-handle-diversity/; twitter.com/OtherSociology).
I think we can also see some really interesting elements of the technological as social, political, and not neutral, within recent discussions around fake news as well, eg. the monetary incentives to spread fake news and profit off of misinformation, the critical thinking/information/source evaluation skills required to know what one is reading which are not distributed equally across social strata and groups, the social responsibility of social networking platform companies to become actively involved in evaluating, flagging, or removing fake news, for the good of its communities.
The fact that algorithms are not, in their operation, or by their human design, fundamentally neutral at all is a huge thing, given how much social force they have (habitus 2.0 with social rules and conventions as actual acting agents?), and the fact that much of the software and hardware we rely on day-to-day remains fundamentally mysterious to most of us.
I wonder how these structures will continue to affect us and our social systems in future. I wonder what is to be done to minimise potentially negative effects going forward. It seems to me that keeping things material is a good first step - trying to increase material access to new technologies in equitable ways, and making those systems and services already in use more material to people (ie., their materials, components, operations, processes – the what’s and why’s and how-to’s). I hope that this is something I can become more savvy with over time, and address in this and future projects.