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Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions

Author: Ned Rossiter
Publisher: Rotterdam, Netherlands: NAi Publishers, 2006
Review Published: February 2008

 REVIEW 1: Daren C. Brabham

First, I thank Daren Brabham for his interest in my book and for providing a concise overview of the book's central lines of inquiry. Thanks also to RCCS and David Silver for the space and air-time. It's a relief to read that Brabham considered the text well-written and copy-edited! I'm sure many of us hold anxieties about our writing. So I thank Daren for those kind words. That he considers the book not ideally suitable for undergraduate and MA students is something I'm inclined, I guess not surprisingly, to disagree with. I've heard the book has been set as a text for cultural and media studies students in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands. I gather architecture students have also picked up on it. And in self-interested fashion, I used it as a text in a new media module I taught in an MA in International Media Studies where half the students were from China. It seemed to work out fine.

Organized Networks sets out to think the possibility of new institutional forms immanent to the culture of networks. My curiosity was, and remains, how social-political organization within networked settings might be understood in terms of the invention of new institutional forms. In this sense, there is a debt to medium theory, particularly the work of Harold A. Innis. Thus I would slightly amend Brabham's reading that collaborative practices within network cultures focus on "formation rather than form." Formation corresponds with my analysis of the processual relations through which expression emerges. Form, on the other hand, furnishes the contours of expression as it subsists with the social-technical dynamics of digital media. How these relations coalesce as distinct networks situated within and against broader geopolitical forces becomes a primary challenge for networks desiring scalar transformation -- a movement that also consists of trans-institutional relations whose antagonisms define "the political."

Here, the problem of translation across and within a network of networks becomes one of the key difficulties for transnational collaboration. How might resources created within any particular network be adapted and recombined by another? Not only are there distinct linguistic-cultural differences that delimit one network from another, there is also the grammar of networks to consider: socialities of communication, formats of code, techniques of governance, materialities of investigation, etc. Spatial distributions and temporal rhythms further complicate the capacity for networks to undergo scalar shifts in such a way that corresponds with what Mary Kaldor and Chantal Mouffe loosely term "global civil society" networks [1]. The singular qualities of network cultures underpin my contestation with political theorists invested in reinvigorating democracy as we know it. I signal my doubts about persisting with models of democracy, especially when they are simplistically grafted on to the Internet. E-democracy? No thanks. Given that representative models of democracy frequently correspond with modern institutions of the nation-state -- institutions that I argue are in crisis -- I continue to wonder how appropriate the burden of democratic theory is to describe the political culture of embryonic institutional forms within networked settings. My preference is for a non-representational politics constituted, as Brabham notes, through relations rather than procedures. This poses significant challenges for the governance of networks, and the way these are handled again play out on a case by case basis.

The period of network cultures as new institutional forms is still very much under construction [2]. The speed and intensity of their development is best understood, in my view, from anthropological perspectives. I tend to think that organized networks (new institutions) are more likely to emerge when relatively small numbers of participants (certainly not millions) situated about local problematics combine with the Internet's transnational capacities along with practices of adaptation (the "remix") that define digital culture.

Some of the criticisms, or at least queries, the book has attracted elsewhere have consisted of insufficient examples of organized networks. Certainly the book's analytical emphasis is on prevailing conditions that give rise to organized networks. In the introduction to the book I discuss how the structural arrangement of the neoliberal university coupled with the experience of immaterial labor operates as a constituent force in the creation of autonomous education initiatives, which I consider vital examples of organized networks. Such initiatives have blossomed across Europe in recent years, often connected with social movements organized around the precarious experience of post-Fordist labor [3]. Elsewhere, the massive alternative schooling movement in South Korea and the self-organization of domestic workers in Hong Kong turn around a logic of networks that address a specific field of forces [4]. In the US Trebor Scholz's guiding work on the Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC) comes to mind [5]. The Sarai media lab in Delhi would be another example [6].

Another example of an emergent institutional form would be the OrgNets' mobile research laboratory I coordinated in Beijing last summer [7]. Formulated as a counter-mapping of the creative industries in Beijing, the project was interested in the multiple idioms through which Beijing's creative industries might be understood and, indeed, made different on a micro-scale. Departing from the "cookie-cutter" script of mapping the creative industries according to statistics on economic productivity, as championed by the likes of Richard Florida, this experiment in collaborative urban-media research attended to variables absent from most policy rhetoric and academic research on entrepreneurial or creative cities. At the level of plan, the project was organized around the following vectors of research: migrant networks and service labor; network ecologies of creative waste; informational geographies vs. creative clusters; centrality of real-estate speculation for creative economies; import cultures & export innovations in architecture and urban design; artist villages and market engineering.

Certainly these topics were investigated in a preliminary sense, but in many ways what came to pass was a tension between concept and practice. In this respect, the project embodied one of the key themes I pick up on in my book: namely, the way in which the sociality and communicative relations within networks frequently are underscored by instantiations of "the political." Such antagonisms define the borders of networks and the limits of collaboration. At one level such tensions come about through the encounter between the hierarchical or vertical dimensions of networks and the horizontal, distributive layer of communication that is frequently, and mistakenly, attributed an ontological status within new media research. And then there's the contingencies of life.


  1. Mary Kaldor, Global Civil Society: An Answer to War, Cambridge: Polity, 2003; and Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

  2. See Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, "Dawn of the Organised Networks," Fibreculture Journal 5 (2005).

  3. See, for instance, the Edu-Factory and Summit: Non-Aligned Initiatives in Education Culture. See also: http://del.icio.us/raduniv/

  4. For a list of some of these schools, see: http://activelearning.or.kr/SiteLink/link.asp. I discuss the case of domestic workers in the following brief text: Ned Rossiter, "A Hierarchy of Networks?, or, Geo-Culturally Differentiated Networks and the Limits of Collaboration," posting to edu-factory mailing list, 18 January 2008.

  5. http://distributedcreativity.org

  6. http://www.sarai.net

  7. http://orgnets.net

    Ned Rossiter

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