Steven Shaviro’s analysis of network culture, published in 2003, seems already behind the times. Kazys Vernelis writes a comprehensive analysis of what’s obsolete about old views of network culture, and what’s salient about network culture today.
The Vernelis article describes a network culture that succeeds postmodernism. The dystopian worlds Shaviro analyzes are the projections of “late capitalist” postmodernism as described by Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. Those worlds were characterized by corporate dominance, image and simulation, fragmentation, hallucination, social isolation. The network, in Shaviro’s world, is a solvent dissolving bonds to any real experience or connection.
Vernelis sees the network reconnecting: “today connection is more important than division. In contrast to digital culture, in network culture information is less the product of discrete processing units than of the networked relations between them, of links between people, between machines, and between machines and people.” He envisions new economic, esthetic, and social patterns, driven by peer production, remixing, and networked micropublics.
I think his analysis of the changed nature of the identity and the public sphere is spot on. Varnelis writes “the contemporary subject is constituted within the network. Instead of whole individuals, we are made up of multiple micro-publics, inhabiting simultaneously overlapping telecocoons, sharing telepresence with intimates with whom we are in near-constant contact… today we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the product of multiple networks composed of both humans and things.” This is very different from the isolated, hallucinating, insane individuals in Shaviro’s world.
I think Vernelis’ model of the characteristics of network culture is strong, and addresses the way the postmodernist dystopias feel out of date. But I and don’t completely agree with his view of the consequences, or in some cases he would be inconclusive where I have an opinion.
Vernelis writes that in the new network culture “privacy is unimportant. Self is undone in the network, vs. self is conceptualized in the network.” I don’t think this is quite true. I think that defaults and assumptions are shifting, and that new notions of “publicy”, as articulated by Stowe Boyd and others, will rise to the fore, in which people consider, act, and develop more tools that facilitate faceted sharing according to social context; only a small amount of which will be hidden to the point of invisibility, and a larger amount will be localized by context, new norms of urban ignoring, and the need for everyone to maintain signal to noise sanity.
And on that subject, Vernelis shares the lament that “A Blackberry or telephone constantly receiving text messages encourages its owner to submit to a constantly distracted state”. He does not yet take up the insight advocated articulately by Howard Rheingold, and as I just discovered Tikva Morawati in her NYU thesis, that attention is a cultural practice amenable to wisdom; that we can learn a range of strategies of attention literacy that allow us to become smarter by participating in flows, and preserve focus by learning to turn them off. Also Vernelis sees the networked self as “an aggregator of information flows, a collection of links to others, a switching machine.” I see additional opportunities; personal, business and art forums of curation to actively organize flows and their elements within publics over time.
Vernelis I think rightly observes a change in the public sphere. He cites Habermas on the 20th century decline in the public sphere, in the face of mass media and privatization. Vernelis sees that the 21st century is experiencing a revival of networked publics, in the form of interest communities, forums, newsgroups, blogs. There are also characteristic risks, as observed by Clay Shirky and others, of power laws that act naturally to concentrate power, and what Robert Putnam calls cyber-balkanization that breaks apart opinion into a million isolated ineffective microcommunities. There are also new opportunities posed for organization across the network, integrating the network, physical communities and the physical world, and opportunities for enhanced practices of deliberation and action. But we as a society may or may not take these opportunities and make effective use of them.
In the realm of esthetics, I don’t think Vernelis is quite right. He identifies a “new realism in which art becomes a background to life,” I think this trend is right on, with the maps like those of Stamen Design as a exemplars of the overlay mashups of this sort of art. But he’s also ambivalent about the nature of remixing and peer production in culture. Vernelis quotes Bourriad observing that, like DJs or programmers, these artists “don’t really ‘create’ anymore, they reorganize”. Just because I have Winterjazzfest still on the brain, there’s a generation of musicians whose work is quite different in style but aligned in sensibility, where historical and contemporary materials are not just reorganized but synthesized into work that I think is really interesting, emotionally affecting, good art.
Vernelis expresses a concern that fan media may simply merely represent the colonization of everyday life by capital. I doubt it this is true. There is plenty of content that is derivative (though I would argue that derivative folk culture still has merit over a culture with a few superstars and a large number of passive consumers), and there will also be some subcultures and works that will have genius, depth and lasting value.
So, I think Vernelis has identified many salient characteristics of the new network culture, and poses an interesting framework for thinking about the attributes of our current world.