Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Writing as Network Enterprise

Manuel Castells' book The Rise of the Network Society continues to inform my understanding of a Connectivist rhetoric, though my reading has been incredibly slow over the past month or two. I've had way too many distractions.

Anyway, Castells' discussion of the emergence of the network enterprise has clarified my understanding of the socio-linguistic ecosystem that informs writing. Castells defines the network enterprise as that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is constituted by the intersection of segments of autonomous systems of goals (187). I understand him to mean that a networked enterprise (he is speaking almost exclusively of business organizations) organizes itself and conducts its business through various segments of autonomous networks that are available to the enterprise but not owned or controlled by the enterprise.

At first glance, this may not seem like much of an insight. Haven't organizations always used autonomous networks such as highways, waterways, airways, mail systems, and so forth to do their business? They have, but something has shifted in the past few decades. The biggest shift is, of course, the emergence of the Internet – the distribution of millions of interconnected computers. The Internet provides a new, highly capable, very flexible, and autonomous substrate that allows organizations of any kind or purpose to organize themselves on most any scale and to interconnect in most any way with markets: researchers, suppliers, producers, transporters, customers, regulators, and information.

The Internet also makes explicit to most everyone exposed to it the networked structure of human interaction. Transportation systems and postal systems were also networked structures, also mostly autonomous of any one business enterprise, but for whatever reason, those networks lacked the visual or emotional impact to knock most people from their focus on the individual, at least in Western culture. We could continue to think of Microsoft as mostly Bill Gates, WalMart as Sam Walton, and the United States as JFK or Ronald Reagan.

This viewpoint is hardly sustainable in a networked enterprise. The Internet makes the network explicit to all because it connects all to all. In the old industrial enterprises, only the top management could see and connect to the entire organization. Only they could see how the whole hierarchy fit together. Most people in the hierarchy, certainly the mass of workers, saw and connected only to a handful of others and only to very little information. Today, even workers connect to others both inside and outside the enterprise, and they are more aware of the scope and reach and intricate network nature of their organizations and their place within that network. Moreover, their place in the enterprise is becoming more fluid. No longer do we all have jobs that are discrete positions on an unchanging organizational chart with static duties. Organizations are more flexible, jobs are more fluid, and this flexible fluidity requires a greater awareness on the part of each person of not only their current position within the organization but also their trajectory through the organization.

Thus, as Castells demonstrates quite thoroughly, the convergence of organizational change with technological change has led to new kinds of enterprises, which he calls networked enterprises. These new enterprises make explicit for everyone from CEOs to janitors the network reality of business. Or government, or religion, or education. My hat is off to businesses for capitalizing on these new structures more quickly than have governments, churches, and schools.

So what does this have to do with rhetoric, writing in particular? Well, writing has always been a network phenomenon, but as with business enterprises, that network has been somewhat obscured by the hierarchical structures within which writing took place and by our own intellectual, social, and emotional biases in favor of the individual. On the most sophisticated level, writing was a hierarchical, industrial process with clearly defined jobs: writer, editor, typographer, typesetter, printer, bookseller, reader/consumer, etc. Even in classes, the job of the student writer was quite distinct from the teacher grader, and seldom were the student and teacher in a real conversation that was meaningful to either of them as a conversation rather than a graded exercise. Even writing a letter home to Mom through the postal system (a network) was obscured by the disconnect between the discrete processes of writing the letter, transporting the letter, and reading the letter. Today, people text each other, and they feel (I don't think most of them think about it) connected to the processes of composing, transporting, reading, and responding. Or a better way to say this is that people now see writing as the coherent, systematic, mostly social interaction between networked nodes that it has always been at heart. We'll explore later how to make this mostly social interaction more academic and intellectual.

By the way, I think this coherence of writing/reading as a unified social transaction is the root reason why people are so attached to texting. When writing connects people to their peeps and to their info, then they come to value writing. This is a value and an energy that schools and teachers have yet to capitalize upon. Shame on us.

Then, writing as a network phenomenon makes use of an autonomous substrate known as language. I use English. I don't own English and I don't control it. If I did, then English would quickly become useless as an environment within which millions of people (network nodes) can connect to other people and information sources (other network nodes) to do the work and play of society. This substrate has rules (grammar), as does the Internet (TCP/IP), that are fairly reliable in the sense that no single person or entity (not Apple or Google or English Teachers) can change them for everyone else but that are flexible in the sense that the group as a whole can modify them if a sufficiently compelling reason emerges. Internal use rather than any standard of external merit or appropriateness determines the rules.

Moreover, the substrate is almost infinitely malleable, so that a particular subgroup (say, lawyers or redheaded, left-handed skateboarders) can create their own localized language to facilitate organizing themselves and conducting their affairs. This is quite similar to how organizations will create their own virtual networks over the substrate of the Internet. Here is the reason for network neutrality. If the Internet does not remain autonomous in the sense described here, then it will cease to be a sufficient substrate for all of us. We should expect various entities – governments, businesses, churches, schools – to try to dominate the Internet (or English) and to dictate what is proper to it and how it can be used, but if any group ever captures control of either the Internet or English, then both will be finished as adequate substrates for cultural evolution and progress. Fortunately, most networks have the ability to identify any nodes that attempt to calcify the network into a rigid, authoritarian, hierarchical structure, and the network can isolate those nodes and flow around them.