Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The "Unhuman" Network...

Perhaps it is best to begin at the end of this week's reading, for, like Biology, an object is sometimes better understood if the parts that make up that object are understood. Understanding networks is indeed one of those instances, as Galloway and Thacker succinctly demonstrate in The Exploit. However, the authors' also leave the reader with a question, perhaps better denoted as a proposition. One, nonetheless, that fits neatly into a more in depth discourse of network theory, if further dissection is needed or desired.

Do "unhuman" objects exist within networks? This is the question at hand. Drawing no conclusions on this topic, Galloway and Thacker begin, and end, their discussion with bits and atoms. However, earlier in the text they discuss the "physical layer" of network protocols. Is this not "unhuman"? If material conduits are required to allow communication between nodes on a computer network, how can this "unhuman" element be questioned? Is a definition of "unhuman" needed at this point to continue? Even by it's most basic definition, the "unhuman", or, that which is not human, provides the architectural or physical structure for networks. Even biological networks operate within and around elements that are "unhuman". As noted in the reading, emerging infectious diseases travel through hotels and airports, as well as from "unhuman" host to human host.

In this line of thought, perhaps a different question should be considered:  Can networks survive without the "unhuman" element? Can Osama bin Laden "swarm" at will, causing terror on a global level without the objects of airplanes, explosive devices, and other objects of mass murder? Can online social networks operate without the structural underpinnings of a physical computing device and connectivity? If the objects above are defined as "unhuman" and deemed necessary in order for each respective network to operate, the question that Galloway and Thacker leave the reader with quickly transposes itself into more than a mere proposition. Indeed it must be considered within the same context.

That is not to say that the human element is in any way less important. Quite to the contrary. Networks require the interaction of both human and "unhuman" elements, both symmetrically and asymmetrically, in order to be "flexible" and "robust". The "unhuman" element represents and provides the infrastructure for the network while the human element actively consummates the motivation, aliveness, and human interactivity of the network.

Even after considering any and all networks, and from any point in history, this theory seems to hold true. Take for example the Pony Express. This cross-country mail service (or network) could not have operated without the "unhuman" object of the horse working in tandem with the human object of the rider, not to mention the object of his journey, the "unhuman" element of the letter and the piece of paper it was written on. Consider the modern postal service. They do not use horses to deliver mail any longer, however the vehicles they do use are definitely "that which is not human".

The networks of today, that Galloway and Thacker discuss, as mentioned above, are no different; a network is a network is a network. Of course that is an over-simplification meant only for this posting. Networks vary in many ways - in size, in content, even in structure (ie. centralized, decentralized, and distributed). But as long as they meet the four conditions for being a network, they are all recognized and operate as networks; human and "unhuman" elements working in unison to form actively robust webs of ever-changing nodes and edges.


  1. I like the play on Gertrude Stein in your final paragraph. And you are correct in identifying the interplay of the human / nonhuman. As we discussed in class, the swarm is nonhuman, and it is possible for human actors to act in nonhuman units or ways.

  2. Awesome post! I love the dichotomy you bring up about the human and nonhuman elements involved in networks and how they then affect the network. I do agree though that you need both human and nonhuman elements for a network to truly be successful. But, like Kim said, humans can act in very nonhuman ways, so the network may still have both characteristics even without nonhuman components/elements (if that makes sense).