Ideas in virtual space through actor-network theory

This was an essay written for a course I took, continuing on the discussion of geography and sociology.

Introduction

The commodification of technology has made it even easier to reach individuals and groups that are physically distant, but virtually neighboring. In the Information Age, new connections between people and groups of people are being created in the virtual world as much as or more than they are in the physical one. Increasingly, the formation, expression, and spread of ideas and information occur in virtual space as opposed to physical space, where the only limitation is the technological connectedness of the actors. The power of ideas and information is what drives Internet relationships and connections. In particular, ideas can be surprisingly empowering, which may culminate as something intellectual such as scientific progress and technological innovation, or something as simple as free access to news and events from other parts of the world. This paper aims to explore ideas as part of networks in virtual space, how it impacts the connections formed, and the society that is thus assembled, drawing on examples as to how ideas may function through actors and connections on the Internet and World Wide Web (hereafter referred to as the Web).

 

Although ideas are abstract by nature, they have traditionally travelled through actor connections in the physical world. To define idea, one can consider the definition laid out by Merriam-Webster: “a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations” (Merriam-Webster). An idea can be as simple as how to boil an egg, or it may be as complex as freedom. The physical home range and mobility of the individual actors, and also the connectedness of the physical mail system usually limit connections in the physical world. Nonetheless, one would have to have a way of obtaining the mailing address of another actor, after having already somehow established a connection. Such connections still proliferate today, but are not the dominating type of connection, especially among the technologically enabled persons of the developed world whose lives are partially being lived out now in the virtual world.

From the perspective of actor-network theory, it is these new connections and new types of connections that will change how society assembles. Ideas in virtual space have the newfound advantage of being an abstraction within an abstract environment. In addition, new types of conflicts and controversies arise out of the newest virtual realms on the Internet as new possibilities are constantly being created. This results in a diverse network of newly created connections that have assembled society in virtual space in a different way than what is possible to occur in physical space. In this paper, I will explore the role of ideas in reassembling society in virtual contexts.

 

Actor-network theory

In his discussion of actor-network theory (ANT), Bruno Latour (2005) attempts to return to the original definition of social, and to return to being able to trace associations, thereby reassembling society. He aims to clarify that, while social has become a term that has come to mean a type of material, it originally meant a “movement during a process of assembling” (Latour, 2005). The actors, nodes, other elements, and connections form a network, which can be analyzed to reassemble society. In this vein, new connections can be made when actors find a common link through ideas.

Latour engages in a discussion of two approaches to sociology: sociology of the social which focuses on non-social phenomena and aims to use ‘social factors’ to explain the ‘social aspects’ of such phenomena, and sociology of associations which is from the perspective that there is no ‘social dimension’ but that society is one of the connecting elements among many interconnected elements. In other words, there is not a ‘social angle’ to frame a question or problem. This would require approaching the phenomenon of ideas in virtual space not as a social side of the phenomenon of technology, but as connections or associations that are unique to the virtual parts of society that exist or that are being created as part of the process.

It is critical to understand social as a process in the context of the connections made with ideas because it is a dynamic process that includes active as well as passive participants. Social in this case cannot be used to blanket describe the interactions that facilitate the transfer of ideas, but it must be the central process that creates associations for ideas to move through and virtual spaces where they can live. This will then give us the ability to describe how the actors and ideas are connected and interact relative to the network at large. Latour’s work gives a framework for viewing the different elements of the network and deconstructing the social process by which actions are taken to reach configurations.

 

Virtual space

With relatively recent advances in technology, virtual space – specifically in the form of the Internet – has burgeoned into something much greater and larger than could have been imagined, and with greater complexity making it difficult to comprehend as participants of the space. Virtual space has created a new playground for society, but it has also released economic capacity that has led to the globalized trade networks that we see today. With more effort, we can begin to understand the long term role of virtual space as a new environment for new connections to be made and for society to assemble within.

Technology may be considered to “embod[y] the capacity of societies to transform themselves” (Castells, 2010). It is also the enabling element for virtual space to exist and expand and for the Web to become what it is today. Manuel Castells (2010) discusses how information technology as a mode of production was instrumental to restructuring processes of capitalist systems as modes of development (i.e. informationalism). The relationships of production, experience, and power are discussed to explore how human processes are structured and are put into contexts of class relationships, the state and institutions, and people. These relationships have also traversed into the Web. Nations that have come to be able to take full advantage of technology have propelled themselves forward in the global economy. Cross-cultural exchanges are made possible by the new connections and the nearly boundlessness of the Internet. On another level, multinational collaboration and commerce is much more common and easily managed. The power of technology then also becomes the power to transfer knowledge and information through connections, with the Internet as one main virtual space for connections to be made that form virtual networks of conversation and commerce.

Even though these global macro level relationships may take up new connections and meanings, the micro level human processes have also become transformed to adapt to virtual capacities. People who would never have met at during a different technological era are now able to see each other and instantly communicate via the Internet (although we unfortunately do not have holographic projections yet). Not only that, a person who chooses to leave their homeland can remain in touch and informed without the same time lag that such distance would have imposed in the past. This increased ease of contact and general immediacy has implications for the global exchange and transfer of ideas and information, such as that of the role of the Internet in the proliferation of ideas on democracy and human rights. The role of ideas in society within the virtual space will be a function of the actors connected to it, of the nodes and connections that link them up, and of the potential for cross-network travel.

The questions about geography in virtual space could be summed up by the concept of the re-territorializing of knowledge that takes place in virtual space. Squirre (1996) brings up several questions such as:

“What power relationships shape electronic communities? How are social inequalities played out in electronic contexts and geographies of fear represented, negotiated, and potentially re-defined? How may electronic communications connect individuals with other societies, transforming social consciousness? And how might Internet activities create new geographies of leisure, recreation and tourism?”

The new realm of virtual space should “challenge geographers particularly to forge new understandings of ways of seeing and of being in multiple, and multi-faceted worlds” (Squire, 1996). A major goal of the sociology of associations could be to understand what within these relationships and connections have affected how ideas are connected through networks in virtual spaces and whom they are connected to, which in turn have impact on the assembling of society.

 

Actors and actor networks in virtual space

Distance is relative in this context of networks as opposed to absolute, while the importance of space and time is how they are interwoven into network configurations. Two types of spaces that emerge from actor-network theory are ‘spaces of prescription’ and ‘spaces of negotiation.’ Spaces of prescription are where norms exist and circulate, resulting in a rigid and predictable set of behaviors, whereas spaces of negotiation are where there are variation and flux throughout the network, with flows and interactions that make it unstable (Murdoch, 1998). These spaces are implied by network configurations, and are “linked to the degrees of remote control and autonomy found in networks” (Murdoch, 1998). The two types of spaces is an interesting perspective in the virtual realms of the Web because of the seamless boundaries that may exist between the virtual spaces.

Both types of spaces exist in virtual space, and to varying degrees depending also on the countries that the virtual spaces are grounded in, linked to and regulated by. From this perspective, how ideas may exist and function in these spaces as well as what connections are formed will be affected by whether the space is characterized by prescription or negotiation, or sometimes a combination of both in different contexts. The actors in the networks may potentially connect across the different types of space, which then creates more complexity in the network configurations. In addition, actors may not be able to tell what type of space other actors are functioning within, resulting in imperfect knowledge or understanding across networks.

One major type of network actor through which ideas can exist through is the news outlet. The news brings current events and opinion pieces into the virtual community, which can be shared across the world with low costs and barriers. Interestingly, the Internet has brought about a new wave of journalism that has forced traditional news outlets to develop a web-based presence and readership. Several completely novel outlets that would not have been established otherwise have sprouted to fill in every niche imaginable on the Internet. These serve as vital sources of information and ideas for the general population of actors within the virtual networks, but they are also catalysts for thought and curiosity about things that may be unknown or unfamiliar to the actor.

Innovation in the newsroom, now integrated with the virtual newsroom, has been explored in the framework of ANT as well as communities of practice (Schmitz Weiss and Domingo, 2010). However, innovation in journalism does not only occur in the virtual newsrooms. In addition to this, citizen journalism has taken a special place and role in the networks of virtual space. Scenes that would have gone unseen by the general public are now going viral through media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and other sites of congregation. These public displays of ideas, opinions, events, etc. are bringing together and connecting actors in the virtual networks through common interests in the topics breached by the actors. In many cases, actors that would not have been connected are now linked and engaged in conversation because of the connection to the common ideas that attracted them to the particular websites or nodes in the network.

 

Ideas as forms of power and counterpower in networks

Power is a useful perspective to view the conflicts and controversies in society. As Michel Foucault’s (1977) pivotal work demonstrates, it is what drives every action and actor and impacts the relationships that are formed. He states that “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Foucault, 1977). Information is powerful, and the access to information and even the access to Internet is increasingly seen as a right. For example, the Freedom of Information Act in the United States of America allows individuals or organizations to request full or partial disclosure of data controlled by the US Government (FOIA). This gives some significant power to the individuals or organizations, especially when considering how much data the government actually possesses. Networking power, network power, networked power, and network making power, discussed by Castells (2011), are three types of power that characterize networks. These are summarized in Table 1 below.

Table 1 Types of power in networks (Castells, 2011)

Type

Description

Networking power Power of actors and organizations
Network power Power from standards needed to coordinate social interaction within the networks
Networked power Power of actors over other actors in the network
Network making power Power to program networks according to interests and values

 

In addition to these types of power, there is counterpower:

“Counterpower is exercised in the network society by fighting to change the programs of specific networks and by the effort to disrupt the switches that reflect dominant interests and replace them with alternative switches between networks.” (Castells, 2011)

In this sense, counterpower is the opposing force to power, and can be viewed as a destabilizing force in a network. We can consider ideas in networks as forms and manifestations of power as well as counterpower. The role of ideas in the network can be complex due to its position and function, and how this translates in power relationships. Ideas can exhibit power in a network in the form of network power or network-making power. The power of ideas is in how they affect the structure of the network and the creation of new connections between actors. They are abstract objects that can drive actions and connections to be made and network configurations to shift. This in turn will impact how actors interact in virtual space, and in some cases physical space as well. As I will discuss in a later section, the special case of China as a rising Internet power presents an interesting situation where power relationships are being played out.

From another perspective, nonaction, and broken connections as well as the cost of exclusion from the network may also have great impact on power relationships (Tongia and Wilson III, 2011). To return briefly to the discussion of journalism, Weiss and Domingo (2010) found in their observations that the power relationships between actors in the newsrooms and conflicts regarding technology and interpretations of innovations in technology were a hindrance to effective operations. The technological innovations implemented by the programming team were not effectively taken up by the journalists, and the journalists did not feel that their concerns were heard (Tongia and Wilson III, 2011). This is an interesting case where Internet-based technology integrates with the structure of the news team operations in both a physical and a virtual space and out of that arose a conflict among the actors. The authors found that by using ANT to map positions of actors, they could interpret the impact of technological innovations and perceived power of groups on work flows and routines of the various teams.

Another significant barrier that is being breached is that of language. Having the advantage of being the language in which the Internet was invented and first used, English using actors in the network have a head start on creating networks and also on monopolizing network power. Although English language sites may dominate the cyber sphere, there are efforts to translate the web into many other languages. It would take quite some time to reduce the dominance of English, but a multilingual and translatable Web may soon diminish the advantage of English using actors in the network. The power would then shift somewhat away from those actors dominating in English who hold the network-making power to the networked power of actors enabling the translation and cross-language communication.

 

 

Putting it all together

 

Ideas as actors

Within ANT, the possibilities for thinking about networks are endless. The limitations are not imposed by the theory, but by the thinker who is applying the theory. It would be a mistake to limit the network from the outset to a defined type of actor or defined type of connection. In this line of thought, ideas themselves can be actors in networks, and not only in ones that exist virtually. Although not in the sense that ideas as actors can actively create new connections, ideas in the passive sense are the driving forces for the creation of new connections between actors and nodes in a network. Ideas themselves can serve as inspiration for development of virtual network nodes where actors congregate, e.g. special interest forums. Ideas can also be the nodes within the network, and can lead to the formation of networks that are centered on ideas.

From this perspective, we may conceptualize the virtual space to be filled with networks made up of active users, connections, and nonhuman nodes. This network may be termed as a multidimensional network where technology can be brought “inside” of the network (Contractor et al., 2011). Technology can also be considered to already be inside of the network if a network is inherently a “substance that had deemed at first self-contained…and transforms it into what it needs to subsist through a complex ecology of tributaries, allies, accomplices, and helpers” (Latour, 2011). Considering this, if virtual networks are capable of being multidimensional, as in containing nonhuman technological elements such as databases, then ideas in general can also function as nonhuman nodes and actors in a network. This will change our understanding and perspective on dynamics of the network and give new insight into how the network may be configuring itself.

Ideas end up being passive actors in the network because of the way that they function as catalysts for the creation of new connections between actors. Ideas themselves can be considered as vital elements in the virtual networks by nature of the search term and content oriented structuring of data in conjunction with methods of path making on the Internet. However, from the perspective that “being an actor and being a network are the same thing” while having “complete reversibility” (Latour, 2011), ideas as actors in the network are the network, and the network is reversible to its attributes and actors. It is unnecessary to begin first with an individualistic view (a first level), and then move up to the collective phenomenon (a second level), if we take the perspective that “there is only one level, where the parts are actually bigger than the whole and where a phenomenon can be said to be collective without being superior to individuals” (Latour, 2011). When we are able to think about virtual networks in this sense, ideas are on the same level as users or human actors and the phenomenon of ideas in virtual space can simultaneously be among individuals or the collective.

 

Virtually tracing associations through ideas

Curiously, some researchers have found that the human mind works more like the Internet in a network model of organization than the “top down,” hierarchical model that has been promoted since the 19th century (Thompson and Swanson, 2010). If we consider virtual networks to be like the human mind and that ideas in virtual networks are also actors, we can trace associations through the network by way of tracing associations through ideas. Connections to an idea may be intangible, but they are real in that they create associations between actors or other network elements. For tracing associations of ideas in the virtual space of the Internet, the difficulty will lie in how to interpret and manage the diverse links that proliferate amongst actors and between groups of actors.

In China, the Internet users making connections and disseminating ideas in virtual space are who makes up a crucial part of their society, especially as an outlet for expressing interests that would otherwise be stifled. The Chinese government infamously exerts impressive control over access to sites on the Internet and what content is allowed to flow through virtual space. What is not yet understood is what are the implications of China being a rising Internet power, with a reported 500 million users and 38% Internet penetration rate (CNNIC, 2012), while also being one of the least free countries if not the least in terms of freedom of expression and free access. One of the new and explosive modes of communication made possible by the Internet and that has had large impact in world and in China is microblogging, i.e. Twitter and Weibo. Microblogging and its vast seas of short length content have made surveillance and control a much more difficult objective than it was with other forms of content creation and sharing that came before it. The ideas and thoughts being broadcast through microblogs have become a type of counterpower to the controlling power of the agencies monitoring the virtual space. The preceding forms such as blogs may be characterized more as spaces of prescription whereas microblogs may be characterized as spaces of negotiation where norms have not yet been established and flux makes it unstable.

Although control and surveillance are just two objectives for paying attention to microblogs, other objectives may be more academic. One way to follow microblogs is to see what topics are “trending” amongst the general population of users, usually found by searching for a hash tagged phrase (e.g. 2012 trends on Twitter (Twitter, 2012)). Often, groups of users compete to make their chosen topic one of the top trending topics in a virtual battle against the rest. The collective phenomenon occurs as a result of the individual users contributing to the community at large. Microblogs also serve as breeding grounds for conversations which may start up between users who have never connected before simply because they both contributed content on a specific topic. These conversations can eventually become new connections in the network. Intriguingly, the conversations are usually public, so even observing conversations makes the spectator an actor in the network.

The cutting edge of programming science is now to harness the power of microblogs by using code to mine the content for useful information (e.g. a Twitter language map of New York (Barratt et al., 2013)). If the human mind does work very similarly to the Internet, then the process of assembling the components of the Internet society would be analogous to the process for assembling the human mind. It is essentially an attempt to analyze the thoughts, opinions, observations, relationships, etc. of actors in a network that are in the form of short text entries which collectively are arguably the closest thing to getting inside someone’s head. The microblog entries are given their own existence within the network of the larger microblog community. The individual microblogger is creating little bits of data (which may be explicitly connected to other users or sites outside of the blog) that can be viewed by others as part of the individual’s train of thoughts or as part of the collective community.

The microblogosphere could be perceived as completely not at all structured or highly structured depending on context and scale. The structure of the Web in general has transitioned from linked, mostly static, documents to hypertext linked information and is moving towards fully linked or associated data (Hall, 2011). This shift has affected how we interact with the Web and how it fits into our lives outside of the Web. For example, in the beginning, user profiles on Facebook (a social networking website) were simply various facts about the user listed out on a page (Aronica, 2012). With the addition of new features like “the wall” and status updates, the Facebook profile has become a dynamic page with links to other users and websites constantly coming in and going out. In the “Semantic Web” of the future, the Web is made of linked data that allows for automated querying and interpretation of data distributed from various sources and in heterogeneous formats (Hall, 2011). This type of Web would allow for more advanced interactions and associations between nonhuman actors of the network. What may follow is that the Web becomes a virtual space for conversations not just between human actors, but also between nonhuman actors. Once the ability for semantic interpretation is available and the links between data become two-way streets for communication, then ideas in one part of the network may begin to associate with ideas in other parts.

 

Implications of reassembling the virtual social

Bruno Latour (2005) set out to reassemble social, and to be able to trace associations through sociology of associations. In what hopefully has been an insightful exploration of assembling the social in virtual spaces, the situation is not necessarily clearer than when we started this journey. What makes ANT an exciting theory is that it allows us “to study the individuals and their aggregates…without any discontinuity where the individual action disappears mysteriously into a sui generis structure” (Latour, 2011). This structure can now span both the physical space, where human actors must reside, as well as virtual space, where some attributes of human actors reside in addition to nonhuman actors and elements.

If we are able to assemble the social in virtual space, we will be able to gain an understanding of how it is also part of society that is assembled at large, physical and virtual combined. As an effort in global social development, the virtual actor networks in the realm of the Internet pose new challenges to assembling the social. How things are structured on the Web will also have impacts on how they are linked in our minds. Additionally, having an understanding of the history of how it has progressed also gives a different perspective. Hall (2011) suggests that users that predominantly access the Internet through mobile devices may have a different mental map of the Web. This might be interesting to investigate in countries such as Japan, where the bulk of Internet activity occurs on mobile devices. Differences in mental maps of the network between different actors may then in turn impact the relationships and connections with other actors, and ultimately the individuals’ worldviews.

The author also brings up the psychological implications of being newly able to access the Internet after it has already progressed to its current state. To return to the example of Facebook, it would be similar to someone joining today as opposed to a user who has been active since the inception of the website in 2004 nine years ago. The significance is that the naïve users would be flooded with features whereas people who grew with the technology have seen the innovations be added along the way. You cannot choose to start off with the original format of Facebook page and then progressively add features as you are comfortable with accepting and using them.

The difference with actors being newly introduced to the Internet is that these actors would be leapfrogging from having no access to even primitive forms of the Web, to having all of the modern power of the Internet. Unlike with other technologies, there is no way to take babysteps or intermediate steps into the Internet. Being unfamiliar with the virtual territory, new actors in the network would remain at a disadvantage due to the learning curve, while veteran actors continue to dominate the actions and connections in the network. In this case, the new users or actors could also be at a disadvantage in terms of power within the network due to the cost of being excluded for the crucial early periods of time. Early adopters have the advantage of having already claimed a “territory” within the virtual space, from which they can operate and influence the network by using their position in relation to others and power acquired from established connections. Using ideas as signposts in the virtual space, new users may be able to navigate the virtual networks in a way that would be less overwhelming.

 

 

Conclusion

The connections made and maintained in virtual networks impact many economic and behavioral aspects of society and populations such as strength of relationships, perception of risk, innovativeness, etc. The configuration of network connections is unique to each virtual space and time, and thus they will change as the connections and interactions change in response to internal or external stimuli. What is important to note is that society does not exist solely in the physical with the advent of the Internet; it exists as it always has but now co-exists in a new dimension of possibility of the Internet and its manifestations.

Ideas in virtual space impact social connections, the relationship between virtual and physical space, and overall the functioning of actors. Ideas are also actors in virtual networks, and hold network power in ways that impact other network elements. In this research paper, the aim was to explore how actor-network theory can be applied to ideas and how they affect the assembling of society in virtual spaces. Ideas, since they are able to transcend the boundaries between physical and virtual space, are the linking elements for connections and associations in networks that are integrated across both spaces. A deeper understanding of ANT and these issues may lead to better framing of research questions in fields that could benefit from this perspective even if seemingly far removed, such as science and ecology, by putting things into the framework of networks and associations.

 

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