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What Networks Are (and What They Are Not) A Response to Galloway’s Position Paper

August 8, 2010

I’ve been reading the position paper by Alexander R. Galloway; Exploring New Configurations of Network Politics, where he suggests that the fascinations with networks that has entered into so much critical thinking is not all it’s claimed.  That networks, by definition are asymmetric constructs and those using them as tool of understanding are failing to grasp this:

It is common to talk about networks in terms of equality, that networks bring a sense of evenhandedness to affairs. It is common to say that networks consist of relationships between peers, and that networks standardize and homogenize these relationships. It is not important to say that such characterizations are false, but rather to suggest that they obscure the reality of the situation. Networks only exist in situations of asymmetry or incongruity. If not no network would be necessary– symmetrical pairs can “communicate,” but asymmetrical pairs must “network.” So in addressing the question “What can a network do?” it is important to look at what it means to be in a relationship of asymmetry, to be in a relationship of inequality, or a relationship of antagonism.

I’ve got to take issue with his initial definitions here:  Networks are constructions of two basic units – nodes and links.  The number of nodes and links is a very different matter to any power accrued by the node/s or bandwidth of the link/s.  Put simply Galloway is seeing power-relations in shadows and missing ones in plain sight.  Being a Peers in a network mean having the ability to form (and break) links – again it is not a reading of the links power/bandwidth.  If one node has many links, then it may lead us to conclude that it is a more powerful node than others, yet if that node is not a peer – i.e. if others can form links with it, but it cannot choose to deny them – then it’s power is illusory.  The same applies where two nodes are talking – what is to say they are a symmetrical pair?  Nothing.  In short, networks create tendencies – if you can create links, then the tendency is towards a less hierarchical structure.

We also see Galloway’s misinterpretation of tendencies as absolutes in his discussion of the Robustness Principe:

The so-called “Robustness Principle,” which comes from RFC 761 on the transmission control protocol (TCP), one of the most important political principles of distributed networks, is stated as follows: “Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.” This is called the Robustness Principle because if a technical system is liberal in what it accepts and conservative in what it does the technical system will be more robust over time. (But of course wouldn’t it ultimately make more sense to relabel this the Imperial Principle? Or even the Neoliberal Principle?) This indicates a second virtue of protocol: totality. As the Robustness Principle states, one must accept everything, no matter what source, sender, or destination.

The Robustness Principle is a tendency and not a command.  It does not force a node to accept everything.  Each node has the will have the capacity to interpret the principle differently – not as they are ordered to by any protocol.  Thus the parameters of operation are set by via each node, resulting is a a tendency towards non-hierarchical structures.  Protocols are methods of intercommunication – they are not structures of totality – for example, a node can use them to communicate with other nodes, while adhering to different protocols within its own communication.  Protocols are structures of common agreement underpinned with practical agreement – nodes who struggle to use a protocol will disengage from it, so reducing it’s use.  Whereas nodes that are conversant with a node will be taken up and used, so growing the network.  As such the action of the node is needed to make a protocol work – and as such it has a tendency towards a democratic method of operation.

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