Of Nodes and Knots | MIT Center for Civic Media

Of Nodes and Knots

In our Introduction to Civic Media class this week we were fortunate to be joined by Eric Kluitenberg who, amongst much else, has recently authored an enlightening essay, “Affect Space: Witnessing the Movement(s) of the Square”. In our class discussion, Eric helped draw out several of the most prominent themes and emphases of his essay and one, in particular, struck a chord with me.

Earlier in the week, I read about some reported findings from recent neuroscientific studies, which support the idea that “that ‘the self’ isn’t constant, but ever-changing”. Research is therefore increasingly serving to disabuse the notion of an ‘unchanging’ self with fixed, intrinsic characteristics that remain stable over time.

The implications of these findings for our ‘individual’ online presence is intriguing. Social media sites are typically predicated on the idea of each user as a node in a network, connected to others through a series of links. As an organizing principle for online social platforms, this certainly makes sense, making it easy to navigate networks of social connections. Yet even as our online footprint has grown exponentially in the decade since social media has become fully commonplace, at the same time we are arguably witnessing something of a complication and diversification - really, a pluralization - of our virtual selves. Take Facebook. On one hand, with its 1.6 billion users representing somewhere between a fifth and a fourth of humanity, Facebook is not far off being the ultimate social network. Yet by shifting the question from how many people are using Facebook to how they are using it, the issue becomes more complicated. A recent report suggests that rates of “original sharing” - that is, personally-created content (as opposed to sponsored ads, news updates, and so on) dropped 21%. In contrast with Facebook’s dethroning of early rival like MySpace, it’s hard to identify any one place where this “original sharing” impulse has disappeared to - though smaller, more private platforms like Snapchat and Whatsapp (itself owned by Facebook) are likely some of the beneficiaries.

For the avoidance of doubt, my concern here is not the long term viability of Facebook’s bottom line. Instead, my point is merely to complicate the notion that any one platform - that is, any single version of ourselves - constitutes our online Self in its entirety. Thus, our online self is really a “series of selves” distributed across the Internet, rather than restricted to any single platform.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that the chronological basis of modern social media - think news streams and live feeds - actually represents the changing nature of self rather well. If I change my mind about who I support in an election, for example, or start a new relationship, social media platforms are well adapted to reflect that change (and have an interest in paying attention to it, for the purposes of more accurate targeted advertising). Yet a fundamental adherence to a node-based network structure is still evident on social media and the Internet more broadly. Consider Facebook’s resistance and reluctance to allow users control over how they name themselves on the network - a draconian policy that has made life difficult for, amongst others, trans and Native American people. Or consider Google’s opposition to the European Court-mandated Right to be Forgotten from its search index. There is a reasonable case to be made on political grounds that information that should be in the public domain not be censored, a priori, by commercial organizations. But the basic premise of this argument (and indeed the debate more generally) is that there is a given, fixed, irreducible ‘self’ that may or may not be “revealed” by the presumably omniscient index of the web. Thus, the issue is presented as an epistemological one (what should or shouldn’t be knowable about ourselves) rather than an ontological one (who we actually are, and how we are represented, online.)

Thus, a fundamental node-based structure predominates on the Internet, supporting the notion that - for all our changing tastes, interests and relationships - in a basic sense, yesterday’s you is today’s you is tomorrow’s you online. To reiterate, if this suits the business interests of leading social media platforms, then this state of affairs is likely to remain the organizing principle of the commercial-social web. Yet one of the great advantages of civic and tactical media and technology is that it gives practitioners an opportunity to improvise and experiment with alternative approaches, often with significant social and political consequences. This is where Eric’s essay, and in particular his allusion to Vilem Flusser’s work “The City as Wave-Trough in the Image-Flood” becomes so interesting and useful. Flusser’s concept of the self or subject is “as a ‘knot’ of relations, as the intersection of various ‘channels’ of information, out of which the ‘net’ of a city is formed”. Flusser continues:

We must imagine a net of relations among human beings, an “intersubjective field of relations.” The threads of this net should be seen as channels through which information like representations, feelings, intentions, or knowledge flows. The threads knot themselves together provisionally and develop into what we call human subjects.

Although writing before the emergence and mass adoption of the social web, the applicability of Flusser’s concept of knots is remarkably suggestive of it. Today, even while the sanctity of my supposedly fixed self is rhetorically reified and reinforced every time I go online - with my password, using my device, to my social network of choice, to see my notifications, and maybe share my thoughts and feelings - Flusser reveals the fiction and fallacy of this fixity. He goes on:

One recognizes this when they unknot themselves. They are hollow like onions. The Self (I) is an abstract, conceptual point around which concrete relations are wrapped … If one holds fast to the image of an intersubjective field of relations—we is concrete, I and you are abstractions of this—then the new image of the city gains contours.

Flusser’s use of the term “city” here is noteworthy: neither entirely metaphorical nor completely literal, in Flusser’s usage “the city” can be and is constituted by both physical and mediated encounters. This means that, in the words of his translator, Flusser's framework “is able to deal with technology and media in a more supple fashion.” By overcoming the tired real/virtual dichotomy, Flusser provides theoretical space, as it were, for the concept of “hybrid space” which Eric in turn draws upon in his essay. As Eric argues,

While the concept of hybrid space is thus not necessarily defined by the superimposition of technological infrastructures onto the “natural” or built environment, the spatial density and heterogeneity is greatly increased by electronic media, especially by the increasing presence of electronic signals, carrier waves, wireless communication and data networks in lived environments.

This more flexible and nuanced understanding of the intersection of “technological” and “natural” infrastructures, and, just as important, our "knotted" position within it, offers great potential for civic technology - something I hope to build upon in my class project. It’s my suspicion that, by shifting our a sense of ourselves from nodes to knots, and embracing the concept of hybrid space, the power of civic technology for positive change can be enhanced.

Header image courtesy Domiriel on Flickr