The Amplification of Networks
Over the period of the last ten to fifteen years a number of significant changes have taken place that have affected the dynamics of knowledge production and consumption. To begin to understand the compound effects of these changes, the question we should ask is; how have these changes affected our everyday practices of knowledge creation, distribution and consumption? If we were to view these practices in relation to the legitimacy of authority, we would quickly conclude that a significant shift has taken place. The dissatisfaction that has been clearly demonstrated throughout the world with certain types of social, political and economic structures (from the Arab Spring at a global level, to the current revitalised interest in shareholder responsibility at a local one) has marked a clear change in our passive acceptance of traditional command and control structures. Many would argue that this change has been made possible through the emergent use of social media platforms, and sure enough, the inception and growth of these platforms maps conveniently across the timeframe under consideration. But this analysis, in the first instance, appears to be too convenient; are there other, more fundamental elements, that should be considered when attempting to analyse these changes?
Over the last 30 years the eminent sociologist Manuel Castells has been studying the development of new social structures that he defines as integral to the emergence of what he has described as a network society. The network society is conceptualised by Professor Castells to incorporate networks in all the key dimensions of social organisation and political, economic and technological practice. By empirically studying the ‘contours of these social and organizational arrangements on a global scale, I ended up with a series of specific analyses on different dimensions of the network society that appeared to be coherent, so that together they provided a canvas of interpretation of events and trends that at first sight seemed to be disjointed.’ According to Professor Castells, the basis for this insight has been a radical change in our experience of space and time. In the last century developments in communication (from the telegraph and the telephone to the internet and cellular networks) have transformed our perceptual relationship with traditional spatial and temporal coordinates. What Professor Castells refers to as the space of flows (the material support of simultaneous social practices communicated at a distance) and timeless time (the systematic perturbation in the sequential order of the social practices in a given context) form the basis of this transformation and the foundation of the network society.
If what Professor Castells has identified is true, then the change we have witnessed over the last couple of years represents the tip of an otherwise significant process of change. The foundation of a network society, that can fundamentally change the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge, has already shown that it has the capacity to manifest new forms of social organisation, and therefore, news modes of collective action. The relatively short history of social media platforms is the first tentative step in the process of exploiting this foundation and the potential its networks create. What other new modes of production and distribution can be created through the amplification of these networks currently remains unknown, but all the signs suggest that a radically new landscape of collective intelligence is emerging and that our current experience of social media is just the beginning.