Hello, fellow humans -
“In order to truly deal with the challenges of our age, we will need to learn how to think, act, experiment, learn, value, and perhaps even dream networkedly. We need a new worldview: a philosophy of networks for our hyperconnected age.” (Vitale)
I’m experiencing one of those parallax, copernican shifts in worldview while reading Christopher Vitale’s book on the philosophy of networks.
A ‘networkological’ metaphysics - seeing the world as fundamentally composed of networks, all embedded and interwoven in varying degrees of complexity - is opening up my world.
It’s providing new pathways of thought, new ways of looking at some stubborn questions. Networkology offers a sharp critique of capitalist modernity, and suggests what values might help transition us from where we are now, to where we might be able to go. Call it post-capitalist, or repurposed capitalism, or just a more sane, sustainable, vibrant mode of relating to the universe and our cultural moment.
Vitale’s philosophy of networks is a new way of looking at the question I’ve been asking myself lately:
What can I do, and what might we do, right now to align the constellation of ideas and practices that constitute my - and our - life with something other than an antiquated, though nevertheless prevailing system rooted in scarcity and 20th century logic?
Let’s dig in.
Networks, Philosophy, and Post-Capitalism
I. What Are Networks, and What Do They Want?
I’m referring to networks as a metaphysics, because they provide a myth, a story we can tell ourselves that takes the largest possible view on what’s going on in the universe. So what is the story networks provide?
A traditionally religious metaphysics might suggest that the fundamental aspect of the Universe is God’s will. God’s will is like the inmost incentive structure underlying the cosmic system, and the lives we derive from that story follow from that incentive structure, serving or manifesting God’s will.
In a worldview where networks are seen as the fundamental aspect of the universe, our lives accordingly derive from their incentive structure. And what do networks want?
According to Vitale, networks want: robustness, or the sustainable emergence of complexity.
We all have an intuitive sense of what networks are. But working out a more formal definition is tricky. Vitale writes:
“Hypervisible and so obvious as to be often taken for granted, networks have become such a part of the fabric of daily life that they are like the air our techno-bodies breathe, even as it is often unclear precisely what they are, or could be. Trying to pin down the essence of networking can be an experience of vertigo, of an oddly centerless centricity, as if the sense of networking is continually dematerializing and recrystallizing in ever shifting prisms of color which give us back reworked versions of where we used to be. Perhaps the trick then is to learn to ride the waves of networking first, and from there figure out what there is to be seen.”
But, trying to pin networks down a bit, he goes on to write that a network is:
“…any whole, composed of parts, distinguished from a background, and composed of other parts and wholes, layered into each other at multiple levels of scale.”
We can think of networks as complex systems of nodes and links.
II. Networks & Post-Capitalism
Here’s where things start getting wild.
A networkological worldview suggests that the universe is composed of networks, and everywhere, the incentive of networks - the sustainable emergence of complexity - is at work. This recasts, or rather subsumes the familiar story of survival as the incentive of evolution into a larger story.
The evolution of life has indeed appeared to be about survival, but only - according to networkology - because survival is a most salient obstacle to the sustained emergence of complexity. This casts survival not as the fundamental incentive of life, but just as a developmental stage along the larger project of robustness.
Let’s pair this up with John Maynard Keynes, who predicted that by 2030, humankind might solve the ‘economic problem’ - the sustainable access to material provisions required for survival and basic participation in society:
“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not - if we look into the future - the permanent problem of the human race.”
But this prospect troubled Keynes, for as organisms we’ve directly evolved in orientation to the survival imperative. To (relatively) solve the economic/survival problem is to deprive us of our traditional purpose.
But from a networkological point of view, rather than casting us out into a spiritual vacuum, moving beyond the survival problem might liberate us to explore higher possibilities of sustainably emergent complexity.
I’m not talking about immortality or uploading ourselves into the cloud, here. Solving the economic problem is more about designing a society where assured access to everything that is needed to survive and participate in society is woven into the cultural fabric. Where the amount of time we need to spend throughout our lives laboring in a utilitarian fashion to secure the means of survival & societal participation shrinks to a negligible fraction, and we’re left to consider what else to do with our lives than cyclical assure their continuation.
This re-orientation to an incentive structure that goes beyond the economic problem requires nothing less than a new human being. Keynes worries:
“Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature-with all our impulses and deepest instincts-for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.
Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.”
Conveniently, we exist at just such a juncture where networks are cracking the old cultural factories that shaped us as human beings, and are re-opening the inquiry into what humans beings are, and can become.
Take Paul Mason, who’s writing looks to emergent networks as the catalyst for post-capitalism:
“we…cannot imagine the kind of human beings society will produce once economics is no longer central to life. But we can see their prefigurative forms in the lives of young people all over the world breaking down 20th-century barriers around sexuality, work, creativity and the self…
Capitalism … will be abolished by creating something more dynamic, that exists at first unseen within the old system, but which breaks through, reshaping the economy around new values, behaviors, and norms. As with feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s demise will be accelerated by external shocks, and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being, and it has started.”
In these interstitial cracks between the old vanguards of capitalist life, the traditional schools, careers, and well-worn life paths, something is emerging. New modes of education are springing up, and Zak Stein believes these new educational platforms - networked, of course - will assist in the project of bringing forth new kinds of human beings:
“Groups can change society by establishing alternate modes of education; new modes of education shape the future of all political and economic life because they involve the creation of a new kind of human.”
Vitale writes that adopting networkology as a guiding ethic for this new phase of the emergence of life rests upon a few basic principles:
“diversity and differing to the maximum degree possible without destroying ourselves”
Why? Because, as Vitale writes: “In physical or living systems, each mutation or modification is an attempt to pose a new answer to the question of how to survive, thrive, or continue and grow in the world…” The larger this pool of diverse & differing mutations - ways of living - the more we learn about how to navigate the world in ways that bring about higher degrees of sustainably emerging complexity.
“and meta-stable conditions which keep us on our toes yet with a safety-net to make risk taking by all creative rather than threatening.”
Here, I can’t help but think of a fully realized democratic socialism, where a broad-spectrum application of taxes that draw from wealthy entities and high-return-low-social-value activities (like financial speculation, capital gains, etc.), coupled with consumption and VAT taxes, provide this basic safety net. Maybe comprised of healthcare, income, access to shelter, food and water, all serving to create these ‘meta-stable’ conditions that incentivize risk taking and creativity.
Put another way, the question is what optimal degree of top-down safety net affordances enable the most autonomous, bottom-up self organizing? Vitale writes that self-organization is promoted by a certain set of conditions, similar to the networkological guiding ethics:
feedback between aspects and environment
I do not think the universe requires a proliferation of humans who can reliably pay their mortgages. Risk-averse monotony is not a path towards the sustainable emergence of complexity, nor autonomous self-organization. Existential creativity is electric, vitalizing, and more valuable to the robustness of the network that is this universe.
One of the reasons risk averse work consumes so many lives, my own included, is because of how deeply we crave the assurance of these basic things, how hardwired we are to crave survival security. How scary it is to not know how I might pay rent 5 years from now if I quit my job at the restaurant and just follow my own weird, creating a networked media environment from which I can’t imagine how I’d make enough to assure my continued survival outside of something like Patreon, which has slim odds, and muddies how other people perceive my intentions.
But this is precisely what Vitale argues. That we need to have the courage to create our own networks that will re-network and re-create existing networks. Build networks around our own unique brands of weird, and connect them to the world. Since networks increase in value with abundance, while we’re conditioned to think of value in scarcity terms, it’s difficult to imagine how this might generate the value we need to support ourselves. But in this time between worlds, we might have to be willing to just try it out and see what happens.
“We know the world can and should be different. The potential for growth, development, and freedom, it is all right here and now, we do not need to look to some impossible elsewhere, it is all in how things network with others.”
Again, the parallel with Zak Stein is groovy, who writes:
“I seek to disclose the reality of universal human emancipation that is always already immanent as a possibility latent in human social structures. The pulse of freedom, as it were, is irrepressible, ubiquitous, and indefatigable.”
Anyway, back to Vitale:
“This requires, however, that we begin to see the more subtle ways in which conservative and cancerous modalities often structure aspects of the world which we have come to see as the foundations of our own freedoms, such as atomistic notions of individuality or the ‘freedom’ of the market…We need to opt out, stop consuming, start producing new networks for new ways of living, outside and around the systems that continually attempt to addict us for their own ends.”
Reminiscent of Timothy Leary’s canonical call:
Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Vitale’s networkological echo is: Opt out, stop consuming, start producing new networks
In process of thinking about what values and grand-narratives might displace neoliberalism’s hollow offering of freedom, I’m thinking a lot about lifelong education, and play.
We know play is crucial in the creative development of children, but what does play look like in adults? When I imagine the opposite of utilitarian modes of being, play seems like one response. That an ideal life is one where things are done for their own sake, or where one engages in play.
This Instagram video struck me as so wholesome, as such a depiction of play. Imagine you’re in the park, walking with your girlfriend and talking about work. Suddenly, a stranger runs up to you, tosses a water gun at your feet, and stands at the ready. His knees are bent, his super soaker is loaded, and his eyes are locked on you.
There’s something about the mental agility in breaking out of every narrative you’re in, abandoning the world for a moment and realizing what this guy is offering, picking up the gun, and running around like mad hosing a stranger. This, to me, looks like play. Fluidly moving through imaginal worlds.
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