More on Transvidual Subjectivity: Quasi-Life from ‘The Human Mic’ to Facebook
This post continues some of my thoughts from my previous post, called “A Mutation of ‘The Human Mic’ as a Radical New Type of Political Subjectivity.” In this post, I examined some of the ways in which social formations between individual and old-style collectives (ie: nations, unions, etc.), can be often thought of as existing between these levels, giving rise to what some have called ‘transvidual’ subjects composed not of full individual, but rather, aspect of individuals, which are then called ‘dividuals.’ An example of this might be ‘the wave’ at a sports stadium, a formation which doesn’t involve everyone in the stadium, and seems to flow ‘between’ people, grow and then vanish, even as their ‘group’ remains there int he stadium as this formation flows in and through parts of it yet not others. Many have argued that in the age of the internet, transvidual subjects are the future, and are potentially new forms of political agents we need to understand. In my last post, I examined a web-site based virtual community (DailyKos), as well as the new mutation in the ‘human mic’ which I’ve called it’s ‘distributed’ formation.
Facebook: The Giant Brain
One place where we see the processes at work in a web-community like DailyKos radicalized is in social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The ‘share’ function allows memes, such as articles, jokes, images, etc., spread like wildfire, get liked and commented on, and take on lives of their own with incredible speed. Where these social-networking goes beyond something like DailyKos is that each person’s community of friends and contacts is a network that, while less complex than a community like DailKos, shares many of its features. Each individual’s network of ‘friends’/contacts is a mini-community which overlaps yet varies with others in a wide variety of ways. Memes propagate with incredible speed, ‘voted’ on by ‘share’ and ‘comment’ functions, and then often passed on.
Many of the functions here are not unlike the aspect of actual neurons in biological brains known as ‘long-term potentiation,’ or LTP. Basically, LTP encapsulates the truism of ‘use it or lose it.’ The more a part of the brain is used, the stronger it grows. The way this works in the human brain is quite simple. Whenever a neuron is stimulated to pass along a message, it simply sends a thank-you message backwards (known as ‘backpropagation’) that says one thing, ‘grow!’ Any neuron that gets one of these grow ‘thank-you’ messages grows a slightly stronger connection to whoever they sent a forward message to, and that way, any message sent makes the connection it used stronger. Basically, use any connection and it grows stronger. This is why brain researchers speak of ‘soft-wiring’ or ‘soft-sculpting’ of the mind.
Here we see Marx’s dictum of materialism to some extent justified scientifically, namely, that if you change your actions and habits, you change your thoughts. Language is perhaps the clearest example of this, and scientists are quite sure that few things have altered the physical structure of our brains more than the advent of language, on an individual basis, or as a species. If DNA has to code changes in our physical architecture, our environment soft-sculpts the rest of our brains. Because we live in an environment that is cultural as well as physical, language is like the ‘operating system’ which helps us run our biological hardware. Unlike silicon computers, however, our physical hardware adapts to the changes and updates in the operating system. And artificial intelligence research will likely stall until it can develop physical chips that, like those in living brains, are able to rewire themselves like physical neurons, not only at the level of software, but hardware as well. Hence why this might require nano-tech.
Returning to social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, each person’s community can be thought of as a virtual brain of sorts. It grows new connections as it adds new friends, new sense organs (like Google-Reader feeds for articles), and as the ads are increasingly targeted to our browsing habits, even our browsing seems to strengthen certain connections at a ‘sub-conscious’ level. Each meme, which is to say, each article, image, comment, etc., is like a thought, and can be forgotten, recalled, mutate, shared, etc.
Language: The Original Transvidual Net
One crucial way this differs from the human brain, however, is that our social-networking networks are nested in each other and overlap. And this is where unlike our physical brains, and like language, we have transvidual networked phenomenon that like memes have ‘quasi-lives’ of their own. Take a word in the English language, like ‘dog.’ It’s been around likely as long as the English language. It’s not an individual human, nor is it a group of humans, yet it needs both for it’s quasi-life to continue. It’s like a parasite, only a good one, and a virtual one. For where does the word ‘dog’ live, or live most intensely? Where is the original of a word like ‘dog’? A dictionary? In fact, all ‘actual’ instantiations of it are copies of the ‘virtual’ original. Perhaps this is where Plato’s notion of ideas come from!
A word like ‘dog,’ however, has its virtual tendrils in all sorts of places. It experiences LTP each time someone says it, forming stronger connections in that individual’s brain, and each time it is printed somewhere it gets the ability to be shared as many times as someone reads it. The word ‘dog’ is a network of virtual and actual aspects that reside in individuals and things (like books and printed materials, but also computers and electronic media), a transvidual formation which couldn’t exist without individual humans or their groups, but is in a sense ‘between’ these levels, like the affect that flows through groups, yet more permanent. Almost like a living organism, a word evolves with the language, it’s ecosystem of sorts, and has a life-cycle, such that perhaps ‘quasi-living’ is the only way to speak of these strange transvidual creatures that seem to derive their lives from us, but in a manner which, to take a phrase from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is ‘less heavy’ than our more material bodies.
Social networking networks, like the ‘community’ of all my ‘friends,’ are in many senses like the word ‘dog.’ They are semi-permanent, quasi-living entities, and like words, they are networked and have connections at multiple levels of scale. A word like ‘dog’ is connected to those like ‘animal’ or ‘furry’, in relations of containment, negation, overlap in full or part, and in various fuzzy sorts of in-between.
Likewise, my network of contacts may overlap, contain, or exclude that of various other people’s. We may share certain people, and if some of these people don’t like each other, there may be a disjunction between their friends and those they dislike in various other people’s contact networks. From my perspective, I see a network of friends which connect to various others beyond them. But when we think of what these networks look like from the perspective of, say, the programmers at Facebook, we start to see that each of our contact networks has become like a mini-brain in series of larger brains, nested within each other fractally at multiple levels of scale. And as memes fly between these, they encounter various ‘logic gates,’ which is to say, branching pathways, amplifiers, dead-ends, etc.
As we’ve seen with the example of a word like ‘dog,’ transvidual quasi-living formations are anything but new. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking platforms simply advance the level of complexity, for while before there were words that had quasi-living nested networks like this, now there are avatars each of which is the virtual representation of a person, living in the ecosystem of each social network’s giant brain-organism. This brain/organism/ecosystem is composed fractally of smaller ones, with various densities of overlap. And so there are likely clusters that politically lean one way or another, clusters more interested in science or pop-culture, and these all impact the ways memes flow within them, living their own quasi-lives.
And the result, likely, is that when something like the human-mic is reinvented once again in human history, it mutates to function somewhat like Facebook. Because we’re all primed to think in a distributed manner, because we do it all the time on our little bits of computer brain that so many of us hold in our pockets, namely, the smart-phones that tether us into various parts of the multiply overlapping, fractal brain-structures.
Towards Network Ethics
As I argued earlier, any distributed network can be coopted for centralizing, paranoid aims. Terrorist networks use radically distributed networks, and yet their goal is generally to propagate a centralizing, conservative ideology, just as capitalism uses radically distributed formations so as to centralize all value into one form, namely, quantifiable value called money, whose flows are determined largely by surpluses which were there before any of us were born, in a cycle that self-perpetuates and is fundamentally conservative in nature.
When distributed networks are used by paranoid, centralizing networks, they often boost their effectiveness. And distributed networks often rely on paranoid networks to supply them with crucial resources. At which point does the balance shift? Every organism in the world seems to be composed of both types of networks, though the most complex ones, like the human brain, are radically distributed. And distributed networks are the most fair, egalitarian, and creative. There’s an ethics to networks, and the question is, how do we push ourselves, as a species and living/quasi-living collective organism(s), towards a more egalitarian future?
The human-mic’s distributed formation is an example of an attempt to produce a formation which is radically distributed. And yet it can easily be coopted for a message that’s ultimately paranoid in structure. I would not at all be surprised to see Tea-Party uses of this, though likely they will be more structurally top-down in organization. But not necessarily. And this is why it’s never enough to understand the structure of a network’s connections, but also those to which it is connected as a whole. Ethics is always a relational affair, and needs to be thought of this way, as a fuzzy, networked way of looking at the world that is always looking beyond, even if it must act locally.
Learning to understand the differences and stakes between paranoid and distributed network formations is ever more essential as our world is increasingly penetrated by new and often more complex network formations, and this is part of why we need a network ethics for our increasingly transvidual futures.