Thursday, August 16, 2012

Networked individualism and oxymoronic "personalized communities"

From this paper by Barry Wellman, et al.

The technological development of computer networks and the societal flourishing of social networks are affording the rise of networked individualism in a positive feedback loop. Just as the flexibility of less-bounded, spatially dispersed, social networks creates demand for collaborative communication and information sharing, the rapid development of computer-communications networks nourishes societal transitions from group-based societies to network-based societies (Castells, 1996, 2000; Wellman, 2002).

Networked societies are themselves changing in character. Until quite recently, transportation and communication have fostered place-to-place community, with expressways and airplanes speeding people from one location to another (without much regard to what is in between). Telephone and postal communication have been delivered to specific, fixed locations. At present, communication is taking over many of the functions of transportation for the exchange of messages. Communication itself is becoming more mobile, with mobile phones and wireless computers proliferating.

Each person is a switchboard, between ties and networks. People remain connected, but as individuals, rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Each person operates a separate personal community network, and switches rapidly among multiple sub-networks. Even in more localistic Catalonia, people appear to meet their friends as individuals and not in family groups. In effect, the Internet and other new communication technology are helping each individual to personalize his or her own community. This is neither a prima facie loss nor gain in community, but rather a complex, fundamental transformation in the nature of community.
That seems like an accurate description of the transformation that we are in the midst of, but I'm puzzled by the implicit positive spin. My read of this transformation, folllowing people like Jodi Dean and postautonomist types like Virno, is that networked individualism is a boon for the communicative capitalism on which it depends, much in the same way that possessive individualism was a boon for consumerist capitalism. (Consumerism, conspicuous consumption, identity through shopping-based lifestyles, etc. -- the sort of stuff in Adam Curtis's The Century of the Self.) Community as defined by volume of communication persists, but community as a kind of collective subjectivity that prioritizes the group over the individual atoms is lost. The network formations emphasize this atomization, breaking the link to the pre-individual basis for subjectivity (a la Gilbert Simondon, described here).

A "personalized community" is an oxymoron; community is that which can't be personalized. That phrase is just a nice way of describing a network fromthe point of view of an individual node, which may be near or far from the center, rich or poor in connections. Once you've taken steps to personalize community, you are making it convenient, editing out or time-shifting the responsibilities it otherwise requires to suit the community of one.

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