Forced connectivity

by Rob Horning

17 December 2010


I suspect this post by Will Davies about an advertising poster for the city of Birmingham, England, might be a hard sell, and I would probably have just linked to it on Twitter (my feed is @marginalutility—I would stop pushing it here if had some way of making it appear permanently on this blog somewhere) if I could have found some teaser quote that was fewer than 125 characters. But the post’s key passages seemed uncondensable, and that I was even looking to truncate them for the expediency of my Twitter feed is a pretty strong argument against the whole Twitter concept. Alas, I want to share links that I find interesting, but I want to have space to give my reasons for wanting to share it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that simply linking to it, marking it with my personal brand’s seal of approval, is sufficient to convey its significance.

Anyway, Davies notices a poster touting Birmingham’s interconnectedness (“Discover networking on another level”) and how that makes it suitable as a business hub: “200,000 annual conferences and access to over 400 million people by road, rail, and air.” These numbers seem a little fishy and grandiose; Davies comments, “Maybe they should have mentioned that Birmingham’s telecom networks offer access to basically everyone in the world.” But the key point is that these sorts of figures imply a sheer quantitative understanding of networking that has been invalidated by the ways things have progressed since the internet has become ubiquitous in Western business practices.

The confusion lurking within this advert is partly due to a total failure to understand economies of presence, a failure that was not uncommon in the mid-1990s. The notion that knowing or meeting more and more people, of being more and more connected, was somehow advantageous has come to appear rather old-fashioned.

In the early days of the networked information society, getting more connected supplied a competitive advantage, but the ease of connectivity has all but eliminated that. Now virtual presence is taken for granted. Here’s how Davies puts it, incidentally making an excellent connection along the way between the person Time named its person of the year, and the runner-up some thought should have been so designated:

We were told that power would consist in having more and more connectivity (so the telecom industry hoped), making charisma and bandwidth the most important forms of productive capital. By this account, the city of Birmingham could have been a contender. Instead, power resides with Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, individuals with few friends or capabilities, other than to break down whatever norms, rules and institutions used to enable society and communities to cohere (for better or worse).... The only people who definitely gain from more and more connectivity are the sociopathic founders of the networks themselves. Everyone else is caught in various balances between knower and known, follower and followed.

Embedded norms in local communities are made meaningless by omnipresent connectivity; all specific places become anyplace, just another node. Likewise, the local norms about what makes a person seem charismatic—the situational, improvisational aspects of personal charm—are everywhere supplanted by what characterizes charisma online, a generic computational matter of how linked one is. Charisma is not necessary to conduct information; its role in making certain information seem more significant is a matter of how one is placed in the hierarchical structure in the network. That is to say, charisma is not something internal to the person—all those qualities require presence and are becoming more irrelevant—but something imposed on people by their position in the network. Charisma becomes a strict matter of the numbers one can drive in the quantified universe of social media. That has always been the case with commercial media, but because of social networking, the norms of commercial media have replaced all those local, more idiosyncratic norms and institutions that once served as the field of charisma. That field is disappearing, and we are more or less forced online.

At that point, our being networked serves to reinforce our powerlessness, our communicative servitude: “network connections are not always symmetrical, as twitter has now helpfully made plain: I can ‘know’ (or ‘follow’) as many people as I like, but if they don’t know me then my ‘inclusion’ in the great network does not equate to power.” By participating in online sociality, we feed our various utterances into a huge sorting mechanism that spits out our place in the hierarchy. Unlike the subtler sorting that takes place in real-life social interaction, the online results, construed in numerical data, seems inarguable and open to less interpretation. And being able to broadcast ourselves certainly doesn’t allow for us to transcend that hierarchy and reach some higher democratic vista. It embeds us in hierarchy in a more thorough, more autocratic, more centralized way—an emplacement untempered by local, temporal circumstances. (Thus I end up feeling like I have to promote my Twitter feed in posts.)

In short, getting everyone connected does not set them free; as the word connected suggests, it leaves us more entangled.

The prophets of networks thought that the greatest loser in the digital age would be the child without a modem. Instead, the greatest losers are those who are being forcibly plugged in, and losing authority and status as a result - state institutions, American embassies, old boy networks, publishers, families, political organisations, MPs and so on. It’s not so much that these traditional forms of organisation are left behind by the rise of open access networks and fluid forms of association, it’s that they are strategically undermined by them, sometimes to the point of unviability.

The true signifier of power is becoming the freedom to be disconnected, unavailable, without detrimental consequences.


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