From Digital Technology to (and back to) Network Cultures

This is a longer version of a presentation (squeezed in on 15 minutes) I held at a meeting in Lund discussing the possibilities of starting up an internet research institute (Summary of the seminar here). I took the opportunity to reflect on the meta-question of what studies of the internet can mean today as opposed to 8 years ago when I first got involved with internet related issues, or the completely different world from 15 years ago when I first used the internet. Can the internet really be a unifying principle for a research institute today or is the internet, ironically because it now affects every part of society, too broad a concept for organizing research, while at the same time neglecting important variables?

Researching the Internet Today

If we briefly take a look at the internet today we can see that it has become a well integrated technology essential to global business, governance, culture and war. It grows at the most in Asian countries, many times through mobile phones and wireless communication rather than PC:s and cables and women are becoming the lead users of social media rather than male geeks.

The development of the internet we have had here in Sweden and similar places most certainly won’t be the digital development that other parts of the world will go through. Here, the internet started as a fringe activity for nerds and then grew to become essential for the rest of the society, seemingly taking each of them by complete surprise. For places that gets access to internet now, internet norms and services is already established in other parts of the world and it is more likely that internet access comes as a broader set of policies implemented when the connection is set up. For the next billion of internet users, the internet will already be so entrenched in society, globally and locally, that its effect on society will be indistinguishable from other socio-economic processes that comes with it. The internet on its own has only been able to be perceived as so disruptive here in Sweden because of the relative stability of the rest of society. This is not to say that the internet will disrupt social processes where it is introduced, but rather that the disrupting effect will not be because of the newness of the medium itself, but by the disruption caused by the powers that manages to turn the power of the internet in their favor, and this is all dependent of how the internet is deployed. This inability to isolate the impact of one factor is a characteristic of integrated, complex systems. The system as a whole is not just an aggregate of the effects of individual factors, but has emergent properties that can only be understood if the interplay of all the affected parts are taken into consideration.

This creates a problem for research that wants to investigate the impact of the internet on society. If the development of the internet and Internet use is deeply entangled with other kinds of social processes and not just installed as a solely technological infrastructure in an otherwise unknowing society; when there is no similar situation to the one researched, except with no internet, since every factor has been changed since the time internet was introduced; what will one compare the situation at hand with? These kinds of comparisons can only be made in a context where the internet has just been introduced and been introduced in such a way that the areas that it affects were unaware of its introduction and its impacts; in other words, only when the internet is introduced as a disruptive technology. But with how much surprise will the internet be introduced in parts of the world that gets connection now when the internet has already matured for 20-30 years in other parts of the world?

An alternative to understanding the impact of the internet of society is for researchers to focus on descriptions of how the internet is used in different contexts. However, this is a limited approach that only generates endless description of internet use without gaining a full understanding of the situations that are being studied because internet use is and will become only a small parts of what makes up most social, cultural and technological situations. Everything is not about to become digital as some people used to predict. On the contrary, the digital is everywhere, and that is an important distinction.

The Internet research ends up having to keep the separation of internet and the rest of the world as an ontological fact and only study phenomena on the internet, which will only be phenomena that occurred under specific periods of the development on the internet in a given context. More and more phenomena that can be registried on the internet will only become understandable if all the developments taking place off the internet that is affecting the phenomena is taken into account. The internet then becomes nothing more than a tool to register data about general conditions in society that none the less can have some advantages over other methods of data acquisition. Internet research then becomes any research that in any way makes use of the internet for observation and data collection, which soon will have to include basically any research on any kind of social phenomena.

Example: The Future of Health Care and Networks

As an example of these problems that arise when looking at the impact of the internet in a situation where it is deeply entangled in other social processes I will briefly describe competing visions of the use of the internet in the future of health care in Europe and how it relates to the future use of networks.

Health care is one of the top political problems within the EU, not at least because of a quickly aging European population that will soon need lots of care. At the same time, health care is a hi-tech, innovative, patent-generating and energy-intensive sector that is the recipient of a lot of hi-tech research funding and innovative health care services is assumed to be one of the major driving forces of the future internet networks. The future internet is a specific technical/political term used within EU research and is referring to an effort by the EU to take leadership position (away from the Americans…) in the development of the next generation of internet networks (see this post). One form of health care services that is assumed to make use of the future internet networks is tele-medicine — that is, digitally mediated connections with doctors, presumably in a real-time audio-visual communications environment. The reason is of course that virtualized expert medical care in someones home is much cheaper than building huge hospitals and having people come there to meet their doctor. It is also related to a hyper-specialization of health care in which only certain clinics, labs or doctors can perform certain operations, perhaps private clinics with patented equipment that local hospitals is most likely unable to acquire. The future of health care in this scenario consists in throwing research money at these elite hi-tech institutions that function as centers of computation and knowledge, pushing the limits of what kind of operations they can perform and diseases they can cure and by virtualization or robotic operations increase the number of people that can have access to them. This of course requires the ability to push massive amounts of data traffic very fast and ensure the quality of service. You don’t want lag when a surgeon on the other side of the world controls the robotic arms that performs your operation.

There is however efforts to rethink health care in a radical way and utilize the internets ability to manage social networks to do it. Sometimes, this is referred to as 5% health. In this scenario, health care is mostly concentrated on working preventive. A problem with the centralized solution sketched above is that it only treats symptoms. It gets better and better at treating these symptoms but the health problems grow faster. A lot of the efforts of health care goes to what is called welfare diseases such as obesity and its related heart problems and diabetes (which in the US is increasing by 30% a year according to this article by John Thackara). Other diseases, such as dementia, is more in need of a social support network to manage the early stages than hi-tech treatments when things have gone really bad. What these kind of efforts are trying to do (such as this, this and this) is to break the division between passive users of health care and active, professional medical personnel by connecting wider networks of patients, relatives, nutrition experts, medical personnel on different levels of professionalization, food producers and distributors, urban planners and designers and everyone that is a stakeholder in the ecology of the disease and make them share and organize knowledge, ideas, data and connections. All in a more spontaneous and self-organized manner than the hi-tech hospitals. Managing this of course comes with its own set of challenges, but they are not primarily solved by increasing the speed, power and precision of existing technology but is about organizing information, people and resources in a meaningful way and creating social, political and infrastructural conditions for these kinds of networks to emerge. They can not only be brought about by developing new technology but require new social organisations, perhaps even new kinds of health care related architecture and urban planning. A goal of many of these efforts is also to make health care more resistant to coming transitions away form a fossil fuel based society where the hi-tech hospitals is just not sustainable.

In the health care example, we can see how the internet is used as a tool (among others) to bring forth two very different visions of the future of health care. One, which is about getting access to an energy intensive center of computation, information, knowledge and technology. This is a situation that keeps a strict distinction between user of a service and its professional managers and makes the users very dependent on the maintenance of this professional class. This distinction is echoed in, and reinforced by, the internet technologies suggested, but it is not brought about by the internet itself. This is obvious because in the other vision of the future of health care the internet technologies are bringing forth a different kind of situation where the health care is deprofessionalized, consists of a network of peers with many different skills and which, through preventive methods, reduced the dependency of the class of medical professionals in the energy intensive, centers of computation.

It is not just the same internet technologies being used differently either. In the first case, the network needs to be ultra fast, is very sensitive of small delays and must be customized to ensure quality of service of a few, very important types of use. In the second scenario it is more important that the internet is ubiquitous, adaptable to many different kinds of uses and platforms and low on energy use. It is not as crucial that every millisecond of delay is pushed to the minimum and it is build on redundancy rather than the securitization that is necessary for quality of service guarantees. Two internets, two ways of life, two organizations of society, two futures of health care.

Network Cultures

My suggestion then is that studies of the internet from now and into the future must be studies of these different ways of organizing society, which naturally will make use of internet technologies, but not only them and it is not them that determine the organizing principles nor set the requirements. These organizations are complex socio-technical processes that require a synthesis of many different academic disciplines to fully grasp and in that sense it is certainly valuable to construct a trans-disciplinary research institute to tackle these new challenges. But I argue that the internet can not be that unifying concept. What that concept will ultimately be is something to discuss. Perhaps peer-to-peer production as some people call it, perhaps organized networks as Ned Rossiter calls it. As an example, I will try out the term network cultures, often used by Geert Lovink and others.

Instead of depicting a generic technology, network cultures highlight a specific form of organization of connectivity. It is not enough for a phenomenon to be digitized to be a network culture. In that sense it is more narrow to claim to study network cultures than to study internet use. But it is also more inclusive — network cultures exist also outside the internet; sometimes only using internet to a small degree, sometimes using completely different forms of communication. They certainly existed before the internet, but did they have a different impact then; and what organizing principles and limitations in space and time had to be used to form a network culture then?

Network cultures are opposed to institutionalized organizations with stable and standardized ways of interacting, although network cultures can exist in the middle of such institutions. Network cultures has a natural affinity with the prototype, experimentation and temporary and precarious relations — for good or worse.

The question of network cultures is how they under certain conditions can arise and be sustained while under other conditions fail to flourish or collapse. Network cultures can either be the result of favorable condition or the only choice in a time of crisis.

For me, focusing research on network cultures instead of the internet signals a post-digital perspective on the internet where it is tied up with processes of globalization, urbanization and economical and energy crises, and where many sectors of society has learned to manage it rather than be taken by surprise by its introduction. Personally, my interest in this kind of perspective has been widely sparked by being involved with hackerspaces and the maker culture which certainly wouldn’t have reached its level of development without knowledge sharing and connections over the internet but which is also brought into its present shape by urban developments, shifts in global manufacturing, discarded technology as a result of a society geared toward perpetual growth and the different political developments of their local situations. Comparing the present post-internet maker culture with the way it looked pre-internet is to compare two completely different worlds and nothing can be said about the internet and the way it is going without a deep understanding of the way the world has changed the last decades. And if you have been spending the last 15 years on the internet, I can tell you that a hell of a lot has happened on the outside.