May 21 2009

between arc and node

by at 4:13 pm

I often tend to isolate myself, and, subsequently, my ideas. But upon reading Nexus, I was reminded that even if I were to keep totally to myself, without any social relationships at all, I would not exist in a networkless vacuum.When I began to map out a rough network of my intellectual life, I found that I was focusing on those close to me, and that I was forming a very dense web, populated mostly by tight clusters of individuals. These clusters reflected the groups with which I have been involved, including my family, teachers from high school through college and graduate school, and some of my closest friends. It was only at these last nodes of my network, the friends that I have gathered from our collaborations in music, poetry, art, research, and social life, with whom I remain in touch, that some of the weaker links between members of my network began to emerge, filling in many voids in my network.

I remembered more of these clusters, of which I had been a part or to which I had been loosely linked. I found relationships between members of my family, for example, and close friends, with whom I had ended up at the same school, through whom I had met a close but geographically distant friend. I saw the sudden emergence of institutions I had thought external to my network. I realized, looking back at the myriad examples of small worlds and networks in Nexus, that not only are we each linked as human beings through these relationships, but that the same kinds of relationships exist between disciplines like the music, poetry, art, and research of which I had been thinking. The balance between random chaos and perfect order to which Buchanan so often refers became, itself, a powerful, beautiful inspiration.

However, I was also struck by a peculiar turn of rhetoric that kept slipping into my own conceptualization of these relationships. Once I had begun thinking in terms of networks and complexity, I found it hard to break with the spatial metaphors on which such terms often draw: network itself is fundamentally a spatial-visual construct. Recognizing this, I tried to become more critical of my own use of these terms. It is possible, after all, that even a “groundbreaking” theory can lock its proponents into rigid ways of thinking; how much more possible is this for a persuasive and elegant theory that very closely resembles a theory of the universal? Though complexity is a seductive and powerful mode of analysis, avoiding many of the traps of both strictly linear, causative logic and “chaos theory”, it still has its faults, and the reliance on spatial metaphors to explain abstractions is one of these.

There is a strong sense that those who took place in the negotiations to form the Washington Consensus used a much less densely-populated network than they could have, where either connections or actors relevant to the negotiations and to their outcomes were ignored, relegated to a void. Concurrently, the powerful institutional forces represented themselves as central to the network of negotiators and decision-makers, taking western liberal-democracy capitalism as an ideal economic model to which any country in crisis could aspire, although in spatial-metaphor terms, their model was largely peripheral to those towards whom the outcomes of their decisions were directed. Finally, there were connections both formed and broken during these proceedings, including the important ideological connections between, for example, fiscal policy discipline with privatization.

It seems that the most critical engagement we can make by using network theory and a view towards holistic complexity in terms of analysis and policy recommendations is to refine already-existing networks, finding what we had missed in earlier descriptions, and adjusting our views of the underlying structure of relations to reflect what actually exists, so that our implicit critiques and ideological assertions can be most effectively and accurately applied. In other words, our process must always be a dynamic one, not only stepping back to see a bigger picture (so to speak), but also moving closer to examine subtle details, and changing our perspective “horizontally” as well, so that we do not rely on a fixed center in our conception of the socio/political/economic world network, but are able to recognize when such centers shift, and to react with grace.

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