Law in the Internet Society

A Network of Networks: Making Social Change Happen with Bits

I. Introduction

The "network of pipes and switches" metaphor we have used to understand the internet in this class is also useful for understanding how society works.

At a high level of abstraction, a network can be understood as a system where there are two basic categories of things, things that receive, process, and transmit information ("switches"), and things that serve as conduits along which information can flow ("pipes").

To use a consilient approach, we can apply this network metaphor to understand society on two interlinked levels of analysis: the micro level of an individual person (personal psychology), and the macro-level of many communicating persons (social psychology). This essay suggests that, for the purpose of generating social change, it is useful to think of a person as a network and society as a network of networks. This is a useful image because it provides a way of thinking about human freedom (on the level of personal psychology) and the role of information flows in influencing the behavior of others (on the level of social psychology).

II. Personal Psychology

On the level of personal psychology, the primary benefit of the network metaphor is that it highlights the importance of multiple networked agencies within what we often understand as a unitary self. Our conscious mind, the stream of phenomena we experience, is at any moment, just one switch connected by pipes to many unconscious switches doing important receiving, processing, and transmitting work.

Understanding that our subjective experience is shaped decisively by information-processing and transmitting units within us the operation of which we do not perceive helps us think in productive ways. We realize that our views are shaped by unconscious biases, and that our thinking can influenced by our context. We can try to take corrective measures. Realizing that we have only partial agency helps make the best use of that agency.

Another beneficial valence of the network metaphor, which reinforces that sense of agency, is its presumption of regularity. If the brain is a network, we might be puzzled by the activity of its "invisible switches," but we can keep in mind that with systematic observation, we can understand something of how they work and try to improve system performance (however defined).

These knowable regularities might be thought of as emerging from the interaction of genes and experience (in the form of memories encoded in the brain). We might call that the source code of a person. Genes may be fixed (though their expression can be mediated by environmental factors), but memories can be added to or reinterpreted. If, in Larry Lessig's metaphor, software code is law, this psychological source code is also law. Using the language of law, this source code is the "order" of the ordered liberty of our psyche. Importantly, this "legal system" can be understood and modified. Brain research indicates that education and training can change the physical structure of the brain.

III. Social Psychology

Moving up to the macro level of analysis, the network metaphor is also generative of useful insights when applied to social psychology. One quality of a using a network metaphor to look out at the social world is that it highlights the critical importance of information flows. A social grouping of brains is a lot of things at the same time, but if, using a network metaphor, we focus on how interlinked our brains are, we see a rich array opportunities for communication and social change.

If, as I proposed above, we agree with Lessig that code is law, and we consider that the genes and memories that comprise our personal psychological network are our source code, well-tailored memes can change the source code of many individuals rapidly and produce new combinations and unanticipated results. Communication changes not just what we know, but who we are. Our "source code" is different, and so the "rules of the game" are now different. In a sense, the law is different.

This process is accelerated when human networks of networks make smart use of technological networks. It's now a banality that the interlacing of a computer network into human networks means that memes can spread further faster than in previous technological eras. However, as argued above, this phenomenon is not just a matter of faster communication, it's also a constitutive process. So, technological networks accelerate not just communication, but re-constitution.

We can see dynamic in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. As the New Yorker relates, the original proposal for Occupy Wall Street emerged from the network-based collaboration between a man who lives in Berkeley, CA and a man who lives on a farm outside Vancouver. "Occupy-identified" groups have since spread around the world. The "Takriz" group which helped coordinate the Tunisian revolution began life as an email listserv and spread memes using Facebook.

As an Egyptian activist noted of the Egyptian uprising, "Before this social-media revolution, everyone was very individual, very single, very isolated and oppressed in islands...But social media has created bridges, has created channels between individuals, between activists, between even ordinary men, to speak out, to know that there are other men who think like me. We can work together, we can make something together."

If we are interested in social change, thinking about our brains and our societies using the network metaphor helps us understand the possibilities created by technologically networked communications. There are new, different ways to create change using words now.


I think your application of the "network of pipes and switches" metaphor to personal and social psychology is creative and thought-provoking. I'm not sure, however, that it is necessary for--or even helpful in--generating social change.

You first argue that "understanding our subjective experience is shaped . . . by information-processing and transmitting units within us" that "we don't perceive helps us think in productive ways. We realize that our views are shaped by unconscious biases, and that our thinking can be influenced by context." While this sounds good, these are hardly novel ideas--in fact, I think it would be difficult to find people who don't believe that unconscious biases and context affect human thought. So, this begs the question what value the network metaphor adds. Moreover, even if the network metaphor somehow lifts people out of the darkness and makes them aware of their unconscious biases and the importance of context, what guarantees that the the step after enlightenment will be "productive thinking." Isn't it possible that people will just confirm their unconscious biases with conscious ones and consciously use context to justify their previous beliefs?

Second, you discuss the benefits of the presumption of regularity that the network metaphor permits. But, you presume that such a presumption is beneficial or warranted. Are you suggesting that, based on our genes and memories, we act in generally predictable or inevitable ways? If so, what accounts for deviations in this predictability? And, if deviations become qualitatively or quantitatively significant, doesn't this call into question the "regularity" of individual psychology?

Finally, you argue that thinking about brains and societies using the network metaphor opens up possibilities for technology-driven (and accelerated) social change, and you cite the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring as examples. With respect to the Arab Spring, it strikes me as a gross oversimplification of complex socio-political dynamics to somehow credit Facebook or online memes with widespread social upheaval (especially when, as Moglen noted, social-media is as much a weapon of State as it is a tool of the protestor). Even if we agree that technology played a key role in facilitating the uprisings across the Arab world, I'm not sure why we need your metaphor. While it's possible the "psychological law" of thousands of people changed, it seems just as likely that technology merely provided an end-around the traditional obstacles to organizing opposition in an authoritarian state. As to the Occupy Movement, it's again unclear how the "law" changed. Indeed, there is nothing "new" about the ideas or rhetoric underpinning the Movement. Resenting the "wealthy," blaming capitalism in times of economic difficulty, villainizing corporations, failing to offer any real or feasible solutions--these are more the tired talking points of the far left than the novel arguments of a new social movement. Again, even if we agree that technology somehow "changed the law," whether meaningful social change will occur is another matter. In Egypt, there's no guarantee that Mubarak will be replaced with a liberal regime that acknowledges, much less protects, the freedoms and rights we like to think are universal. If anything, the opposite seems more likely. And, the Occupy protestors have achieved little more than antagonizing the police, inconveniencing people who work in "occupied" areas, and supplying the 24 hour news outlets with a few weeks' worth of material.

-- MatthewLadner - 11 Jan 2012

Do social networks actually change minds? Or, is it about reducing the cost of organization / provide information / identify opportunities to gather and protest, etc. What is the power of a social network to persuade? I guess intuitively it has some power, but I'd like to see if there's any empirical measurement of that happening.

-- BahradSokhansanj - 12 Jan 2012


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r16 - 07 Sep 2012 - 16:43:33 - IanSullivan
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