Network Ecologies

Network Science

To stage more clearly this tension (or attraction) between the ideas of the network and the organism, we can contrast the tacit concept of “network” within the organicism of 20th-century biology with contemporary “network science.” “Such terms as field and organization were not explanations in themselves,” writes Donna Haraway of biologist Paul Weiss. [8] Rather, those terms and the studies they influenced were seen “as a probe of the biotechnology that underlay field processes.” Likewise, the concept of the “network” ought to facilitate thinking about other phenomena. While organicism presents an intellectually nimbler grasp of complex systems than do the accounts of network science, the latter represent our present context: a society whose industries and dominant cultural forms are enamored with connectivity. For instance, cell phone providers boast about their respective network’s coverage in commercials designed for online television streaming websites. More direct than any billboard or conventional TV ad, these commercials invite the viewer to connect, to click in media res to facilitate the sponsor’s support of the streaming content and the commodity exchange. [9] In Western capitalism more broadly, production, research and development, and distribution have, according to Luis Suarez-Villa’s historical and ongoing research into what he calls “technocapitalism,” become dispersed throughout networks of companies. He contends that “the culture of technocapitalism, with its emphasis on continuous innovation and rapid adjustment, is largely behind the rising importance of networks.” [10] Of course, the term “network” refers not to any network whatever, but to a decentralized and fluidly changing coordination of corporate nodes or participants. A network model of economy, or of Suarez-Villa’s academic discipline “social ecology,” facilitates and reflects an institutional structure in a mutually reinforcing relationship with outsourced specialized functions.

According to its popularizers, the scientific practices grouped under the umbrella term “network science” deploy network structures in the analysis of data and in simulation in order to codify a higher grade of complexity and a wider domain of objects. Part of the network orientation’s power comes from its capacity to unveil counterintuitive relations behind common sense phenomena. Networks also assist in the study of emergent complexity by providing a framework for the computational management of data. According to Caldarelli and Catanzaro’s Networks: A Very Short Introduction, the network may be a creative method of discovery that employs mathematical relations, but it is not an idealization that would merely represent its objects. [11] They insist that the network is a factual synthesis. Both Albert-László Barabasi and Duncan J. Watts echo this view in their respective popular accounts of network science. Note, however, a significant difference between these two. Barabasi, a physicist, is more willing to embrace a universal mathematical model. He for instance speaks of “the fundamental laws governing the spread of fads, ideas, and epidemics in complex networks.” [12] Whereas Watts, the sociologist, emphasizes the behavior of individual actors responsible for networks’ dynamics. Regarding the variation of social distance between persons and organizations, Watts writes: “in a science increasingly dominated by physicists, the reentry of sociology into the picture was a significant intellectual development.” [13] Nevertheless, according to Watts, the science of networks is the science of the “real world.” [14]  Despite Barabasi's and Watts’s different emphases, both maintain that the computationally supported graph theory of network science provides indisputable evidence of reality. Network science aims to count the countless, to enumerate the innumerable, and, to borrow an ironic phrase from Colin Milburn’s Nanovision that highlights the domineering masculine rhetoric of scientific rationality, enacts an ideal of "effing the ineffable." [15] From the “factual synthesis” of Caldarelli and Catanzaro to Barabasi’s “fundamental laws” and Watts’s “real world,” network science purports to achieve a lossless mediacy.

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