Network Ecologies

Technics and Network Dynamics

We must contend with the issue of real change, of Watts’ “dynamics of the network.” In keeping with the network’s complementary concept of organism, we can introduce another concept, that of technicity, which Simondon deems the real existing principle, the most prominent phase in the genesis, of the technical object. [23] Let us say that a technic is a modification to the milieu or the living being’s media that is unnecessary to the endurance of the organism. Here “endurance” more precisely means a particular need. In this clarification I echo the final lines in Georges Canguilhem’s essay “The Living and Its Milieu”: “From the biological and psychological point of view, a sense is an appreciation of values in relation to a need. And for the one who experiences and lives it, a need is an irreducible, and thereby absolute, system of reference.” [24] A technic must be unnecessary as to these needs because otherwise it is simply the organism in relation with its milieu, exchanging via creation and reaction (metabolism). Basic to technicity is the combinatorics of tendencies, which upsets or exceeds what philosopher Hans Jonas calls the “needful freedom” of the living’s metabolic relationship with its milieu. Although a technic often pertains to such a need for the organism’s endurance, its technicity results from an additional need or orientation of sensibility. In Simondon’s terms, this is what it means to birth an “associated milieu.”

One of Simondon’s key components to understanding technicity is the acknowledgement that technical objects possess an “intrinsic normatively.” [25] The key points [les points-clefs] generated by a technical genesis get incorporated into the reticulated structure of the man-world relation, thereby inducing an altogether original reticulation of ends. [26] Just as the becoming of life reticulates its own milieu, its own network of meaning, so too does the invention and concretization of technical systems foster novel associated milieus[27] His definition of becoming is clearly contra that of Bergson: “Becoming is neither the actualization of a virtuality, nor the result of a conflict between actual realities. It is the operation of a system possessing potentials in its reality: becoming is the accessible series of structurations of a system, or successive individuations of a system.” [28] Against an actual/virtual couple—or even transubstantiation—Simondon favors overdetermination in the sense Althusser uses the term: a multiply determined structure of  phenomena. In other words, what is would not be what it is without its potential as a latent element of its existence. Moreover, this is the case because what is is no thing full stop, but a system of transitions between states. This means that change either is of the order of mere becoming, wherein individuations mark intrasystemic transitions—“the accessible series of structurations of a system”—or change refers to a break in the entire system’s ordering of structures and potential for individuation, such that a novel system of metastabilities comes into existence.

Simondon contends that the evolution of the human’s relation to its world is a matter of “successive stages of individualizing structuration, going from metastable state to metastable state by means of successive inventions of structures.” [29] Technicity signals a type of invention more specific, and therefore more recognizable, than some organic being’s genesis of an originally reticulated reality. The technical event disrupts the coordination of key points structuring a world because technicity essentially compounds some of the needs or ends that structure a domain of experience. These composite finalities are at least partially gratuitous vis-à-vis the milieu in question. They function as the guiding themes of a center of activity, the ideal element without which materialism would be reduced to a physico-chemism barren of meaning and of impetus, in discord with human experience. “Inventions of structures” do not adjust the ordering reticulation of a world, or of reality. Reality, in the sense of actual and efficacious appearance or being-there, is reticulated. Moreover, a given reality is reticulated for an organism—again, this term intended in the broadest sense à la Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. With an invention of structure, a novel organism-milieu correlate emerges, and so too does a novel reticulation of key points or themes result. A technical event—that is, an existence qua a technicity’s superposition of themes—marks a novel and relatively original world-reticulation.

Like any concept taken on its own, the network tends toward its own extremism through its unchecked abstraction. The network, or an ecology of networks, is not simply a contemporary technologically inflected version of the concept of organism that disproportionately emphasizes spatial relations or topology. Rather, the preceding argumentation expresses the mutual requirement for both concepts, the organism and the network, when attempting to grasp in thought any dynamic, interrelated phenomena. Consider some of the ways we could conceptually diagram an amusement park. The average parkgoer would likely consider a few prominent attractions as featured nodes, other amusements as secondary, and with restrooms and food courts falling under a different category of key points. A whole ensemble of parkgoers would then serve as the conduits that weight the edges connecting certain nodes to each other, and that effectively differentiate those nodes into types. This approach serves to rank the amusements and to effect an ordering among them and concessions indicative of a geographical distribution combined with the shifting moods and energies of customers. An executive of the park might actively pursue a variety of conceptual diagrams, including one that would invert the above node/edge demarcation such that attractions become edges weighted according to some variable such as the time spent participating in that attraction before returning to one of the many general pools of downtime or travel time. Another likely variable is money: what distribution of concession stands and character actors most lucratively superimposes onto different trajectories of parkgoer itineraries? In each of these schematic proposals for a network analysis of an amusement park, the diagrammatic translation presupposes some centers of activity (they may be the nodes themselves or whatever traverses both edges and nodes) and some currencies of exchange (desire, money, time, exertion). The network analyst who is blind to such self-centering subjectivities unwittingly inscribes those subjectivities’ values and accords to their “systems of reference” when graphing dynamic phenomena.

What’s interesting about this for us is how such diagrams derive from a patchwork of reticulated worlds, which reticulations in fact structure the deployment of any organism whatever’s experience and activity. Thus the diagrams can in turn impact the active living through of reticulations to the extent that such diagrammatically composed knowledge is realized and perpetuated. The MyMagicBand of Walt Disney World endeavors to merge these organo-reticulated diagrams and many more by, on one hand, serving as the parkgoer’s wallet, ID, fast passes, trip plans, restaurant reservations, and so on, while on the other hand collating all the data afforded by the technical centralization of these capacities and movements into a single, traceable apparatus. Such a superintendent materialization of knowledges and of intentions consequently transforms the involved organisms’ relationships to their key points. Cliff Kuang’s Wired article relates the easily overlooked uncanniness of employees at the Beauty and the Beast restaurant knowing your name, when to expect you, where to find you after you seat yourself, and what food to bring you. [30] The wristband of course facilitates such practical expertise, but MyMagicBand also has the potential to reorder significantly how one experiences the amusement park. With the more popular attractions reserved ahead of time and in a spatially agreeable order, patrons gain convenient access to the opportunity to take advantage of lesser known rides and amusements on their way. This awkward wordiness in fact best presents the changed situation: the opportunity was there without the Disney magic, but now it conveniently presents itself by layering the anterior purposiveness or desire for amusement with an additional purpose (specifically, the park-wide coordination of each patron’s fast pass itinerary). With patrons’ real-time movements, plans, and participations in rides and attractions available for Imagineers to track and to compare with other networked patterns of averaged or idealized patron behavior, on-site character actors and concession stand personnel might target patrons who either need a break in travel or are likely to purchase food, drink, tickets to a show, or a souvenir. MyMagicBand integrates several dimensions of knowledge pertinent to the park’s optimization, with each dimension taking as its order of measurement a different organism: the patron parent, the patron child, the pre-paid attraction, the purchasable amusement, employees, Imagineers. It has the power to crystallize these knowledges of delimited worlds into a novel associated milieu that synthetically registers these superimposed world reticulations—reticulated in each case in accordance with the respective organism’s “appreciation of values in relation to a need.” [31]

A network approach to articulating knowledge claims explores how a reality can be reticulated. But without reference to the organic entity that centers a reticulated reality, the latter is senseless. The notion of an organic and reticulated whole moves toward two complementary directions: on one hand, an inexhaustible actuality in process, and on the other, a relative articulation of a reality’s capacity for registration and change. Together, these dipoles accent the phases of reflective thought involved in a range of problems, from the phenomenologically constitutive relation between the living being and its milieu to the overdetermined complex of a social formation, from a many-dimensional lattice of quantum particles to the artifactual corporate environment of Walt Disney World.

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