What is the Future of Network Culture?

 

One of the central tenets of the Network Culture book is that we live in an atemporal condition, a paradoxical time in which we no longer understand the world in historical terms. The sort of historical narratives that were crucial to modernism and postmodernism did not accompany us into the new millenium. My position on atemporality requires a long argument so you're better off reading the chapter in the network culture book if you want to find out more. Purposefully, however, atemporality (and the concept of network culture as a whole) is a broad generalization, ridden with exceptions and fault lines. Rather than flaws in my argument, I understand these as flaws in the system to be exploited in order to undo the worst parts of network culture. In the case of atemporality, the most pernicious parts are our inability to map ourselves historically in order to take stock of our condition and the lack of alternative temporalities together with the possibility of rupture. 
 
Still, its becoming clear that there is a kind of early network culture that came before the economic crisis of 2008 and a late (or high? middle? its too early to tell yet, we'll call it late for now, in hopes of something better coming down the pike in a decade) network culture that follows. So, too, we could well also speak of a first phase, a proto-network culture that began in the mid-1990s and ended prior to the dot.com crash of 2000, the millenium, and 9/11. 
 
Is periodizing network culture not a contradiction? Of course it is, in the terms I outlined above but only to a point. These periods are scarcely felt. They are not periods with which, generally speaking, we mark our time, but each marks an intensification of network culture, accompanied by a higher level of atemporality. 
 
Proto-network culture is both postmodern and not. It is marked by the overwhelming sense of the end of history, of the millennium as postmodernism itself was. Yet it is also marked by the sense that postmodernism has come to an end. Symposium after symposium on the end of history and the end of theory consumed academe at this point. But the unimaginable future was nigh, no longer the product of the nuclear bomb (that future had not come to pass) but rather of the information bomb, the explosive promise of the dot.com boom. Soon, it seemed, a new economy would take hold. Everything would change. Everything did change, but it wasn't just a matter of the spread of e-commerce, broadband, and endless connectivity. The dot.com crash itself established the boom and bust nature of network culture, with its heady optimism about a revolutionary, but even more highly capitalized future and its ability to throw away that future seemingly overnight in a panic. If unable to consider the past, this phase of network culture, then, was still obsessed with a future, an endlessly deferred proximate future of technological promise. 
 
Early network culture was marked by this constantly receding event horizon. The moment it was reached another, generally mobile technology promised a revolution in everyday life. Urban wireless networks, mobile broadband, smart phones, geolocative smart phones, tablets, and ubiquitous computing; each of these, their prophets suggested, would crank us into a world of unprecedented, shiny newness. Smart cities would be just around the corner, as bright and promising to us as Corbusier's Contemporary City must have seemed in the mid-1920s. But there was already a notion that everything had changed, that a new economy had taken hold, as demonstrated by the impossible rise of the housing market and the endless profusion of easy credit. We lived, it seemed to many, in a newly globalzied, urban wonder-world dominated  by creative city-states, liberal science fiction wonderlands in which architecture and technology would be wedded together to create places that would be nothing less than a great deal of fun.
 
Its only with the collapse of the housing bubble, the onset of the prolonged recession and the proliferation of that last promised technology, the tablet, that network culture has entered more fully into a condition of not only a suspended past but also a suspneded future. The housing bubble itself was a crisis of the future. As history had ended, so now the future ended. Ezra Pound's old cry "Make it new!" could now only be uttered by tired characters in a thought bubble in a New Yorker cartoon. And just as the days after 9/11 gave us a war without end, we are now given a recession without end. The new stationary economy seems punctuated by mini-booms that will buoy markets and epochal crises (like the impending collapse of the Eurozone, the second leg of the Great Recession, and of course everyone's great terror, the collapse of the massive Chinese property bubble). But the Great Recession is itself no longer even something that finance fears. The canny will make billions as before. Everyone else will be poorer, their futures more exhausted, less full of promise than ever.  
 
My interest in all this, as before, is to ask what sort of fissures the edifice of network culture might have. How do we find ways not to get out of the cycle but to get out of the system itself?  

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