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The Exploit: A Theory of Networks

Author: Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: August 2008

 REVIEW 1: Daniel Gilfillan
 REVIEW 2: Nathaniel Tkacz
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker

Arborescent, pyramidal, rhizomatic, horizontal, centralized, distributed, hierarchical, dispersed, decentralized, autonomous -- these are all descriptors often used to help define the shape and contours of the network, a now ubiquitous concept that has permeated the global mindset along cultural, economic, political, informational, social, biological, and military lines. Although the above is not an exhaustive list, it is one that clearly demarcates the polarities with which these varying networks are consistently approached from within an equally polarized organizational perspective. And rhetoric about networks is more often than not situated within discourses of liberation, connectivity, and potential. In their recent co-authored volume The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, Alexander Galloway, associate professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, and Eugene Thacker, associate professor of new media in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, theorize a contemporary understanding of networks which will account for the existence of systems of control within the distributed networks crucial to globalization, and central to an earlier notion of subversive network resistance that sought to disrupt the central power hubs of the sovereign state. They move the discussion beyond the emancipatory promise of the network to light upon the inherent systems of control and power relations that also inhabit it, and allow it to thrive:
It is foolish to fall back on the tired mantra of modern political movements, that distributed networks are liberating and centralized networks are oppressive. This truism of the Left may have been accurate in previous decades, but must today be reconsidered. To have a network, one needs a multiplicity of "nodes." Yet the mere existence of this multiplicity of nodes in no way implied an inherently democratic, ecumenical, or egalitarian order. Quite the opposite. (13)
In the process of debunking such continued idealistic notions of democratic network potential, Galloway and Thacker locate a renewed sense of networked resistance within the potentiality of the exploit, an opening within the system of control which can be taken advantage of by pliant and vigorous nonhuman actors (the swarm, the flood) that will take their cues from the actions of computer viruses, emergent infectious diseases, and bioterrorism. Let's take a closer look at what all this means.

The Exploit: A Theory of Networks traces the historical development of networks and the tensions that sprout up within them beginning with the disciplinary societies of high modernism and its reliance on centralized and institutional power, through the postmodern with its locale of resistance to these centralized power hubs of modernity and the sovereign state situated within the frame of distributed networks, and on to contemporary control societies and their contradictory use of these same distributed networks as sites of control and modulated freedoms. Galloway and Thacker clearly invoke the work of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in their tracing of these developments, and locate the roots of their own theoretical discussion of networks squarely in the work of Deleuze. In his 1992 essay "Postscript on Societies of Control," Deleuze maps the transition from the sites of confinement and surveillance practices found in Foucault's disciplinary societies to the types of modulated spaces and information tracking of what he refers to as control societies. According to Deleuze, the mark of these control societies is in their dissolution of Foucault's sites of confinement in favor of dispersive systems of control that allow freedom of movement but track behaviors based on access to information. He writes:
The various placements or sites of confinement through which individuals pass are independent variables: we're supposed to start all over again each time [...] Confinements are molds, different moldings, while controls are a modulation, like a self-transmuting molding continually changing from one moment to the next [1].
What Deleuze brings to the surface is a much more nefarious and largely unseen practice of dataveillance, not necessarily concerned with tracking one's physically visible and audible movements, but rather one's informational movements as they relate to patterns in consumer purchases, telecommunications usage, and network access protocols. It is in our movements through network space and the datascaping of these movements that the once idealized spaces of horizontally structured networks begin to break down along the very asymmetrical designs that once allowed the distributed network to be oppositional to the centralized network of the state. The modulated nature of control societies changes this asymmetrical approach to the network to one that Galloway and Thacker see as constructing a newfound network-network symmetry:
A new sovereignty, native to global networks, has recently been established, resulting in a new alliance between "control" and "emergence." Networks exist in a new kind of global universalism, but one coextensive with a permanent state of internal inconsistency and exceptionalism. In this network exception, what is at stake is a newly defined sense of nodes and edges, dots and line, things and events -- networked phenomena that are at once biological and informatic. (22)
In order for the oppositional nature of dispersal to once again be viable against this new network-network symmetry of the distributed network, a new type of asymmetry must be found that takes advantage of the internal inconsistency of the sovereignty-network pairing described above, that finds a new exploit. Galloway and Thacker refer to this new topology of resistance as an "antiweb" and "an exceptional topology" -- both of which are coterminous and internal to the global networks and their paradoxical usage patterns of control and emergence. And they link the emergence of this "antiweb" to the nonhuman elements of all networks (the "bits and atoms" that comprise all organic and inorganic matter), which they rightly claim are "today leveraged as value-laden biomedia for proprietary interests" (22), and which they later will equate with the swarm- and floodlike properties of computer and biological viruses (98-99).

Elaborating on earlier work, Galloway and Thacker tease out this dynamic in their section titled "Nodes," which forms the nodal points and longitudinal depth of the exploit-based network theory they set forth. The authors draw together a variety of examples from computer information science and biological science to demonstrate the ways in which networks require both the highly-structured nature of a hierarchical system of control and the nascent qualities of a decentralized system of distribution [2]. The existence of protocols innate to both informational and biological networks (TCP/IP, http, packet-switching, DNA sequencing, etc.) is a key point for Galloway and Thacker's illustration of how networks within control societies are able to combine these antithetical postulates of control and emergence, of how they can be simultaneously regulatory and free-flowing. By linking together computer informatics and bioinformatics the authors locate a potentially fruitful flaw in the new network-network symmetry for instigating political change within and among networks. This flaw, this exploit, resides in the ambivalence and paradoxical nature that is internal to all networks, in the security and communication protocols that govern computer information networks, and biopolitical/bioinformatic networks. And it is here that the potential of counterprotocol practices becomes apparent for making progressive change possible. The points within these counterprotocol practices provide for a new type of subversive practice to be viable against the network mechanisms of control societies, and help form the crux of Galloway and Thacker's argument:
The following is a definition of the exploit as an abstract machine:
  • Vector: The exploit requires an organic or inorganic medium in which there exists some form of action or motion.
  • Flaw: The exploit requires a set of vulnerabilities in a network that allow the vector to be logically accessible. These vulnerabilities are also the network's conditions for realization, its becoming-unhuman.
  • Transgression: The exploit creates a shift in the ontology of the network, in which the "failure" of the network is in fact a change in its topology (for example, from centralized to distributed) (97).
Within this operational constellation the exploit must work within a dynamic multiplicity of relationships and act with the same pliancy and vigorousness of a viral swarm, thus assuring its unhuman character. It must rely on tactical approaches to maneuver the network beyond its current static boundaries, to allow it to become something other: "We must scale up, not unplug. Then during the passage of technology in this injured, engorged, and unguarded condition, it will be sculpted anew into something better, something in closer agreement with the real wants and desires of its users" (99). The hypertrophic state that Galloway and Thacker envision with this exploitative repurposing of the network will then allow for the advantageous use of the interactions along the networks' edges and of the homogeneity made possible by network protocols that regulate these actions, since it is within the sameness of these protocols that vulnerabilities can be replicated.

For Galloway and Thacker the concept of the network has resided for far too long within the metaphors and vocabularies of democratization, always being called upon to promote egalitarian and liberatory access, and forward a notion of emancipatory potential. Instead they uncover a vast system of controls within the varying protocols that have been put in to place to sculpt and regulate network space. But they themselves resist the possibility that there can never be a progressive use of networks to question such control. On the contrary, the goal of their volume is to pinpoint those areas of information networks that can be exploited for the instigation of political and progressive change. And they facilitate this goal by moving beyond the typical actors and agents of political resistance and the ways these actors had once utilized networks to their advantage, by looking instead at non-human (unhuman) actors gleaned from examples of computer viruses, emergent infectious disease, and bioterrorism to light upon metaphors of the swarm, the flood, and the multitude which resist individuation and thus allow for "blobs" of resistance.

While the book may fall flat for some readers in its unfailing attempt at experimentation with narrative and argument structure (see their "On Reading this Book," vii), it does a wonderful job at plumbing the historical, mathematical, political, biological, and communicative depths that constitute a more standard idea of network theory. And although this comprehensive approach may lose some readers who only want the logic and rationale of the argument handed to them, it is an important book for the very detailed way it approaches the network. These notes aside, network theory stands at this crucial juncture between a continued belief in the liberatory and resistive nature of distributed networks and acknowledging the aspects of control innate to all networks, regardless of their horizontal nature and desire to subvert. It is here then, that Galloway and Thacker's volume will find a ready readership among digital culture and cyberculture studies scholars, as it is within the discourses about network power relations and control structures that these areas will continue to expand.

  1. Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on Control Societies" in Ctrl Space: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, eds. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Pr, 2002), 318.

  2. See Galloway's Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) and Thacker's The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

Daniel Gilfillan:
Daniel Gilfillan (Ph.D., University of Oregon, 2000) is Associate Professor of German Studies and Information Literacy, and Affiliate Faculty in Film and Media Studies, and Jewish Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. His research focuses on 20th-century literature, film and media studies in the German-speaking sphere, with particular interests in avant-garde/experimental approaches to new forms of media in the past (radio, film) and the influence of these earlier instances of new media on contemporary artistic and cultural practices within digital and telecommunications media. His first book, Pieces of Sound: German Experimental Radio, is forthcoming with the University of Minnesota Press. He is currently working on a volume of translations of Weimar-era radio and sound theory by radio producer Hans Flesch.  <dgilfil@asu.edu>

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