Subtitle: Small world networks create a culture of the invisible in which online personalities clash with traditional ways of perceiving, imagining, and inventing on the Web.
In “Tema Celeste”, vol. 107, 2005, pp. 54-57
In an old episode of Star Trek, an enchanted Captain Kirk and an absorbed Mr. Spock explore the rooms of a contemporary art museum in a highly advanced civilization. Naturally, the works of the supposed 24th century are only imitations (or perhaps originals) of what one finds in any art gallery today. However, this unusual incursion into art inspires a perturbing sense of uneasiness. How can it ever be that a few sculptures and paintings—perhaps glowing or even interactive ante litteram—succeed in provoking surprise and wonder in two representatives from the era of tele-transporting, supercomputers, light speed, and synthetic food? Something doesn’t square up.
It’s difficult to believe that a civilization that has surpassed the normal space-time conventions can still be astonished in the presence of works of art based on a long-expired and now-forgotten perception of these very categories. Everybody appreciates great works of the past, but nobody confuses them with aesthetic achievements of the present.
We’re still not the founders of a galactic civilization, but some modern technologies are restructuring the psychodynamics of daily life. Right up in the first row of these inventions is the Net. Several artists have explored cyberspace, mostly as a new dimension for communication. The remarkable inventiveness of artists working with the Net—such as Vuk Cosic, Andy Deck, Heath Bunting, Fred Forest, Tommaso Tozzi (and the various collective or acronym-based names like Netochka Nezvanova or 0100101110101101.org)—expresses above all a desire to reclaim the dominant noetic economy from the press and television, instituting new relationships based on some of the Net’s peculiarities.
Nevertheless, these projects that are produced using the Net’s resources are surprisingly destined to “exist” outside the Net in various senses, to be discussed and be historicized thanks to the rules of those very same communication systems that they were attacking. Therefore, these exercises finish up by not distinguishing themselves from other forms of art devised for a culture of the visible and cataloged in a civilization of vision, whose essential intersection revolves around the primary function of “visibility.”
The point of no return is constituted by the fact that the Web develops “Net dynamics” to such an extent as has never happened before. Up to now there was no theory that gave an exhaustive account of what effectively happens in a complex web such as a disseminated network is. The online person is an embodied hybrid, “incarnated” in a new technological habitat, as revealed by Andy Clark’s studies. Mixing robotics, neuroscience, and media studies at a very high level, Clark illustrates the fact that human biological brains are incomplete cognitive systems, whose characteristics vary according to the type of connection generated by the interfaces with which the brains (and the respective bodies) come into contact. Embodiment and disembodiment: this is the key.
The reactions, ways of perceiving, of imagining, of inventing created by every individual entered into a network are very different from those deriving from other kinds of “embodiment” in less recent, more “physical” technological matrices. There’s more: a field of studies called “graph theory”—developed by the mathematician Paul Erdős and then used and expanded by Alfréd Rényi, Steven Strogatz, Albert-László Barabási, and others in the study of synchrony within complex, auto-poietics and evolutionary environments—shows that, in the Web, network dynamics are quite different from other types of developments that even today excel in many “external,” or “pre-connective” so to speak, environments, including artistic and literary ones.
Among the unexpected effects of fundamental importance is the emergence of the so-called “small-world networks,” or “scale-free networks,” based on weak ties—standard structures, already perceived in the ’70s by the American sociologist Mark Granovetter.
In traditional social networks (including the Art System), an ordered structure arises from the elements of a whole that are connected to one another but following a progression of “proximal” relationships. This type of dominant social bond contradicts the popular notion that the sites of art and culture are temples to the “free exchange” of information. To the contrary, paradoxically, in these areas the flow of information counts only up to a certain point. Actually, the idea that information should flow freely, that it is the material of a primary process, comes from the dawn of cybernetics, as illustrated by the French sociologist Philippe Breton. However, the primacy of information finds its natural terrain on the Web, its koinos cosmos of weak ties between distant realities, even opposite to one another.
The Web is precisely a small world network, or, in mathematical terms, a “scale-free network,” that is, a web in which the distribution of material sites, structured in sensory digitized information, does not follow a classic relative bell-shaped curve, for example, relative to the sites themselves or their contents. In a scale-free network, a vertex is formed very quickly; but this élite can also be abstract, like the software of a search engine is abstract; it is not necessary, therefore, that it is crystallized information, that it is “substance.” What forms the vertex is also what projects outside the system, in the “real” world. However, this point hides a very long “tail,” composed of informational events that, because of their marginal function in the structure of the connection cannot, though existing, materially be visible on the “outside.” The true “body” of the Web is formed from this immeasurable, invisible, magmatic “tail” where the weak ties are produced.
Such nets are sufficiently “small,” also maintaining a very high value of “local accumulation,” or clustering. The cluster is a bunch structure, like a swarm of bees. The name also indicates one of the operational modes of the most up to date search engines. In net theory, the notion of clustering is defined as the probability that two nodes connected to a common node are also connected to one another. It is important to notice that the connections are always defined as being “bijective” or one-to-one. The connections happen in a linear way, between two points, nodes or social subjects. Each node can entertain ties with an almost limitless plurality of other nodes, but always in a linear way and one-to-one.
One of the consequences of clustering is the relative invisibility of the system’s circulating information. The strength of weak ties is not evident, is not based on media events, and has nothing to do with the digital combustions so loved by hackers. Is that to say that the Net is destined to be an aesthetically chaotic and indefinable connecting matrix? Exactly the opposite. The values of “local clustering” are cumulative, and manifest an impressive force of attraction. This is what gives rise to hubs, the primary nodes. The formation of hubs is autogenerative but optimized. The dynamics involve behavior of a gregarious type, typical of our species, but with the difference that the bonds set up by strong ties have no reason to exist here.
Aesthetic preferences also seem to follow the same laws of distribution. In a small world network, based on a hypercomplex psychical and sensory loop, the adoption or the refusal of a new aesthetic form is based on large-scale distributive processes, directly correlated to the coefficient of local accumulation. Sometimes a highly institutionalized network of knowledge can coincide with a hub on the network that adds up aesthetic capabilities. This is the case with the Aesthetics + Computation Group at MIT in Boston or the McLuhan Program in Art and Technology in Toronto. However, don’t be fooled by the institutional nature of these organizations; what counts is actually the process of reticular aggregation, which is superimposed and which can, in the long run, modify the original aims that induced certain research agencies to found a new type of institution focused on the Web. There exist also virtual places that are born with the precise aim of transforming themselves into a hub for new forms of art, for example, the sites of the Guggenheim, Asymptote and Tate, which deal with the planning of digital spaces, where, in a potential future, they will (perhaps) exhibit creations destined for the Web only. It’s impossible to provide even only a short directory of the hubs not connected to the large institutions, but actually, on the network, large or small groupings all obey the strict logic of small world dynamics.
Cognitive systems that incorporate the rules, small world networks are—to sum up—alien organisms and, as such, the public perceives them the moment that the effects of extreme cases of assimilation (for example, the multiple suicides in Japan) appear (in the real world). But the invisibility of the new aesthetic cannot be broken by the systems of traditional social networks. If it is true that the large art institutions program incursions into the Web in order to institutionalize its contents, it’s also very probable that their actions are destined to fail. While the hierarchical networks live and prosper for means of the visibility, the small world networks create a sort of “culture of the invisible” based on invisible bodies, on invisible perceptions—because of new coining—and on invisible cognitive systems inasmuch as they are not noticeable if not equipped with the same “senses” of those immersed there. But a culture that, for the same psychodynamic characteristics, cannot translate itself into a “civilization of invisibility.” The Web is not a mere container of information but a converter of psycho-sensorial systems in rapid transformation that produces new built-in syntheses. It’s time to recognize this.