Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 4, 2008

Network vs. System: an ongoing discussion

Filed under: Discussion — tjdanner @ 10:14 pm


This week’s reading, particularly the Galloway/Thacker chapter, reverberates with a debate/discussion from yesterday’s Winter Athanaeum, regarding the equation of or differentiation between “system” and “network.”  Mark McGurl offered a simple yet productive distinction: systems are closed, networks are open.  In other words, we can employ a standard Luhmannian conception of system as an animate or inanimate organism operating independently within its surroundings, and proceed under the compatible conception of network as a web of interconnected nodes.  And while network and system can be synonymous in a general sense, pursuing these differences could be a useful component of today’s discussion.  If we read “network” one way–focusing on graph theory–then we can, without stretching the limits of conceptual creativity, imagine systems as interconnected nodes within a networked graph (e.g,, human, economic, electronic and communications systems comprising the rubric of “cellular network”; or numerous operating systems connecting to a network of computers).  In this case, network encompasses system.  Galloway and Thacker support this idea by defining “protocol” as “not a single thing but a set of tendencies grounded in the physical tendencies of networked systems” (28; emphasis added).  However, in the next sentence they immediately indicate an inversion of this relationship by defining “networks” as “any system of interrelationality,” etc. (I don’t want to even gloss the rest of the sentence here because I can’t quite parse it, but maybe someone will bring this forward as their focus passage in class).  This definition either posits “network” within the demesne of “system,” or equates/conflates the two; either way, this reading complicates the understanding of networks as open set of points or nodes connected by lines or pathways (to adapt Galloway/Thacker’s explanation of graph theory), and systems as independent, autopoetic entities functioning within but not necessarily connected to an exterior environment.  Making a distinction between the two concepts seems essential, yet even within two lines of a chapter devoted to network theory, there is some slippage.  Can we arrive at a more definite, even if still fluid, connection/differentiation?  

My other point is something of a related whim that arose when I read one set of Galloway and Thacker’s interstitial questions:

“But are networks always exclusively ‘human’?  Are networks misanthropic?  Is there a ‘nonhuman’ or an ‘unhuman’ understanding of networks that would challenge us to rethink the theory and practice of networks?” (27)

A commercial slogan popped into my head: “Cisco: The Human Network.”  Maybe it’s a random connection worth unpacking a bit.  If networks are “always exclusively ‘human,’” then “the Human Network” is a non-exclusionary category; however, the question of whether networks are misanthropic suggests that they may be inherently unhuman, which seems to be Cisco’s understanding.  From a marketing perspective, the slogan is understandably humanizing, inviting consumers to view Cisco’s products as relatable tools rather than disarming machines.  This also gives us an avenue back into the networks/systems conversation.  Systems can certainly be human (respiratory, nervous, etc.), and advertising “The Human System” would be more evocative of diagrams from high school biology textbooks than conference calls and routers.  The word choice emphasizes some of the conceptual differences I have brought up, painting networks’ lines as electronic/technological and nodes as technologized humans (calling to mind Fuller’s description from last week).  This image runs counter, however, to another primary connotation Cisco’s slogan aims to generate, one of sympathetic congeniality–akin to “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”  Even the company’s name–Cisco Systems–is a complicating factor: a system (or systems) is a network (the human one).  Bringing Liu’s use of management theory into the fray, as well, would open up ground to discuss this topic’s corporate dynamic, but I’ll table that for now; I wonder how this and further analysis of the Cisco idea might exacerbate the network/system debate.

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