Networks, networks everywhere but should we stop and think?

The readings this week offer answers or at least ideas to the question we ended class with; how are our lives affected and changed by interactive communications and technological innovation. We all offered ideas on how these new technologies have improved our lives and/or exacerbated our attention deficit disorders. These articles touch on many of the ideas we gave as responses to the question.

We all belong to networks; family, friends, co-workers, neighborhood, etc… Most if not all of us, are linked into these networks via technology: web, email, phone, television, radio. As human beings, we long to be part of a community. A community defined by Wellman as “networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity.” [Wellman, B. 2005]

Wellman asserts that due to “computer-mediated communication” (CMC) what used to be a neighborhood of faces, persons and houses is becoming a boundless indirectly connected “network of networks.”  The “Globalization” of neighborhoods allow us to interact with greater frequency, efficiency and with no limitations of geography. He ponders whether this will have an adverse effect on “Face-to-Face” relationships. Ultimately agrees that this new extended “network of networks” will enhance this relationship and fill in the “Gaps” that may exist between emotion and information in an interpersonal encounter. The “CMC” network changes the “unit of connectivity” between all of us as members of a network. Is this a good thing?

Do the positives of the global network out weigh the negatives? It is easy to defend this trend in communications and list many of the positive innovations that have help drive it and been derived from it. Since the industrial revolution of 1800’s – the “profound transformation that signaled the end of an agricultural society” [Toynbee, 1884] innovation in transportation, and manufacturing has driven what Beniger calls a “crisis of control.” Society answers the call with technology and innovation on many fronts: economically, industrially, governmentally and socially. He points out that in the span of one human lifetime virtually all of the communication technology underwent revolutionary change: photography and telegraphy (1830), rotary printing (1840’s), telephone (1867), and on to television (1923). This transformation has not stopped or slowed down in our lifetime, and I do not believe the end is on the horizon.

The innovations in communication technology have opened up the world to all of us. We can now keep in touch with our extended family around the world, we can telecommute to work (a name that should probably be updated – “V-Commute”), and we can shop from our living rooms. Our world has become much vaster, geography has become almost irrelevant, and we can search out and connect with great ease all those things of interest to us. We can reach farther, and with much greater accuracy collect what we are looking for. So has our world gotten larger or has our extension and reach just been augmented like Dr. Reeve Richards.

Chris Anderson in his 2004 article “The Long Tail” would most likely argue that yes, our reach and accuracy has been extended and fine-tuned. Anderson discusses the effects that the advent of digital content (music, literature, movies) and ease of access to it will have on the world of entertainment, in particular “Niche Markets.”

Though digital content and media, has cluttered the field with mediocre attempts at expression, it has also leveled the field for most artists as far as creation and distribution of their creative product. By creation, I do not mean the “creative spark” or “genius” that distinguishes a writer from a typist, or a musician from a monkey with cymbals. That sort of creation is too organic, and comes from divine inspiration. By creation, I mean ease of access to recording technology and the ability to set up a My Space account as a means of distribution. This ease of access has opened the floodgates and effected marketplace, for better or worse as a whole.

The evolution of the digital marketplace has lowered access barriers and allowed retailers to deal with their own part of the “crisis of control.” Anderson uses one example of an out of print book (Touching the Void, by Krakauer) that is transformed into a best-seller by “combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion.” He credits Amazon, and all of its consumer technology innovation with bringing this book from obscurity to the New Times best-seller list.

He sees this as an example of an “entirely new economic model for the media and entertainment industries.” [Anderson] What was once ‘Niche” content and had enormous costs associated with it relative to mainstream content, no longer has the cost barriers associated with it. Traditionally the retailer only sold that which could pay for its shelf space, today there is no premium for virtual shelf space, so there much less overhead associated with say stocking a documentary film, or an obscure blues CD. What was once limited by “the constraints of the physical world” is no longer. This could be retail shelf space, the bandwidth spectrum of the radio, the number of channels provided, etc… “Popularity no longer has a monopoly in profitability,” the cost of brining mainstream content to market and obscure “niche” content to market is the same. Finding the Stooges debut album (no CD’s in 1969) is as easy as finding any of Hootie and the Blowfish’s CD’s.

The positive side of technology evolution and the globalization revolution is relatively easy to illuminate. So what is the negative side?

When Don Corleone said, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer…,” [Puzo] I do not think he was considering the impact of that statement in the technology driven world of 2007. As technology and global networks extend our reach, so is the reach of our enemies with barriers of entry easier to permeate.

The “Netwar” [Ronfeldt & Arquilla] is defined as the “emerging mode of conflict in which the protagonists use network forms of doctrine, strategy, and technology attuned to the information age.”  Today the spread of the information networks are redefining societies and “the very nature of conflict and cooperation.” There is a bright side and a dark side to this information revolution.

Ideally, people will use new technology for good, but as history shows us that is not always the case. The “bad guys” drive much of the innovation in the new technology world. Ronfeldt & Arquilla feel that the good guys or “bright-side actors” are constrained by the current societal norms to become early adopters or innovators. The bad guys or “dark-side actors” are much freer to rebel against societies established norms, and act as the “cutting edge.” It is usually the reaction to such rebellion that spurs the good guys to adopt and innovate.

Since September 11, 2001, we have been engaged in a “Netwar” conflict with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, an effective worldwide network of radical Muslims, which have successfully attacked the United States and other countries. The al-Qaeda network exemplifies the five levels of a successful network organization. On the “Organizational Level”, the al-Qaeda network operates as a “spider web’ network with multiple hubs and connections and no obvious hierarchical leadership structure. Although Osama bin Laden is the leader, the network is not centered on his survival. The “Narrative Level” is very broad weighing the strict tenants of Islam against the Western ideals of free societies and free markets. The current conflict has been described as a “clash of civilizations,” [S. Huntington] a clash of basic ideals and principals held by the different sides. A strong “Doctrine Level” also defines the al-Qaeda network. This group has shown to understand battleground and realizes the effectiveness of attacking employing the “swarming” tactic. Conduct you attack from multiple points using small units that can be dispersed quickly. We have seen first hand these tactics effectively used in several instances of al-Qaeda terrorism: the Khobar Towers, African embassy bombings and the 911 attacks. Along with a strong “Doctrine Level”, the organization is very rich in its development of the “Social Level.” The belief system of the al-Qaeda operative is a “religious” one. A deep seeded, “tribal” and “clannish view of us versus them.”

The United States has been waging a war on terror and al-Qaeda since the 911 attacks. Some may argue they have been successful and some may argue they have not. Whichever way you lean the United States still has not obliterated the al-Qaeda network, or caught Osama bin Laden. We are the most technologically advanced country in the world and we have not dealt with the al-Qaeda problem. It is tough to fight an enemy that has no hierarchy structure or core leadership, and does not readily use technology to wage their war. By cracking the “Enigma Machine” codes, the Allies were able to intercept messages from Nazi Germany and it is estimated able to end the war in Europe 2 years ahead of time. The allies were able to use the technology of the Nazi’s against them.

It is tough to combat an enemy that does not use technology, with technology.

The technology innovation in communications and networking is changing the world we live everyday. It is tough to recognize these trends and shifts when you are living in the moment with them. We all saw the iPod as the next cool gadget. It was not the first MP3 device, but it sure had the biggest impact. It is estimated that since iPod and iTunes have hit the market, an estimated two billion downloads from the iTunes music store have occurred. A few years later and given the gift of hindsight, we can see the effect a given product has had.

The same can be said about our current conflict with al-Qaeda. Some will claim that they knew it would be another Viet Nam, but did anyone really know what we getting into? Did any of us have the insight to look at al-Qaeda from this network perspective, before we went after them? Perhaps if we had had the insight we would have used a different strategy or perhaps chosen a different course. Time will ultimately tell if we were successful or not.

As we have seen, there is a “bright side” to the technological innovation that drives our evolution as a world network of humans and there is a “dark side.” Our best hope is to be humble and understanding of the people, we reach in our networks. As we move forward, we should attempt to step back as often as possible to gain as much perspective on whom we are, what we are doing, how and why we are doing it.

“These are just technologies.  Using them does not make you modern, smart, moral, wise, fair, or decent.  It just makes you able to communicate, compete, and collaborate farther and faster.”The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman, pg 374

tjb

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2 thoughts on “Networks, networks everywhere but should we stop and think?

  1. Today, the iphone sold its 1 millionth, a month ahead of schedule according to the plan Steve Jobs & co. laid out. For Apple & Jobs, this is a succes. Is it, though, for our society? What does this mean?

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