Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The "logic" of networking

This could be considered as a more focused comment on the main point of my previous post addressing the Big Question for January on Learning Circuits.

Stephen Downes has focused on the vital debate about what he quite rightly calls "the network way of thinking" and provides links to a debate that others have developed about the finality and mechanics of our emerging networking culture. From an intercultural perspective I find this debate extremely interesting, to be classified in the category of "how individualist cultures grapple with the utterly alien notion of group relationships". My conclusion is that they fail, much as the fictional inhabitants of a two-dimensional world cannot imagine what the world would be like with a third dimension (Edwin Abbot's classic "Flatland", 1884). In failing they reveal the limitations imposed by their obligatory frames of reference. It's money (markets and production efficiency) or love (family and sex) and nothing else. (Actually there is a third factor: sharing of obsessions among like-minded consumers and achieving admiration through the mutual perception of the quality of one's tastes).

For the first time in centuries the Web has, it seems, raised the question of how our white European civilization, whose recent evolution has been intimately linked to the development of capitalism (organization and ownership of resources, but also the creation of a value system derived from economics for defining the status of merit for the individual) can "use" the availability of tools that respond to the fundamental human instinct of relationship building. Given that relationship building has been strenuously repressed for the past three centuries or so as a source of inefficiency (it's even associated with cheating in the form of nepotism or cronyism) as well as a violation of principles of the equality of individuals, everyone seems to be in the dark about what relationships are good for and whether there is a legitimate justification for them. The fact that some people are actually making fortunes out of providing software that encourage relationship building has given the concept a new-found prestige. After all, the governing principles of all decision-making nowadays is "if there's money to made, go for it" and "if it's profitable, it must be good."

I would suggest looking at Asian cultures -- and in particular because of their current political and economic significance -- China and India to discover, first of all, that relationships/networks can be a natural part of both social and economic activity and a fundamental component of the value system; secondly, that they don't require specific communication tools (hardware or software) to exist; and thirdly that the "economy" of such networks is a subtle mix of efficiency and affect... which means that we in the west perceive it inevitably as messy, unfair and arbitrary. And yet, like Galileo, we have to add... "but it turns" (for them, of course, not for us) so maybe it's worth reviewing the model.

My prediction for the next ten years is that we in the west will undergo a major learning experience focused on new models of social relationships/networking. We will discover and begin to adapt to what the Chinese call guanxi, a concept somewhere between network and relationship, with multiple behavioral ramifications. With major geo-political shifts taking place against a background of continuing technological change, marked by the growing strength of Asia to counter the US economic hegemony of the past 60 years (the US representing the ultimate template for extreme individualism), we may discover -- or even be forced to discover -- the value of paying attention to the way guanxi works. It represents a much more complex model of "engagement" than anything that has come out of our "local" debates (we like to think they're global, but -- and this is a measure of our naivete -- we are all prisoners of our village culture).

How that "enlightenment" encompassing a new vision of networking will happen nobody can predict. But it's worth knowing that there are other models than, on the one hand, our hopelessly "logical" but poorer than destitute "free markets governed by the actions of rational agents" or, on the other hand, the newly constructed stages for narcissistic activism (Second Life, Twitter).

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