Monday, May 5, 2008

on the nature of semi-hierarchical networks

I think "semi-hierarchical network" is my coinage, but it is based on the observations of a very large number of people, some of whom write utterly unreadable theory.

So I will not direct anyone to the original unreadability. I'll merely cite rough-and-ready examples.

Networks are semi-hierarchical because inevitably, some contributors are more dominant than others, and influence a larger number of people. But these contributors do not have the dignity of official titles, usually; they simply occupy the nodes of communication through which others get connected. They are the equivalent of those folks in the six-degrees-of-separation model, the one in which you only have to go through six successive individuals to find anybody on earth. (The flaw in this model is that having once met, let's say, Dave Hickey does not mean that Dave Hickey remembers who you are, or remembers the person you need to find. The two on either end of the network both remember meeting Dave Hickey, but he probably mislaid both your business cards, or cannot recall why he has an e-mail address written on the back of an envelope. So you are connected to the person at the other end of the network, but the person who "knows" both of you, or more accurately who both of you know, is of no help whatsoever.)

Nonetheless, networks work, and they are a little bit like the old Silk Road: People communicate who never meet one another, and they communicate via intermediaries as well as via posted messages on blogs or websites. One part of the network only occasionally knows what is up with other parts of the network, because they only check in on them when it's directly relevant to their immediate needs or concerns.

[Pages of illustrations.]

Rigidly hierarchical structures the world over are being replaced by loose collectives that may all work for a single corporate entity, but that get the job done through communications that never filter through a single centralized source. This makes it possible, unfortunately, for a few ambitious traders to collapse entire investment firms by buying up half the futures contracts on the planet, but it also allows for the flourishing of more modest enterprises, such as reporting adequate on Atlanta art.

Now, anarchists will get all excited about this because it is a model of cooperation like what some folks fantasized back in the day, but the point is that present-day subterranean subcultures and mainstream multinationals have an embarrassing number of things in common when it comes to using semi-hierarchical networks. And the folks who insist upon a rigidly hierarchical the-buck-stops-here mentality are being left behind by the more fluid, adaptive folks.

The problem with being fluid and adaptive is that liquidity flows. (That's a joke on "flows of capital" that takes us back to the current global financial crises, where we will not go right now. We are talking about art, and I recommend folks read Kevin Phillips' Bad Money for some insight on how the world got into its present fix.)

People's natural tendency to be self-destructive and behave like dysfunctional idiots and be aggressively self-aggrandizing does have to be addressed and restrained. Otherwise you do get the biggest egos and the biggest loudmouths drowning out the other voices.

So even self-organizing networks have to establish rules and regulations as unforeseen problems arise. And in a loosely networked community, it is hard to establish how the "hierarchical" part of "semi-hierarchical" plays out.

And that takes us out of the world of global finance and global politics, about which whole books have been written. (I have deliberately not referred to Certain Well-Known Organizations of the past half-century that have proven difficult to deal with because they have no fixed center, a shifting network of people in charge, and indeed entire sub-networks that barely even do more than share the goals and strategies of the original network. But forty years ago, a great search for a nonexistent center of control never did turn up the expected location against which a knockout blow could be directed. And Robert D. Kaplan's Imperial Grunts has some interesting observations about the consequences of the lesson that strategists learned from that futile quest.)

No, it brings us back to the question of how you get a bunch of maverick individuals who write about art to find a way to write about art in a location where lots of people will actually want to read it, because they will not have to wade through things like this arcane essay about semi-hierarchical networks, and can just find out what's cool to go to this week and why, in a post written by a person whose opinion they trust.


Ben Grad said...

Have you read The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills?

He uses the discussion of the eventually hierarchical nature of all networks as a response to DeTocqueville's Democracy in America.

The chapter on media is his best.

littlejoke said...

I haven't read it, and I should indeed consider the prospect that, McLuhan to the contrary, the emergence* of such stuff as the thing on which we are corresponding has not changed human nature sufficiently to ensure the maintenance of a no more than semi-hierarchical network. If nothing else, some people are simply more inclined to write and to post than others are, and more people are likely to post their writings while ignoring others. (And this is not necessarily related to some objectively measurable degree of usefulness, however one defines that term.)

*Those who know my fondness for Freudian typos should know that I typed "emergency."

Anonymous said...

I about it still heard nothing