digital rhetoric

the network and the brain

Trying to get some distance from mainstream notions of the network. It’s clear in ANT, I think, that the "network" there bears an isomorphic relation with the concept of "distributed cognition" discussed by Hayles, Haraway, and others of that ilk, along with folks in robotics, AI/AL, and elsewhere. However, I think it is easy to fall into thinking of distributed congnition as a technological phenomenon (which it is), but by which we mean sophisticated (i.e. contemporary) technology rather than technology as a general principal (i.e., one that  might include the most rudimentary, paleolithic writing tools).

Go back into the archeological record, and one uncovers a shift in the networks of social relations maintained by Neanderthals. As I understand it, archeologists can determine how far various paleolithic stone tools travelled from the original sites where the stone was obtained. In doing so they can track the expansion of trading networks. Furthermore, there is a relationship between the expansion of networks and sophistication in tools–not only in the sense of better made tools but in the sense of tools that expand/alter human behavior. For example, a club or axe might be an extension of the existing activity of the human arm compared with the needle which requires the development of a new kind of dexterity and cognitive work.

Anyway, that’s an overly brief summary but I think you get the idea. One argument that is made in this context is that these expanding networks combine with the emergence of language as we generally experience it. Obviously earlier humans had means for communication, but the argument goes (again briefly and as I understand it) that earlier communication was severly limited to an immediate context and kinship group. As tools become more complex and trading networks expand, a kind of informational results that demands new modes of cognition and communication. In essence it becomes necessary to understand the world in discrete, symbolic terms: the physical world is overlaid with an informational space.

So what does this mean for us and networks now? It means that though we might experience our situation within networks as a dehumanizing experience, as a threat to our "humanity," in fact, modern human consciousness has always been networked. This concept is well-embedded in ANT and related theories, so it’s nothing new there, but I do think it’s an important element that’s missing from our more broadly understood notion of the network.

In writing/composition it means recognizing that the emergence of new media/information networks is not transforming the role of the individual writer/author but rather that the concept of the writer/author was always a misapprehension of the role of the subject in the composition process. This critique of the author also is not anything new. However in the past I think we’ve treated this issue as an ideological critique or a philosophical/deconstructive critique, as something that could be ignored as either a political maneuver or some kind of postmodern mind game. Setting aside whatever we might think of such issues of theory, here we are looking at material, technological, and cognitive practices, which puts this in a different frame (even though ANT and related theories are clearly building on the philosophical critiques of the 60s-80s).


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