What is the universe, and what might it want? Obviously, I’ve no idea. But we’re mythopoetic creatures, and even the humblest among us cannot help but weave stories about what we are, where we are, and what we might do in response. We live inside these woven stories like cocoons suspended in oblivion.
The philosophy of networks coming into being through the work of Christopher Vitale is one such story. It is a networkological metaphysics, in that when it zooms out as far as imaginably possible to survey the universe, it sees a network.
Metaphysics are necessarily imaginal exercises. They cannot be tested, proved, or verified anymore than we can learn every last secret of the cosmos. But they might be the most important stories we tell, for they are the arbiters of possibility, the groundwork of imagination, and the garden walls of human life. Metaphysics are our storied maps of the universe, and being mythopoetic creatures, we are also map-bound creatures. Our evolving potentials in the world are products of our jumping from map to map, from metaphysic to metaphysic. Each map posing a new terrain of possibility, new potentials realized through new networked relations to the universe.
Couple our basic mythopoetic nature with the postmodern deconstruction of all belief, and you get modernity. A culture espousing metaphysics by default. That is, since we disavow metaphysics in favor of empirically verifiable stories, our metaphysics are stuffed into the unconscious, where they’ve blended with the discourse of capitalism to produce an unconsciously enacted metaphysics of capital. This is what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism — the total colonization of reality, imagination, and thus possibility, by capitalist dynamics.
Vitale’s Networkology provides a new metaphysics, a new map adjacent to our presently deteriorating metaphysics of capital, a possibility to realize new potentials before our present ways of living erode whatever potential for sustainable and wholesome futures we have left.
What Do Networks Want?
Imagining the universe as fundamentally networked is to recast everything in networkological terms. It is to understand the unfolding of the universe and the patterns of evolution as deriving from the logic of networks. So, in the same way that God’s will was once believed to be the inmost driver of events in the universe, the logic of networks is seen as this inmost will.
It’s possible to give a very deep, thorough, and complex explanation of what networks are, their governing logic, and their dynamics. But I’m less interested in doing so than taking Vitale’s work — where he does precisely this — as a preface to my own interest: how a philosophy of networks opens up avenues beyond the existential vacuity of postmodern capitalism, offering a set of stories and values that might help reconstitute our ways of living in the 21st century such that we pivot from extractive, zombified livelihoods to regenerative, vitalized, creative, diversified, and richer ways of relating to our ecosystem, and ultimately being in the world.
So. We all have a basic intuition of what networks are. Networks are complex systems of wholes and parts, nodes and links, interwoven at multiple levels of scale. Woven topologies of relation.
The more potent question is what do networks want? What is the parallel of ‘God’s will’ in a networkological universe? To understand the patterns of network behavior is to understand the patterns underlying the unfolding of our universe.
Vitale writes that networks want one thing: robustness. He defines robustness as the sustainable emergence of complexity:
“…it is this ability to develop in new and more intense ways, to adapt to changes and rework themselves, not only in terms of quantity but also of quality, which makes complex systems truly unique…When complex systems grow and develop in sustainable relation to their environments, this is…robustness…[While] The valuation of robustness, or the sustainable emergence of complexity, is implicit in much of complex systems science…it will be the explicit ground of the ethics of the networkological project.”
Something interesting happens to familiar notions of evolution and survival when you recast history as a patterned unfolding of the networkological drive for robustness. Evolution’s preference for survival gets subsumed into a larger story. Survival is no longer some intrinsic incentive of the universe, just a particularly salient obstacle the networked universe faces in its larger project of sustainably emerging complexity.
This casts survival as a problem to be surmounted rather than an undying drive woven into the cosmic fabric. Survival becomes a developmental stage embedded in the larger structure of pursuing the sustainable emergence of complexity.
To nudge this all towards post-capitalist possibilities, let’s pair this up with a speculation from the great economist, John Maynard Keynes. He predicted that by 2030, humankind might solve what he called the ‘economic problem’. The economic problem is the survival obstacle. Tinkering with humankind’s material relation to the universe so as to afford stable, sustainable access to all that’s necessary to survive and participate in society.
“I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race.”
The prospect of ‘solving’ the economic problem worried Keynes, because as organisms, thousands of years of instincts and mechanisms designed specifically for survival are caked into our psyches. Solving the economic problem is like a hammer smashing the last nail in the universe into a thick wooden beam, now forced to orient itself to a world devoid of all nails.
But from a networkological perspective, this isn’t so. Rather than casting us out into a spiritual vacuum, solving the economic problem liberates us to participate in new layers of emergent complexity.
Keynes worries how we might adjust to such a fundamentally new endeavor:
“Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.”
And this is precisely why now is such an exciting time to be alive. Because Keynes is right, such a situation seems to call for nothing less than a new kind of human being. Conveniently, we exist at just such a juncture where networks are cracking the old cultural factories that molded us as human beings. The inquiry into what humans are, and might become is reopening.
We live, as philosopher Zak Stein puts it, in a time between worlds. Networks are making possible new ways of relating and connecting with one another, new ways of educating ourselves and new mediums for creativity. Stein believes these new networked means of organization and education are precisely how new varieties of human beings emerge:
“Groups can change society by establishing alternate modes of education; new modes of education shape the future of all political and economic life because they involve the creation of a new kind of human.”
Or take Paul Mason, author of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Mason, too, sees emergent networks as the catalyst for a new kind of human being that might constitute a post-capitalist future already taking shape in the present:
“we…cannot imagine the kind of human beings society will produce once economics is no longer central to life. But we can see their prefigurative forms in the lives of young people all over the world breaking down 20th-century barriers around sexuality, work, creativity and the self…Capitalism … will be abolished by creating something more dynamic, that exists at first unseen within the old system, but which breaks through, reshaping the economy around new values, behaviors, and norms. As with feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s demise will be accelerated by external shocks, and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being, and it has started.”
In these interstitial cracks between the old vanguards of capitalist life, traditional schools, careers, and well-worn life paths, something is emerging. A sentiment, a cultural philosophy interested in more than survival. A complexifying of the potentialities of life.
Where the metaphysics of capital offers no guidance for quality of life beyond capital accumulation, Vitale’s networkology advises us to increasingly manifest the conditions in which networks achieve robustness:
“…this project advocates the development of those factors which promote the spontaneous and sustainable emergence of robust forms of complexity. From what the study of robust systems in physical, biological, and cultural worlds seems to indicate, these factors include diversity and differing to the maximum degree possible without destroying ourselves, and meta-stable conditions which keep us on our toes yet with a safety-net to make risk taking by all creative rather than threatening.”
Culling from elsewhere in the book, the factors of robustness include:
- Diversity and differing
- Distributed organization
- Meta-stable conditions that encourage creative risk taking
- Feedback between aspects and their environment
Meeting these conditions enables a network to sustainably emerge increasingly layered forms of complexity. Aligning our actions with these principles is, in a sense, the ‘highest good’. It’s the same as serving God’s will in the context of more traditional metaphysics. Or, in terms of postmodern capitalist metaphysics, anything that generates that hallowed abstraction: growth.
“When all these conditions are met, not only will a system spontaneously self-organize to greater complexity, it will generally continue to do so, at least until one of these factors begins to fall out of sync with the others.”
Diversity and Differing
To understand why maximum degrees of diversity and differing are desirable, consider evolution. Evolution occurs, essentially, by throwing millions of random mutations against the wall of survival and seeing what sticks. The wider the array of mutations, the more possibilities there are for one to arise that’s beneficial, and sticky.
“In physical or living systems, each mutation or modification is an attempt to pose a new answer to the question of how to survive, thrive, or continue and grow in the world…”
Naturally, we want as many different answers as possible in order to most thoroughly explore the open-ended question of how to thrive. From this perspective, the last thing the universe requires is a proliferation of humans who watch the same shows, consume the same media, and reliably pay their mortgages. Far more valuable to the project of robustness is existential creativity.
Existential creativity is electric, vibrant, and robust. But it appears at odds with the forces at play in modern culture. From Antonio Gramasci’s critique of cultural hegemony to Adorno & Horkheimer’s critique of the culture industry, a specter of standardization, homogeneity, and mass-produced minds haunts modernity.
Market logic is like a liquid capable of passing through any channel, reaching deeper and farther into the modern psyche. As markets flow deeper into the source code of modernity, subjecting different domains of our lives to the same underlying logic, cultures of diversity give way to standardized market incentives. Culture converges into repeatable forms that optimize for capital, and thereby minimize difference. On Stephen West’s podcast episode covering the Frankfurt School, he explains:
“When you link the market to culture, when you turn works of art into products the market is going to consume, cultural products … start to resemble all the ways OTHER products are. They undergo a process of standardization. The people making the products figure out a formula they can use to create a product they know the masses are going to buy…and then essentially just produce the same products over and over again with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty for the consumer.”
In protest to this cultural standardization, ecosopher Felix Guattari writes of the necessity for a ‘subjectivity of difference’:
“Without the promotion of such a subjectivity of difference, of the atypical, of utopia…Subjectivity disappears into the empty stakes of profit and power. Refusing the status of the current media, combined with a search for new social interactivities, for an institutional creativity and an enrichment of values, would already constitute an important step on the way to a remaking of social practices.”
Crucially, the kind of risk-taking from which existential creativity emerges thrives in conditions of meta-stability, where failure does not threaten the survival instinct.
I’m going to bastardize the term ‘meta-stability’ and adapt it to the context of cultural evolution. I think of meta-stability is the prerequisite for creative deviation from standardizing cultural forces. People within a society converge towards the standard because the standard offers a well-proven path towards managing the economic problem.
Upon graduating from college, one might more readily consider taking a job at a company rather than creative or entrepreneurial pursuits because the former is far more likely to satisfy the survival insecurity of being able to reliably pay one’s future bills.
Standardization thrives in systems that are not meta-stable, which is to say, where there is no guaranteed stability regarding the basic concern of survival and participation in society. These comprise the bottom two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy, and when they are threatened, and come first in most all decision making.
Now, imagine a hypothetically meta-stable society. This means a society where meeting physiological needs, security, and participation in society are default conditions rather than things to be earned. This isn’t too far off from a democratic socialist’s fantasy. Every citizen is guaranteed access to healthcare, receives an unconditional basic income sufficient to afford basic housing, nutritious food, water, and internet access. We might be so bold as to consider further measures — like subsidized teacher pay, student debt cancellation, childcare — because why do people need to own multiple yachts when mothers can’t afford decent childcare?
The point is, upon graduating college (which may or may not be free), the question isn’t so much about “how am I going to reliably earn a paycheck to cover the costs of living for the rest of my life”? Because, increasingly, those costs of living are integrated into the fabric of the socioeconomic system, treated as givens rather than necessities to be earned. The question becomes less about a paycheck, more about “so…what do I want to do with my life?” Our considerations get thrust higher up Maslow’s hierarchy by default.
The latter question, I suspect, leads to more diversity, differing, and creativity than the former. A meta-stable society is one in which the economic problem is marginalized, and ceases to be a pressing concern in the existential decision making of citizens.
Pallid Neoliberal Freedom
The ‘freedom’ on offer in neoliberal capitalist society is not sovereignty. It’s a false hope that functions only to corner behavior into participating in self-enforcing capitalist dynamics. We’re free to choose, so long as we choose capital. We’re free to create our own lives, so long as our lives perform well enough on the market to serve the continued accumulation of capital.
Vitale refers to atomistic (neoliberal) notions of freedom as cancerous in a networked system:
“It is time we began to see both traditional conservatisms and cancerous Neo-conservatisms as…threats to the generation of the sort of growth which makes growth worth striving for. This requires, however that we begin to see the more subtle ways in which conservative and cancerous modalities often structure aspects of the world which we have come to see as the foundations of our own freedoms, such as atomistic notions of individuality or the ‘freedom’ of the market…We need to opt out, stop consuming, start producing new networks for new ways of living, outside and around the systems that continually attempt to addict us for their own ends.”
Here is where networks directly subvert the driving logic of capitalism-to-date. Industrial capitalism is rooted in scarcity. Its value derives from zero-sum games by hoarding slivers of competitive advantage relative to others, and charging for access to that advantage. With networks, particularly the type made possible by the internet, value derives from abundance. The more participants, connected nodes and links on a network, the more valuable the network. Neither is value conceived in terms of each individual node, but the network on the whole.
How might a transition from valuation in scarcity to valuation in abundance ripple out to shake up our systems? I don’t know, but I cannot wait to find out. We really are living in a frozen moment between worlds, a suspended space-time teeming with possibilities, new ways of living strewn across our cultural imagination.
It’s this scrapping of business-as-usual that Guattari sees potentiating our moment in cultural evolution:
“Henceforth it is the ways of living on this planet that are in question, in the context of the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations and of considerable demographic growth. Through the continuous development of machinic labour, multiplied by the information revolution, productive forces can make available an increasing amount of time for potential human activity. But to what end? Unemployment, oppressive marginalisation, loneliness, boredom, anxiety and neurosis? Or culture, creation, development, the reinvention of the environment and the enrichment of modes of life and sensibility?”
The latter ends are networked possibilities. In these liminal spaces, competing futures grapple with institutions of the present. What prevails will depend largely upon what ways of living we network ourselves into. Here’s Paul Mason again:
“Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.”
Again, I do not know what will happen. But on the back of networks, perhaps as a metaphysics, but certainly as a technologically amplified reality of interconnection and collaboration, whatever comes next has the potential to be entirely new. A wholesale evolution beyond scarcity, survival insecurity, and the cannibalistic consumption of our own ecosystem — the single networked self we all comprise.
Beyond survival, matters of greater complexity await. The economic problem has preoccupied our consciousness long enough, molding our mentalities around its survival insecurities. Aligning our culture and ourselves — each of which are instantiations of the other — with networkological principles like diversity and meta-stability might help reconstitute our narrative cocoons to take up more interesting stories than we’ve yet explored.
Our mythopoetic suspension in oblivion now faces the networked potential of becoming far more interesting. We are all nodes in this moment of radical potential, and our networks will beckon the future. It is, indeed, a hell of a time to be alive.
This essay was originally published on my website — www.MusingMind.org. If you dig it, consider joining my newsletter where I share new essays, podcasts, and reading at the nexus of consciousness & culture.