Centre for Internet & Society

The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners. The workshop hopes to generate dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become the visible landmarks of contemporary life, and produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

The Habits of Living Thinkathon took off today with an introduction by Wendy Chun, who led us through a critical review of the relevant academic theory on networks and network analysis to help us understand how ubiquitous networks have become as a method of conceptualizing and understanding the world around us.

But why networks?  What is the explanatory power of networks?

Networks enable us to map the unmappable, to trace the complex, unimaginably big structures that post-modernism left us with, and to be able to define our own unique existence. However, what becomes apparent is that we seem to be forever mapping, but we are no more able to realize our place within the capitalist society we live in, much less escape it. Rather than resolving them, mapping leads to the generation of more networks, and as we become more proficient at identifying and mapping networks, the more static they become. As Wendy Chun says, "We seem to be forever moving and never changing."

Continuing on, Chun asks: why has the network become the end rather than the beginning of the answer? What drives the impetus to see un-seeable networks everywhere? Chun presents the Thinkathon's theme of Habits of Living as an epistemological framework to grapple with these questions. For Chun, the 'habit' works as a particularly useful heuristic to unpack and deconstruct some of the central components of the network. A habit is something that is acquired through time and then forgotten about as it moves from voluntary to involuntary. In fact, a habit can start as something we do and become something we are. With this in mind, we are asked to think: how has the network become habitualised and what are the implications of this? What is the importance of time in the mapping and lived experiences of networks? In looking at networks from this meta-level, we can ask: why do we think networks make us forever moving but never changing?

Chun's presentation is received well, but one concern gets noted early on. This discourse of the 'network' privileges a very particular Western subjectivity, one which may not be applicable to collectivist cultures where communities have always existed with network structures. What becomes apparent is that we need to start collecting alternate discussions and input from a non-Western understanding of a network in order to truly understand what it is to live in a network society.

Following Wendy's talk, Nishant Shah continues the discussion on networks by contributing several other crucial epistemological interventions to begin our consideration of the Habits of Living. Nishant begins by asserting that we — perhaps naively — want to believe that networks have the innate ability to generate change. The way we commonly view networks, especially in a post-Arab Spring world, is with the understanding that the network is the panacea for all of our social ills. However, the body of the network is the only problem that the network can solve. That is to say, the network can only produce an account of itself; it cannot be used to create understandings of things outside of its own boundaries.

Nishant briefly reviews the recent "Northeast Exodus" from the global tech city of Bengaluru, in which the dissemination of SMS messages within various networks caused a panic. The knowledge that moved through the networks terrified people before real information on the events could be consumed. Nishant shows how events like these cause people to claim that something has gone wrong with the network, which is particularly worrying for the state, as how can they fix an issue in a network that they cannot see? Further unpacking this scenario, Nishant shows how the minute the network becomes visible, it is a crisis.

Participants expressed concern about the use of 'network' in this discourse. What actually does the 'network' describe — can it stand as a heuristic for so many different relations? Additionally, what is the truth that the network seeks to expose or reveal? Is there an actual truth that can be unearthed through the network?

Nishant responded that many of these questions will hopefully be answered over the next four days of the Thinkathon — and we are definitely looking forwards to it!

Continue to follow our live blog coverage of the Habits of Living Thinkathon for more thought-provoking discussion!

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