Connected, or What it means to live in the network society

Connected by Stephen Shaviro attempts to explicate the network society, through the perspective of postmodern theory and works of science fiction in literature, film, and music.

In his introduction, Shaviro cites Deleuze’s idea that philosophy can be seen as a type of science fiction. The thought-provoking and fun aspect of the book is the way that it fleshes out the connections between ideas in speculative fiction and other art, the ideas as expressed in theory and philosophy.

Using these techniques, the book explores a range of ideas and themes that shape experiences and perceptions of the networked world:

  • The network as a world of simulation, through images of Philip K Dick and William Gibson, and ideas of Berkeley, Nietzsche, Baudrillard
  • Distraction and information addiction, as in Transmetropolitan, di Fillipo’s Ciphers, and other works
  • Alienation in a world of images and microfame per Warhol
  • Cyborgism, the merging of human and android, in Gibson, the Matrix and other works
  • Corporate capitalist domination, where all relations are monetary and all beings are slaves, in Jeter’s Noir, Philip K Dick, JG Ballard, Gibson
  • Complete surveillance and self-surveillance, Foucault realized and dramatized
  • Hedonism in sex drugs and violence, Jeter, Transmet, Ballard

Shaviro’s picture of the networked future, as read through his sources, is a noirish, dystopian, kitsch-and-rubble-filled wasteland. The simulations of the virtual world has replaced anything that might have been construed as real, the solvent of capitalism has destroyed anything that might have been construed as relation. And Shaviro’s view of the past eliminates any illusion of nostalgia.

There is no human connection in this world of the network, only isolation. Leibnitzian monads are the model for individuals. The role models for identity and relationships are Andy Warhol and his coterie, who live lives self-defined by image and emptiness. The psychology in the book focuses on the solitary and noncommunicable experiences of hallucinogenic drug. Love and sex surely don’t provide any source of connection – choices include pornography, anonymous sex with sensorily augmented robots, femme-fatalism and horror-fiction nightmares where lovers turn into puddles of pulsing goo.

Corporations are supervillains. From Ballard’s Super-Cannes, “A giant multi-national like Fuji or General Motors sets its own morality. The company defines the rules that govern how you treat your spouse, where you educate your children, the sensible limits to stock market investment.” Describing the world of Jeter’s Noir, Shaviro writes that “Corporations are not subject to “the same rule of survival” as individuals; their struggle is a Neitzchean one to increase their dominance, rather than a Malthusian/Darwinian one just to survive.” Of course, the population of the Fortune 500 changes regularly – corporate empires rise and fall.

Now, these imaginary worlds are well-formed extrapolations of visible trends. There is artistic, intellectual, emotional, psychological merit in taking such trends and stretching them to fill an imagined world. That’s what science fiction does. KW Jeter’s Noir takes capitalism to its extreme; death is no escape from creditors, IP piracy is met with a fate worse than death; and advertising has moved from screens into neural synapses.

But, in reading the science fiction as theory, and the theory as explanatory of the fiction, Shaviro misses a few things. He describes how noir is an esthetic choice. “The allure of today’s retro noir stylization is that it makes even tho most intolerable situations bearable precisely by estheticizing them, by making them beautiful. But he also inhabits this choice, moves in, goes native, portraying this esthetic as the inevitable consequence of the properties of the networked world.

By inhabiting his sources, he is vulnerable to the fate that befalls science fiction commentary on its presence, which is to say swift, personal jetpack-style obsolescence. The swift obsolescence plays out esthetically – Shaviro uses 90s electronic music and music videos for stylistic atmosphere; this becomes a timebound soundtrack; think of images of Bjork androids singing and making love.

This also plays out in already-passe forecasts of technical trends In a work published in 2003, he highlights the dystopian nightmare of universal digital rights management, and misses the apparent victory several years later of unencrypted mp3s. In his attraction to the dystopic vision, he takes the conservative point of view that there is a binary choice: piracy or control, and misses the economic trends that Cory Doctorow saw at the time more clearly, that the enemy of most artists is obscurity not piracy, and the more a work is pirated, the more purchases there will be.

Shaviro is fond of pessimism, and this leads him to some distorted conclusions. He compares the network, which is dependent on external sources of energy, with a junkie addicted to heroin. But he misses the point that the network that requires energy input is all of life itself (11). Shaviro cites a scientific paper that you cannot get ride of information without dissipating energy in the form of friction or heat. Then he connects this physical observation directly to the problem of information overload (141). But he brings no evidence from neuroscience that cognitive problems caused by a profusion of digital messages are actually related to the physics of information storage. After all, our senses take on much more data than our mind observes already, and if the problem was the physical energy cost of discarding data, our minds would have melted already.

By inhabiting the fictional world, Shaviro also misses the ways that the dystopian worlds are an expression of fears. The book uses sources who are paranoid (Philip K Dick) or sociopathic (Burroughs) or otherwise mad (Nietszche); people whose entire worldview may have been consumed by pathology; but the creative works of the insane do not prove that sanity doesn’t exist. Several of the authors cited in the book (Gibson, Delaney) are apparently off the center of the bell curve but sane, at least to casual observers of the biographies and twitter feeds of living famous people.

Now, I like dystopian science fiction. My dad is a World War 2 refugee and my mother’s parents fled pogroms; my childhood nightmares featured the end of civilization. The end of the world is plausible and worthy of fear. But that’s not a proof that civilization is ending at any given time, with any specific apocalypse. Philosophers and theorists have articulated ideas about alienation and illusion and science fiction writers have illustrated them in dystopias, but that doesn’t make them inevitable.

Given the last decade’s focus on social networking, it’s particularly interesting to see utter absence of the social in Shaviro’s network. Shaviro concludes that the consequences of the network society is isolation, because everything is connected to everything else. But the lesson of social networking is that everything is not equally connected, there are tide pool-like social micro-environments even in technically open networks.

The gap, when you leave the social out of the network, is basic psychology. Shaviro quotes Burroughs: “if the biologic bank is open, anything you want, any being you imagined can be you. You only have to pay the biologic price.” Not in human society you can’t, murder and suicide have social consequences.

On the lighter side, Shaviro envisions the Experience Music Project as the epitome of network experience alienation, but already today, participants might be connected via their mobile phones across the exhibits.

Extrapolating a world of pervasive social networking, one might see different trends:
* echo chambers and re-created village social pressure
* surveillance images not as voyeurism but as social-network performance and stalking
* in place of alienated suburbia, neo-urbanism with social overlays in augmented reality
* in addition to the the distortions of physical space by cyberspace, new distortions of time with realtime streams

Perhaps these works of science fiction have been written already, recommendations welcome.

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