My networking is not working!

Last May, I gave a keynote talk at a CreativeWorks London event, called ‘Joining the Dots’. I was asked to talk about a paper I co-authored (with Tim Vorley and Richard Courtney) that focuses on the networking paradigm, but to a more ‘business-friendly’ environment. While I have recently been working more on creativity that is subversive in an urban context, I think there is some conceptual (and critical) common ground with some of my earlier work on networks that this talk showcases. Anyway, the talk is in the video below (please excuse my appearance back then as I had recently been in a cycling accident that was completely my own fault…)

P.S. Incidentally, this is my 100th post on this blog. Not sure what that says about my productivity, but I’m sure it’s not good….

My networking is not working!

Just a quick post to let you know that my latest paper has been published in Economic Geography (abstract is below). It is a conceptual paper on the merits of latency and dysfunction in the networking paradigm within economic geography literature, and perhaps the wider social sciences as a whole. It stems from my work on cities, freelancers and the creative industries which, as most people who have any knowledge on that field at all will know, are heavily reliant of social networks, project-networks and general collaborative action.  It is a real ‘flag-in-the-sand’ piece by my co-authors (Tim Vorley and Richard Courtney) and I and we hope that it will help to shape the argument regarding networks and how network practice shapes economic and geographical behaviour. The initial conception of the paper was born over one too many glasses of red wine at Churchill College one evening in 2007, so it’s taken a long time, but we feel it was worth it given the (hopeful) impact it will have in human geographical literature. If you can’t access the full pdf but would like a copy, please feel free to email, tweet or poke me and I’ll get one over to you.


Networks have become a major analytical concept in economic geography and have served to extend both empirical and theoretical research agendas. However, much of the literature on networks is characterized as associative, considering them only as cumulative constructs through the constant enrollment of additional actors. Through the lens of social capital and a discussion of the limitations of the networking paradigm in economic geography, this article aims to move beyond this associative nature and introduce variance in network practices in the form of nonworking and not working. By presenting a hypothetical example of a project-based network, we introduce the concepts of nonworking and not working as latency and disassociation as dimensions of network practices. In doing so, we present a more nuanced approach to the networking paradigm in relational economic geography, one that moves beyond a purely associative understanding to incorporate nonworking and not working.

Full pdf link is here for those with the right log-in credentials…

Avatar: Latour’s NEW favourite film

I recently watched Avatar again for the first time since the cinema. Perhaps it was the 3D extravaganza or maybe the nose-pinchingly obvious imperialist overtones, but I seemed to miss the first time round that one of the main proponents of the film is the intertwining of the human and non-human. This brings the ethos of my favourite mistake, actor-network theory in sharp focus; in particular, Bruno Latour’s critique of the human/non-human dichotomous narrative. One of the main contentions of actor-network theory is the agency afforded to non-humans in social formations and their inextricability from humans. In essence, Latour argues that the agentic force of humans in the formulation of networks is intertwined and shared with that of inanimate and non-human objects, and hence there can be no distinction between humans and non-humans in terms of their affect on network praxis.

It was in 1993 that Latour brought to the fore the human/nonhuman divide in his definition of a ‘purification process’, which is a process that leads to two entirely distinct ontological zones, referring to humans and non-humans. This formulated or forced dualism has been a sticking point for Latour, as the hybridity of humans and non-humans and splicing of their (inter)actions is a complex and historical issue. Latour describes how humans in the pre-civilisation era were like a Baboon society, in that we did not use any tools. Baboon society is socially constructed as their interaction is total; there is no delegation to nonhuman actants (i.e. tools). As humans have continually used tools or nonhuman actants, it becomes impossible to extricate human actors from nonhuman actants when it comes to the effects of agency.

This has been contested, quite common sensibly with the notion that the human actors ultimately have the initiative over the actants; after all, humans have the power of speech, rational thought, emotion and so on (Vandenberghe, 2002). Also, Kirsch and Mitchell (2004) find that the equivalence of humans and nonhumans cannot account for the social relations that drive network formation.

How does this relate to Avatar? The human/non-human divide I am referring to in this case is not the obvious one (i.e. humans and the Na’vi), but the more subtle metaphor of the Na’vi themselves and their interaction with nature. In Avatar, the positing of the Na’vi and their relationship with Eywa against the linear dogmatic mantra of the humans provides a fertile analogous arena for debate, and thoroughly ‘muddies’ dualistic thinking, to which many actor-network theorists (including Latour) would adhere. The film portrays the inherent complexity and non-linearity of social life, moreover, arguably defenestrates human agency from social construct altogether by making Eywa (defacto Earth-like sister, ‘Mother Nature’) victorious at the conclusion. The way in which the Na’vi interact with their society, their belief in a feedback system of energy and survival, and their connectivity with the non-Na’vi all portray an ANT-inspired existence.

ANT is widespread through the social sciences, but it is vital to comprehend that network formation involves both human and nonhuman actants to the same degree, whether they are social, cultural, economic and so on. The power inherent in an article or an internet text can be just as forceful or power-inherent as a lecture from a professor (which would not be possible without inhuman actants, namely the lecture room, slides or microphone). Every action that is carried out by a human actor therefore ‘ends up in the action of a nonhuman’, thereby the responsibility of that action lies with both human and nonhuman actants.

I once argued that 2001: A Space Odyssey was Latour’s favourite film. I think now though, it might well be Avatar…

Video lectures worth taking the time to watch… Part 2

It’s been a long time since I posted the first set of video lectures, but I’ve been accruing a few more since then so thought it pertinent to post a second set. These are an eclectic bunch, but encapsulate the rhizomic essence of modern day phenomena and resonate with my own thoughts, opinions and research interests. Enjoy.

Bruno LatourReflections of an Actor-Network Theorist (48:23). Of course, I’m biased, but Bruno Latour is one of the world’s most progressive thinkers on society and space. Actor-Network Theory has permeated much of social science but is widely misunderstood. This will hopefully set the record straight.

Julian BarbourKilling Time (23:09). More of a documentary than a lecture but still some fascinating ideas about how we experience time.

Charles Landry – Creative Cities Summit 2.0 keynote part 1 | 2 | 3 (total about 20 mins). Charles Landry is one of those people that always crops up when talking about how cities should be, probably because he has some very progressive, Jacobsian ideas about cities.

Thom MayneArchitecture as Connection (22:37) TED talks can often be a bit deferential, but this one on architecture stood out, mainly because he is advocating non-linearity as a city mechanism.


Slavoj Zizek – Apocalyptic Times (1:24:27) This one is audio (and downloadable) so technically not a video lecture, but it is difficult enough to keep track of with his accent without the distractions of his visual tumultuousness. It requires you to ‘lean in’ a lot this one, but it is worth it as Zizek is one of the few authors who’s anti-establishment rhetoric has enough intellectual capital to validate it within the establishment. For that alone, he deserves some attention….

Is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Latour’s favourite film?

In reading Bruno Latour’s work over the years, one of the overt messages that comes through, and one of his lasting legacies, is the importance he gives to non-humans in society. The actant-networks that constitute the body politic are spun by the constant processes and actions of nonhumans, just as much as they are by nonhumans. Latour’s classic example (it’s when the penny dropped for me anyway) is of Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire. Latour argues that;

“Since Bill Gates is not physically larger than all his Microsoft employees, Microsoft itself, as a corporate body cannot be a large building were individuals reside. Instead there is a certain type of movement going through all of them, a few of which begin and end in Mr Gates’ office. It’s because an organisation is even less a society than the body politic that it’s made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods and passions”.

(Latour, 2005: 179)

The ‘constant circulation’ of nonhuman actants have therefore as much agency in the formulation of perpetual structure as humans do. This sparks one of the major criticism of ANT as it seen as little more than technological determinism and that humans ultimately have dominance over their tools. This rather Kaczynskian view however misses the point. As Latour suggests that power is heterogenously disseminated through a rhizomatic actor-network, to say that one is dominant over the other is erroneous as it implies a linear power-relationship that is pre-existent. Agency, if defined as the ability to ‘thingify’, is just as much inherent in, say a laptop as it is in a human being. Ever since Man picked up a bone fragment to beat his prey to death, tools and nonhuman actants have been intertwined through the networks we generate.

Which leads nicely onto Kubrick’s seminal 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of this post will contain ‘spoilers’ for the film although if you have not seen the film or do not know what happens then I can only assume you are more akin to those in the opening scenes of the film rather than the latter ones. The monolith’s presence at the ‘Dawn of Man’ is symbolic of our use of tools, as Kubrick heavily infers with the ape smashing up the skeleton of his prey with a large femur bone. And the monolith on the moon is a representation of man’s next technological leap, that of space travel. The other monoliths (near Jupiter and in ‘the room’) are Kubrick’s attempt at suggesting that man needs further evolutionary leaps. Debates around the meaning of the monoliths are varied and some more rigorous than others (see this compelling argument – part 1 and part 2), however, if taking an ANT point of view, it would seem that they are indicators of man’s evolutionary ability in their use of tools.

The use of tools and their interdigitisation with humanity effects us all, so much so that the human/nonhuman divide is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Future inventions blur the dichotomy even further (see this enlightening talk by Dr Kaku at the RSA). Therefore, in 2001, the beautiful and esoteric implications of the way human and nonhuman entities’ futures are intertwined to produce the ‘star child‘ can be, I would argue, an indirect inference to the nature and ethos of ANT. However, 2001 also tells us (or at least, one interpretation of it) that to achieve this state, man has to destroy his dependence on technology (the destruction of HAL) and embrace the frailty of the ‘container’ body. Hence, Kubrick brings the nonhuman aspect to a further ‘dimension’ by implying that the human body itself is nonhuman (to be dispensed with) and what is left can be reborn as the ‘star child’. This is perhaps an uncomfortable ethos for ANT, as it brings an inherently philosophical (and even spiritual) idiom to what is essentially an empirical rhetoric.

Therefore, in answer the question of the post’s title, I would say probably not. What could be however, is Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s basic tenant is man’s increasing tendency to live life ‘out of balance’ with technology. The term Koyaanisqatsi is a word in the Hopi language meaning ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’. Again, this is perhaps a dystopic view of man’s continuing evolutionary journey with technology, but the film itself is quite haunting and it’s depiction of nonhuman’s agency is meritoriously accurate.

Nonhumans are integral to the way in which society is held together and so, ANT would argue, cannot be ignored when analysing how reality constructs itself. Any visualisations that can help to achieve this are welcome, and 2001 and Koyaanisqatsi are fine examples of this. Whether or not Latour himself agrees would be interesting, and there may be other examples which you could offer. However, if anyone suggests Antz, then your are neither big, nor clever…

Why Facebook is the new Jurassic Park: Web 2.0 and Actor-Network Theory

In the opening scenes of Jurassic Park when John Hammond’s invited guests embark upon their tour in the automated jeeps, they are whisked through the gargantuan ingression with the cinematography and the music creating a sense of grandeur, danger and wonderment. “What have they got in here, King Kong?” marvels Goldlum’s (annoying) character in reference to the giant gates that kept King Kong at bay. The giant electric fences ring the park and their catastrophic failure leads to the major premise and action of the film.

Fast-forward to 2009 and a pre-historic site of conflict of a different kind, Facebook. There has a lot written about Facebook’s continued malaise and their recent thematic change has been seen by many to be more ‘Twitter-like‘, which is difficult to argue against. Their constant shifting of layouts and architecture makes it all the more difficult to navigate and often vital pieces of information are lost, and the controversy surrounding their hording of user’s content only served to damage further their reputation as a ‘for-the-user’ institution. However, the main ‘problem’ I have with Facebook now is that it seems all too Jurassic Park. You have to get there, enter through massive gates and once inside, it’s all a bit messy and rushed, which leads to lawyers getting eaten by T-Rex’s (ok maybe not that bit but here’s hoping). It’s not quite as crazy an analogy as you might first expect. Facebook are very keen to let you know you’re there – heavy branding; the infrastructure of the site is such that the navigation panels remain in place as you move around meaning that not that much of the page is malleable; even the links you click from it have a Facebook banner atop. It’s all just a bit too ‘labeled’ or like a walled city, entering through the massive gates (or domain name – FACEBOOK.COM!!).

Then consider Twitter. Those who use it will tell you that the web page is one of the least-used interfaces for updating their status. TwitterFox is a favourite of mine, but there are numerous others which people use, among the most popular are tweetdeck and possibly dabr. The mobile usage of twitter was one of it’s main catalysts of growth, whereas for Facebook, it was mostly an afterthought and it’s features are severely reduced on a mobile service. The now (semi-)famous twitchhiker said that twitter is like an infrastructure rather than a ‘website’, and this is something with which I agree – it has diffused and permeated people’s web interfaces, mostly discreetly and become simply for many, an alternative mode of communication.

Such an ontology can be attributed with many other Web 2.0 techniques. The ease at which features from one site can be embedded in another means that the boundaries of traditional domains and websites are being eroded and people are bringing what they want from the web in one place, rather than one place linking to all the others. Google Maps can be embedded in websites, twitter feeds into a blog, YouTube embedding – the list is increasing daily.

In an earlier blog post, I championed the use of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) with the epistemology of Web 2.0, and it seems that this is increasingly so the case. The network metaphor is often a very spatial one, with nodes and networks continually spreading further and further into the ether, connecting endless amounts of actors and bringing them more and more into the complexity of the central network. But ANT tells us that “there exists no place that can be said to be ‘non-local’. If something is to be ‘delocalized’, it means that it is being sent from one place to some other place, not from one place to no place”. Latour (2005: 179). In other words, when it comes to information communication in web 2.0 environments, when it is ‘delocalised’, it is not in some form ‘out there’, it is simply another place. The ease at which we can bring various threads of information and visualisations from disparate places to one place (be it our blog, our RSS feeder or whatever) it collapses the network in on itself and does away with the whole ‘spatial’ network metaphor altogether. Instead, it is an ‘actor-network’, one which is comprised of action and relationality. The network is purported by the performance of actors (us, our laptops, the servers, camera phones etc.) and it is this energising which creates the network, not other way round.

There are many websites which are attempting to ‘delocalise’ their operations, with the BBC football gossip column offering widgets for blogs and Facebook pages, ebay offering ‘ebay to go‘ which allows you to embed an auction in your blog, thetrainline offering desktop gadgets, the list is seemingly endless.  The decomposition of traditional meta-narrative ‘boundaries’ is a key kernel of thought in social science literature at present and I think that it can be attributed to websites; the gates of Jurassic Park were eventually breached – and the same seems to happening to traditional web architectures.

What now for Actor-Network Theory with the advent of Web 2.0?

Actor-Network Theory (or simply, ANT) has been my staple diet of social theory, methodology and research direction for the last 6 years now, with my PhD thesis revolving around the tenant of ANT and Bruno Latour‘s writings. Adding a temporal dimension, one could say that it was in the late 90s to early 2000s that ANT had its main usage in the social science, with geographers among them; the late great Jonathan Murdoch was a major factor in this usage. The nuances of ANT, if you are not familiar, are fascinating and if you are interested, read Latour’s fantastic book, Reassembling the Social, or take a tour around this excellent resource, ANTHEM.

Other authors (Michelle Callon and John Law to name but 2) have contributed, but Bruno Latour can be considered the ‘godfather’ of ANT and at a recent talk he gave at the LSE, he offered much of the theoretical background to ANT through the lens of the recent technological advances in computer software. Since completing my thesis, I have been content with ANT’s place in my theoretical/methodological armoury, knowing it’s place and it’s limitations. At the time of the talk, I was interested in ANT’s properties for social innovation, but now with my foray into the topologies of Web 2.0, ANT has reared it’s linguistical head once more.

The associative ontology offered by ANT is one which speaks to the networked nature of Web 2.0 connectivity, for a number of different reasons. But primarily, ANT’s focus on practice and action as the formulating power of the network aligns with the performative aspects of Web 2.o. If we take the example of Twitter, the networks formed by people following each other only surface when those people actually contribute, i.e. write something! There are lots spam followers and people who set up an account just to see what it’s all about, but then soon lose interest and stop contributing. These ‘dead links’ create a ‘hinternet’ of defunct (or dormant) connections which are not acted upon and hence cannot be considered part of the networks (from a performativity point of view). This can be applied to a whole host of digital graveyards – webpages not updated since 2002, blogs going untouched, Facebook groups which are now defunct – they all exist (in terms of wasted memory on some dusty server somewhere) but are not doing anything, and therefore do not ‘effect’ the constitution of the network.

Also, ANT talks of translation, which is the power of actors to influence the network connectivity properties. This is particularly noticeable with web 2.0 with the ease at which people can get across their point of view. My previous blog entry focused on how information is readily available and how this has the possibility to shape public opinion, and it is this ‘power’ which is effected through the generation of heterogeneous (or Web 2.0) connections.

The advent of Web 2.0 and the advancements in the semantic web mean that we will be become increasingly connected. While this is a cliché, its truth holds precisely because of the fact that this technology is allowing for more communication and therefore action to these connections. Whereas a link between you and me can be said to exist, unless that connection is acted upon (by talking to each other – which Web 2.0 facilitates) then it remains simply a metaphysical link without any real tangible meaning. Technological change and the link with ANT is now the subject of a specialized journal, and so it is not just me and my ramblings which puport to the fact that ANT has a place in the increasingly connected virtual world.

As I constantly remind people (and myself), ANT works best as a language for describing the world in which we live (well, also as a methodological tool – but that is for the social scientists out there) and it seems tailor-made for Web 2.0. Latour gives frequent talks around the world and if anybody can make it to them, I strongly recommend them, as he gives a very compelling (and always witty) account of technology which is infused with his ANT-inspired lexicon. Web 2.0, more accurately, the multiplicity of apps that seem to be related to it, increase our embroilment with each other, and therefore, as our actor-networks increase, we would do well to increase our understanding of how to best describe and articulate it – and we have a ready made blueprint with ANT.