Nina Czegledy, media artist, curator, writer
Network Dynamics: A cross-dimensional analysis of network models
excerpt (ISEA2004, Helsinki/Tallinn)
Nina Czegledy and André P. Czeglédy
There is nothing new about the concept of networks. From time immemorial, a diverse variety of networked models have been recognized as characteristic features of natural and man-made structures. For centuries, sages, artists and poets from divergent cultures have perceived the entire universe as a whole and living unity, one in which all things are connected, inter-linked or - to use a contemporary term - networked. Many of these ancient concepts have been recently confirmed by contemporary research in a variety of fields.
These days we live in the midst of networked systems, whether we consider conventional network examples such as electrical systems, the network of neurons, river systems, economic globalization or the Internet. While networks and other forms of collaboration are often studied when analyzing knowledge transfer; it is important to note that very few attempts at interdisciplinary research have been published to date. Only recently have statistical and mathematical models of sufficient sophistication been developed to adequately accommodate unified surveys of the scale needed, such as Contractor's multi-disciplinary study investigating the co-evolution of knowledge networks.
Before we proceed further, first we should ask an elementary question: what is a network? According to dictionary definition it is a system of interlacing lines, tracks or channels - in other words, an interconnected system of mutually influential variables and their causal relationships. In allegorical terms then, while networks generally operate on the model of a cell or unit, the effectiveness of a network design is highly dependent on its interconnectedness, on the intensity and intrinsic effect of all or any given parts of the system to influence each other. It is therefore of immediate interest to note that the tracing of the whole structure -as well as the exact nature of operation, is (whether intentionally or unintentionally) difficult for the individual member or unit.
Currently, the term "network" is often used in popular conversation as a topical buzzword for either public access to information or for access in the interest of communication. Beyond the dictionary definition of the term ‘network’, however, one finds a bewildering array of archetypes ranging from metabolic pathways to commercially networked alliances in this wide-ranging discourse. Odd as it sounds, remarkable similarities can be traced between the design of such seemingly diverse networks - whether terrorist, financial, biological, communication, espionage or kin-based in orientation. Yet only a few interdisciplinary references can be traced on the topic of network parameters. Furthermore, little is known about large, complex networks (consisting potentially of thousands, millions or even billions of nodes) and their dynamical properties. This is partly because a considerable proportion of network analysis has been restricted to smaller group sizes, especially in the social analysis of small-scale communities. What are then the common features between these diverse, often informal network systems? How do physical, biological, cultural and social dimensions of the wider environment influence these structures? What is the relationship between the network structure and an individual motif or agent? What can we learn in our own practice from other paradigms, particularly those developed within the artistic realm?
Among the primary characteristics common to most networks is size, which has important functional implications contributing greatly to the net effectiveness of the system as a whole. Since large network size is desirable, smaller networks are generally structurally motivated to interconnect and form a larger network of networks. Multinational franchises, kinship structures, immune systems, ecologies and, especially, the Internet are good examples of such meta-networks that feed upon expansion to some degree – and depend upon it as a function of their survivability. Typically, networks function for the exchange of information and goods as well as to protect the common (or individual) interest of their elements. The interaction between these components is often controlled by protocols, norms, conventions, rules or behavioral patterns that play an integral part in systemic processes, yet in contrast to many more rigid technological formats and formal organizational systems, operate with various degrees of flexibility. The often numerous, constantly rearranged network units (regardless of diverse archetypes) function on several levels of interconnectedness, contributing to continuous transition and new levels of complexity. Small changes in such systems can subsequently produce significant alterations in the structural patterns and the interaction involved, acting as triggers for both growth and complexity in the process.
Nature is often considered a "whole organic system" and, as such, offers abundant examples of network structures. Usually, the term ‘ecosystem’ applies here, although most models tend to be incredibly schematic and cannot capture anywhere near real-life complexity; even the most sophisticated of contemporary computer programs utilizing parallel processing capacities are only able to provide essentially limited and extremely simplified versions of natural phenomena. The increased availability and accessibility of data has nevertheless led in recent years to the discovery of previously hidden physiological and chemical structures. The multitude of biological networks comprised of components, linked as a rule by a common aim of survival and propagation, is perhaps the most intricate and precisely operating example of interlaced systems in human experience.
Most recently, interest has shifted from considerations of mechanical and biological structures to social, political and communication networks, including commercially viable configurations and their applications. In this regard, the work of David Wilkinson is particularly pertinent. In the course of analyzing the distinctive behaviour of civilizational networks through the multiple foci of trade, war and diplomacy, he has suggested that civilizations are themselves complex social systems with clearly evident network characteristics. Parallel social network analyses examine the patterns of relations among people and organizations as well as states and seek to describe networks of relations as fully as possible. Common to many of these networks is the establishment of relationships that rely on patterns of connection and information exchange processes. For example, social (and cultural) networks have long been recognized as complex systems with a characteristic type of interaction between individual members of the network. Members within these networks frequently influence each other by providing information and further developing as well as maintaining collaborations.
Cross-referenced studies examining various mechanisms of network topology have suggested that the spread of ideas and innovations are often dependent on network structure. With this idea in mind it is not surprising that postmodern theorists such as Bruno Latour and Donna Harraway have revived debates surrounding the complexity of cybernetics along with the social implications of networks. While certain hierarchical, branching-type structures are more prevalent in business or military networks, cultural or sociological networks frequently present random, scale-free forms. Perhaps the Internet and its expanding uses - even the character of traditionally hierarchical structures such as business specific networks are changing.
Scale-free structures are often characteristic of networked artist' projects, especially as the ability to change and modify forms and relationships within a process is an inherent feature of these structures. Artists and cultural workers working with digital tools in today's collaborative and closely networked environment have especially valued the self-referential and self-organizational features of so-called ‘sustainable’ networks which incorporate various degrees of system balance as an integral feature. We can now witness an ever growing networked culture which often utilizes the trappings of bureaucratic systems such as logos, corporate names and branding yet simultaneously undercuts and subverts the institutional world.
It is important to note that the definition of networked art itself remains contentious. In the description of many art projects, the terms "net-art", "and "networked” art are often confused and only a few attempts have been made towards explicit differentiation. Specificity on this topic thus remains an important issue. The spectrum of both popular and technical interpretations of networked art is extremely broad; and include a range drawn from mass market-oriented, commercial simulation games to military scenario forecasting, from the data visualization of the 010010.org group to Josh On's database derived projects. How do network features and protocols then apply then to this so-called networked art? Do size, patterns, sustainability and other significant attributes have the same connotation for individual or collective artworks as for biological or social network structures?
On quick review it seems that while the exchange of point-to-point information, size or sustainability are indeed significant attributes for some collective projects, many others rely on the utilization of available and well-established networks, including the Internet. For example, artists such as Stelarc or Rafael Lozano Hammer used the meta-networks of the Internet for some of their projects. Groups or collectives often facilitate networks by using alternate conventions for various types of collaborations. For instance, Bureau Etudes, a French leading collective, involves media artist groups to collaborate in their activist cartography projects. Some of these projects, like Lagardere, Chroniques de gueree (2003) visualize the power of networks of corporations through graphic files. The provocative themes of the Bureau Etudes projects are specifically targeted at the closely knit worlds of finance, religion, bureaucracy and the relationships of power between the institutional networks that lead them. Activism thereby forms a considerable part of networked projects.
In summary, most complex, adaptive systems and networks share certain characteristics. Their numerous and shifting, units operate on several levels of interconnectedness, each contributing to continuous transition and new levels of complexity. In real-life situations, most people are part of a wide variety of networks ranging from large-scale biological systems and social structures to internal, corporeal universes – and back again. Thus, individuals can simultaneously participate in hierarchical or free-scale networks while contributing to each in different ways. By examining the individual's position in a network, it has been shown that the effectiveness of a network structure is directly related to integrated activity rather than to solo performance. Some networks can therefore be understood to create the effects of their own reality by self-reflection or motivation which, in turn, induces operational processes. Furthermore, each network transaction may then allow for system transformation, leading to both systematic and systemic change. While copious studies have been published on the topic of networks, the question remains how can the emerging network patterns be applied most effectively across interdisciplinary fields including the arts? As of yet, there are few suggestions. Annelise Riles provides a comment on the future of networks in her ethnography of international conference participation, The Network Inside Out:. "For those concerned with the intersection of modernist epistemologies and liberal political philosophies, the "network" offers a poignant case study of institutionalized utopianism, an ambition for political change, of universalism after cultural relativism and the incredulity toward a metanarrative."