Reinterpreting networks of people as fluid for political purposes

Nicholas Knouf

Social networks have become not only an online artifact used by millions, but also a means of describing real-life interactions between people. Humans as nodes, and social connections between people as edges; the metaphor is the graph or network, inheriting all of the abstracting nature of this mathematical formalism. Even within science and technology studies, and specifically actor-network theory, is there use of the network metaphor to describe complicated assemblages of human and non-human actors(Latour 1987; Star 1991; Latour 2005). Yet this reappropriation of a computer science term is not without its problems, specifically the way in difference is erased when a human is transformed into a node that is simply like all the others. The network itself is political, as the choice of who is represented is vitally important and too-often ignored.

This paper begins as a critique of network views of reality, starting with the view that to completely represent the world through a graph is an impossible task. I then move into a consideration of actor-network theory, and the ways in which this expansion of the network to include non-human actors is still problematic as a result of the need to make choices of who or what to represent. These joint critiques enable me to see human and non-human assemblages as fluid and ever-forming and -breaking. I end with a description of a present project of mine that uses mobile phones as participants in these ad-hoc associations as carriers of data. The mobile phone, via temporary Bluetooth connections, acts to pass messages from one person to another, without a top-down topology, bypassing centralized networks and enabling activists to continue communications surreptitiously, even when access to other technologies, such as the Internet or phone network, are disabled or destroyed (see Scott, Hui, Crowcroft, and Diot (2006) as one example). Fluidity becomes an asset with the software designed to take advantage of the movement of people for political purposes.

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