The social, political and technological dimension of the network: from its origins to the present

Teresa Numerico

This paper aims to investigate on the technical organization methods of the Internet. In particular, I will focus on four main aspects of the Internet such as the communication protocols, the graphical representation of the networks, the social dimension of the computer mediated interaction among people as well as the political role and the ‘narratives’ of the net as developed during the last thirty or forty years. On the one hand, the research will deal with the humanistic aspects that have contributed to the development of the idea of a network technology, on the other hand I will explore the consequences that some choices, even technical ones, produced on human relationships, now largely mediated by communication networks. This paper will also provide an analysis of how some technological choices and the ideas of the social groups behind them have impacted on the way the network has been forming, the way it works both materially and ideologically.
To clarify the kind analytical process that will be at the core of this research, I will examine the organization of some communicative functions online. In these terms, the technology would re-acquire a central role within the humanities because technology is itself a human device, designed by man, built and used by man. From this premises, the age-old distance between nature and culture can be loosened, especially if you can accept that nature is mediated by culture and that culture is also made of technological devices we use to deploy it (as it was, at first, for writing and then for printing). From what stated so far, it is therefore clear that reflecting on the importance of the presence of the humanities within the network, what it is, how it organizes knowledge and shapes natural relationships between human beings, can’t be postponed any longer.

In particular, the contribution will be divided into three main themes:

  1. The convergence of the different sources and the idea of network: where I will illustrate a series of standpoints that have contributed to the emergence of the idea of the network. In this part I will analyze some of the major cultural influences, materials and policies that have contributed to the conception of the idea of a computer networking.
  2. The functioning of the Internet (protocols, domain name authority) and its cultural characterization (Castells): where I will show how the functioning of the protocols and rules that control the possibility that the network is active, have a real impact on the type of functionality that can be activated on it. Also, in this part I will show how the three cultures of the network (identified by Castells in The Internet Galaxy as the military one, the culture associated with big science and the libertarian one) share the values of freedom and meritocracy that make the network the incarnation of the perfect market; a market that works well when it has no rules and always promotes the ‘best’ in the field, rewarding him with the value he deserves. However, the device (the network) is still mainly composed of human beings, both because the programmers that have written the code are humans, and because many of the tools in the Web are systems based on authorship. In this way, human beings and their actions represent the engine of the network as a device for the construction of a collective knowledge.
  3. Social outcomes and potential results as power relationships: where I will show how the network can be seen as a kind of suspension bridge between its technological components and the human capacity to produce meaning out of them and just as a bridge can be used to expose the supposed gap between hard sciences and the humanities.