The Fragility Of A Network

Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.
– Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

While networks may have always been with us, they are, as Geert Lovink points out in “The State Of Networking,” the “emerging form of organization of our time.” The implications are vast, and hopefully others will add their thoughts here on that. I, though, wanted to focus on a slightly different aspect: the fragility of a network.

Networks are fluid, built to be impervious to an outside threat. The Internet was designed, in fact, on the premise of surviving a large-scale attack. A network, then, is resilient: “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (Deleuze, 9).

In the arborescent, top-down world, this would be dangerous — a break in the hierarchy, and the system fails. See: Katrina, U.S. Hurricanes in the 21st Century.

But this fragility is not only inherent to a rhizomatic structure, but also an important reason why it exists — fragility, in this sense, is a postitive attribute. As Lovink notes, networks are “inherently unstable and its temporality is key…[they] are dense, social structures on the brink of collapse.” Networks can swarm around the breaks — that’s how the packet-switched communication technology on which the Internet works, and that paradigm can be applied to any rhizomatic structure, whether it’s at the technical bits and bytes level of the net, or the socially viral world of Obama girl (3.7 million views, and still going).

It’s easy, then, to think of the rhizome as subversive, a way to provide a means for a kind of digital “civil disobedience,” as Lovink suggests. But, in terms of power, the network is no longer (if it ever was) a space for rebellion and counter-culture. As Deuluze and Guattari note, the smooth and the striated are constantly at play, and the smooth, flat, networked world of the digital counter-culture doesn’t stay that way for long.

An example — today, I attended the IBM/Lotus Collaboration Summit, an event that saw a number of new products and announcements from the company. IBM, just like Microsoft and most in the tech business, see “Web 2.0,” that is, the social networking world, as their next and best chance for future money-making. IBM today told a tale of collaboration, and knowledge, and connections, and the Millennials, and how, of course, they would provide the foundation for all this innovation.

MySpace, also today, has announced a new advertising strategy, providing custom ads, based on whatever you have in your space. Not to be left out:

MySpace’s rival, Facebook, also says it is experimenting with ad customization with the help of Microsoft, which signed with the up-and-coming social network last year to provide display ads on the service. To the consternation of privacy advocates, who say Internet users are unaware of such activity, the social networks regard these detail-stocked profile pages as a kind of “digital gold,” as one Fox executive put it last year.

Digital gold, indeed.

So, the smooth, networked world of Web 2.0 won’t stay that way for long, as the value of our thoughts, our relationships, or connections, our creative energies will soon be scooped up by the digital panhandlers of the capitalistic system.

Meet the new boss…?

Maybe not. As always, networks are susceptible to virus writers and hackers, who test for points of vulnerability and exploit holes in the system (and no system is without holes, no code is perfect…). If distributed networks have become hegemonic, as NYU Professor Alex Galloway suggests in his essay, “Protocol” (pdf), if they have become “the new citadel, the new army, the new power,” it may be that virus writers, hackers, and crackers become the best way to subvert the control, both overt and covert, the network has placed over us.

I’m not suggesting, though, you get rid of your anti-virus software just yet.

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