My presentation to the WittgensteinSociety
Originally DOC file at http://www.nooranch.com/synaesmedia/academic/netocracy_format.doc
From netocracy to network-shaped thinking
In their book "Netocracy" (Bard 2002) Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist look forward to a post-capitalist economic system where the ruling class is composed of those whose primary activity is the manipulation and trading of "links" (understood as both social connections and access to information sources) rather than the buying and selling of property. This attempt to work out the consequences of a genuine link-based economy distinguishes their work from similar theories of the information society.
In this paper, I explain some of the netocratic theory and attempt to follow a lead indicated by the authors which claims that the concept of "knowledge" itself will change under netocracy. I argue that knowledge is becoming increasingly "network shaped" in that position of participants within the network is becoming a significant consideration while the netocrat's need to maintain the connections begins to outweigh considerations of the value of individual beliefs.
What is Netocracy?
Netocracy is the English name of the book by Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist, published in Swedish in 2000 that attempts to fit many observed phenomena of the information age into a coherent framework.
Bard and Söderqvist's avowed intention is to argue against two common views of the late 1990s. The first is a skeptical view that the arrival of a widespread ubiquitous digital information network is not a significant event, but merely a continuation of business (or capitalism) as usual; the other, a techno-utopian view that the new information technologies will revitalize a liberal democratic ideal by giving everyone equal access to information, equal economic opportunities and equal participation in a more civil society.
The authors' contention is that there is, indeed, a radical shift to a genuinely post-capitalist economic mode, analogous to the shift from feudalism to capitalism; and that much of the ideological superstructure of the world will be reconfigured as a result. However, far from being a utopia, the new economic mode will continue to feature distinct economic classes, inequality will be exacerbated, secrecy will be rife, and an elite minority will oppress and exploit a powerless majority.
The basis of the new economic order will be a new kind of wealth, understood not in terms of ownership of property, but in terms of connections - especially membership of privileged networks and exclusive access to sources of information and other resources. Naturally, such things are already highly valued under capitalism, but today they are still secondary to material wealth.
In Bard and Söderqvist's view, as the transition from capitalism to netocracy progresses, power will increasingly shift away from the capitalists to the connection-rich "netocrats" who will be able to acquire capital, as and when needed. But capital itself will hold decreasing attraction.
A key insight of Bard and Söderqvist, one which sets their story apart from many similar accounts, is that in addition to selling connections and attention1 for money (an activity they call "exploitation") the netocrat will also trade in connections and access to acquire further connections and access (an activity they call "imploitation").
This is the hallmark of the netocrat : just as the capitalist can invest capital in a venture to acquire more capital, so a netocrat will manage her portfolio of links with the explicit aim of increasing them. She will introduce A to B in order to strengthen her connection with both of them. She will tell C about an obscure but valuable resource in the hope that next week he will return the favour.
Of course, this is nothing new. Just as buying and selling of property existed long before capitalism, so the art of networking existed long before netocracy. What is new, is the weight that this activity carries in the new economy.
Contrasted with the netocracy is an underclass (or "consumtariat" in Bard and Söderqvist's terminology), relegated to producing and consuming more or less at the whim of the netocrat.
The evidence for Netocracy
There are several things which make the Bard and Söderqvist account plausible, or at least add some verisimilitude to their narrative.
Netocracy is not specifically an "internet theory" but rings true to many trends in the media and entertainment industries where journalists must cultivate both their sources, editors must know who to call when they need the story, and designers, session musicians, proof-readers etc. must all continually worry about staying in with the right people in a system evolved to efficiently primarily to route the attention of the end reader or viewer (consumtariat) to the advertiser.
Although the book says relatively little about the specifics of the web, in the seven years since the book was published, the web has thrown up many telling examples of phenomena highly compatible with Netocratic theory. The search engine Google has popularized the notion that links have value and through its AdSense service, created a accessible market for trading attention for money. There has been an explosion of both self-publishing tools such as weblogs (allowing individuals to act like media organizations) and social networking sites.
In summary, the definitive characteristic of the web in its second decade is the shift from being a medium primarily for distributing "content" (text documents, sound or image files) to a tool for people to manage their portfolio of an increasing number and variety of social connections.
Information as oppression
Turning to the darker side of the informationist economy, the authors diagnose the use of information overload as weapon of oppression. The netocrat is a child of a time when the capacity of electronic networks to pipe raw information has outstripped the capacity of the recipients to interpret and judge its worth.
Consider, for example, a 24-hour television news channel, which must produce 24 hours of news each day, regardless of whether there's anything interesting going on in the world. For this channel, the value of the news to the viewer is nearly irrelevant. It only matters that the news is able to hook the audience not "importance" or "veracity".
For the poor viewer there is no respite, never enough time to take stock and analyze the situation fully. So the media always has some prepackaged comment and interpretation available.
This is the zone in which the netocrat operates. Her role is to continuously find new sources of information through her network of contacts. But when the information is truly valuable, the netocrat may not immediately sell it on to the consumtariat but initially "imploit" it - i.e. invest it to strengthen existing connections that will provide access to yet more valuable resources in the future. Only when the netocrats have extracted what imploitational value is to be had from the knowledge, and it is commonly enough known so as not to have much leverage for further bargaining, do they hand it down to the consumtariat as the "next big thing". By that time, of course, in order for the consumtariat to know that it is the next big thing, the netocrats will have to have done sufficient work digesting, packaging and interpreting it.
I hope the above account and examples will have sufficiently driven our intuitions to understand that the netocrat depends on flows of ever new and changing information. The cultivation of networks to find the new flows is the netocrat's "work" within this economy; while the overload of information that is its by-product, helps to keep a consumtariat underclass passive.
Knowledge and Information in Netocracy
Bard and Söderqvist's characterize the netocrat as philosophically "mobilist" (The purpose of such a philosophy is not to answer questions but to keep thought supple by always finding new questions lurking within the existing ones.) The mobilist rejects any "fixed point" or stable world view.
This fits the economic requirements of the netocrat who seeks a constant supply of novel information streams. Her position is more or less equivalent to the capitalist manufacturer who does not want to see the day when customers feel they have "enough". The netocrat needs there to be a general EpistemicInstability, where the only thing that other agents (both consumtariat and rival netocrats) can be sure of is that what they know today will be out-of-date tomorrow if they don't keep paying attention to her.
Networks become a significant organizing metaphor for how we think about the world2. Of most interest to us here is how the metaphor of the network is permeating our thinking about knowledge and how knowledge is starting to look increasingly "network-shaped" as we enter the new economic mode.
The most conspicuous attribute of a network-shaped theory of knowledge is that position within the network is significant. In the pre-netocratic world, the same knowledge is, in principle, available to everyone. Nature can be independently investigated. Results of scientific experiments can be corroborated or falsified by another scientist who repeats the experiment.
Critiques of this assumption can be made by arguing that the types of agents are significant and that perhaps knowledge must be considered relative to type. Knowledge may not, for example, be the same for women as for men, or for the indigenous peoples of Amazonia as for the citizens of Paris.3
This kind of structuration of the population by agent-type is not what I would call "network-shaped". But we can imagine a different kind of structuration where all members of the population are (potentially) identical, but where, nevertheless, their position within a network structure creates different knowledge effects. If such was our model, network topology would become a crucial issue for epistemic explanation.
I believe we are starting to see exactly such models appearing in certain social and organizational sciences.
One example Ronald S. Burt's studies of the correlation between the quality of ideas produced by an organization's employees, and the employee's position within a social network inside the company. (Burt 2003, 2004) Good ideas are had by those who play a brokerage role, spanning the "structural holes" between dense clusters that are otherwise disconnected.
Intuitively we see why. The broker is possessed of a rare perspective; he has access to the knowledge in both clusters. And so he alone has the opportunity to match the problems of one cluster with the solutions of the other. Note that this goes beyond simply observing the number of links an employee has; another employee may have more links, but because all come from other employees within the same cluster, he enjoys no special insights or new perspectives from these links. Hence topology and position explain the goodness of the ideas better than the intrinsic properties of the agent4.
This research illustrates a shift in thinking that is occurring across many of the social sciences. Network topology is increasingly invoked in explanations while the characteristics of the individual or the social type are downplayed.
A second example, the use of networks, both social and other to find good information. Google's PageRank is one example. Pages that are the recipient of many in-links are considered as having higher importance than others.5 In fact, as people try to "optimize" (i.e. cheat) Google's system, the PageRank algorithm is continuously modified. So, in fact, it is only in-links of the right type, from the right sources that count. Meanwhile, trusted social networks are offered as the solution for filtering spam, finding appropriate product recommendations and
Bard and Söderqvist's Netocracy theory doesn"t appear to have become popular in the English speaking world, but seems to offer a coherence that is missing from some accounts of the emerging information society. (In addition their work covers many parts of society not mentioned in the current paper.)
Their working out of some of the details and implications of a true link-based economy is intriguing. And the ongoing technological and social evolutions on the web seem to be corroborating their ideas. If they are right, then many of the institutions and ideas of the modern, capitalist era may be challenged and radically transformed. This includes the knowledge producing institutions such as the academy and the media.
Central to their thinking is that the ruling class will arise through their aptitude for managing, trading and filtering information streams, while the underclass have little control over the streams to which they are connected, and are effectively bamboozled into subservience. The netocrats use all the tools and abilities of managing network connections to both protect themselves from the overload, and to search for valuable new resources. They will value novelty and dynamism for its own sake, above any intrinsic value knowledge has. And, to a certain extent, their evaluation of knowledge will depend on the network of connections it forms. In a world ruled by netocrats, knowledge dynamics becomes more valuable than most products that knowledge can deliver.
Bard, Alexander, Söderqvist, Jan 2002 Netocracy : The New Power Elite and Life After Capitalism, Reuters
Burt, Ronald S. , 2003 Social Origin of Good Ideas, draft. Published as
Burt, Ronald S. , 2004 Structural Holes and Good Ideas, American Journal of Sociology, volume 110 (2004), pages 349–399
Goldhaber, Michael H., 1997, The Attention Economy and the Net, First Monday : http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue2_4/goldhaber/