Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 4/1/14


What type of network structure is the brain?

In many ways, I think that considering the brain as a network is at the very core of what we have been working with all semester. Every theme is represented in the anatomical and biological functions described in this chapter: communication between nodes, macroscopic and microscopic levels, how meaning moves through a network, boundaries, and what happens to nodes within a network.

I began thinking about how the brain allows us to perceive the world, and specifically for this course we use the organ to think about other networks. It made me wonder if we recognize these patterns of interconnection because on some level we are hard-wired to think in these terms since the object we use to look out into the world is itself a network. Do we see networks because we see with a network? Like recognizing like?

Then I began to think about natural patterns and images of fractal patterns that occur in nature (This is a pretty good collection of these images). What I observed is that all of the images, whether it be lightening or a peacock feather, have main artery-like channels with smaller offshoots fanning outward (or in some cases with the reverse effect - small channels funneling together to form something large and unified).

San Francisco Bay salt flats. Image by Tolka Rover posted on Flickr.

It seems too coincidental that the pattern of the natural observable world, like the image of salt flats above, is also represented in the internal structures of the brain, like the diagram of neurons depicts below.

Neuron diagram featuring the pattern of a main channel with smaller structures fanning outward. Image by Rediscovering Biology.

It occurs to me that this is a very specific kind of networked structure in which meaning and data is transmitted outward into space from a primary root or central line. Rather than individual nodes with multiple connections, this type of network structure is more of a dispersal model showing how something is funneled into smaller and smaller locales. What kinds of networks have this kind of model outside of the natural world? What are the implications of this kind of structure? Is meaning-making limited in this centrally-directed system as opposed to the "horizontal" system Castells describes? If there is a disruption in the main channel, are there ways for the dependent branches to survive?

In some ways, this feels like the kind of network for my OoS. The synaptic terminal can either be a presynaptic neuron, outputting information into the synaptic space to then be picked up by the postsynaptic neuron. The presynaptic neuron gathers information from all its smaller branches and collects into the main channel to be released. The postsynaptic neuron distributes that information outward into its branches from its main channel. The UPS worked the same way, gathering from smaller papers into a collective before redistributing to the smaller papers once more. Gather, collect, distribute. This is more scientifically explained in the Introduction as the brain's three functions: taking in sensory information, processing between neurons, and making outputs. Who knew the neural network and the underground press worked in the same way? I imagine, like the photo series linked to above, this network pattern is likely embedded throughout the universe on every level.

Neurotransmission and Latour:

Neurotransmission is the cell to cell signaling, either chemically or electrically initiated, responsible for producing actions in the body. In discussing neurons, cells that send and receive signals, Dr. Wolfhard Almers explains, "There are neurons that send a signal to only one other cell, and there are other neurons that get input, on average, from about a thousand...There are big neurons and small neurons." This immediately reminded me of Latour's explanation of macroscopic and microscopic levels. Rather than being hierarchical, Latour's flat levels refer to the number of connections a node may have, or how saturated or dense it is, as Dr. Romberger noted. Big neurons gather input from a thousand sources while small neurons may only communicate to one single other cell.  This speaks to the requirement of a network to have variation in connectivity. Both large-scale, general nodes and small-scale, specialized nodes are needed.

Growth in the Neural Network:

Our case study assignments ask us to think about how networks grow, change, and dissolve. The information from the online chapter speaks to this question in several ways. First, there is the notion that "synapses are more plastic than fixed." These delivery and reception systems not static; they are in fact changed by the transmission process. In other words, functioning as a part of the network changes the participants. I am thinking of the observer effect in some way; we cannot be a part of something without having some effect or being affected. This strikes me as an essential part of the Ecology theory. There is an implied responsibility to being a part of a network because our presence will always have a mutable effect. The concept of long-term potentiation is also relevant here because it too implies long-term effects of action in a network. Here the idea is that once a synapse is fired, it becomes somehow enhanced. From that point on, it operates at an increased rate; the initial spark lasts even after the original stimulus. 

Don't step on any butterflies. Image from Amazon.
The chapter also explains that the "neuronal network" is also responsible for creating memory. To do this, certain synaptic connections are enhanced while others are limited. This process of growing and restricting "sculpts" the pathways that allow memory to be formed and retrieved. I think this is also a key concept when thinking about growth. It is a dual process of encouraging certain areas while actively limiting others. It can be easy sometimes to focus on one or the other - like praise to encourage without disciplinary consequences to limit or vice versa. Perhaps the lesson here is that healthy growth or improvements require both encouragement and constraints.

Neurons Need Neurons:

I was really taken by the concept of action potential. As I understand the term, it is a recognition that the signal "propagated along a neuron" is only a potential action until it is received by a another neuron's receptors. The term fascinates me because it is implying the interdependence of one neuron on another. In isolation, a neuron can only ever have the potential to do something, the impulse or possibility for action. Without another neuron, that potential can never be realized. Participation in a network allows, perhaps requires, collaboration to achieve action. Nodes need and depend on one another more fully than I had previously considered. 

Image by quick meme

Manuel Castells:


“I contend that around the end of the second millennium of the common era a number of major social, technological, economic, and cultural transformations came together to give rise to a new form of society, the network society, whose analysis is proposed in this volume” (xvii).
The summary of this text above provides a succinct description of Castells' explorations. The Preface provides a more detailed overview of the main themes:
  1. The global financial crisis of 2008 was only possible in a networked world. 
  2. Labor, work, employment have been fundamentally changed bu connective technology. 
  3. Communication has been transformed through the internet, wireless technology, and user-generated content. Horizontal networks emerge to replace vertical networks. Rather than receiving information, we are now able to create communication. The horizontal networks is “built around peoples’ initiatives, interests, and desires” (xxviii). 
  4. Space and time as humans understand it has been altered. Concentrations of “wealth, power, and innovation on the planet" have led to the creation of "mega-nodes." However,  "few people in the world feel identified with the global, cosmopolitan culture that populates the global networks” (xxxix). There is a schism between globalization and human tendency to connect more deeply locally. 
  5. Humans experience time depending on how their lives are structured; there is subjectivity now in how we experience time since we are able to exert more control over time units than before. Where time had previously been controlled by external sources, we now have "timeless time." We control time rather than let it control us - subverting biological clocks and labor schedules with flex time - an attempt to “annihilate time”. Unfortunately, this leads to a manic pace. Castells writes, “Why do people rush all the time? Because they can beat their time constraints, or so they think” (xli).
    Losing the battle against time in the networked world. Image by clairestevenson posted on deviantart.
  6. Lastly, theory and research must make sense of things. Castells argues, “The value of social research does not derive only from its coherence, but from its relevance as well. It is not a discourse but an inquiry” (xliii). The implication is for scholarship in the networked world to be of the world and not simply about it. Research should be useful.

Some thoughts about above:

    • Is the UPS a kind of horizontal network in contrast to the vertical networks of the mainstream media? (number 3)
    • Castells argument about research being useful seems to fit with the Participatory/Advocacy  methodology, which aligns with my own approach to scholarship. Could he be a helpful voice when it comes time to work on the dissertation and have the need to ground my thinking/decisions in a framework? (number 6)

One more thought:

In this hyper-connected, networked society, are we creating as many divisions as we are collaborations?

Castells writes:
“The constitution of a new culture based on multimodal communication and digital information processing creates a generational divide between those born before the Internet Age (1969) and those who grew up digital” (xviii).

“Global networks included some people and territories while excluding others, so inducing a geography of social, economic, and technological inequality” (xviii).
The first quote suggests there is a generational division, and the second quote speaks to the digital divide. Is it simply a matter of time before there are only post-Internet Age humans left on the planet, thus eliminating that gap? Is it reasonable to think that eventually the network will fiber-optically weave through even the most remote of places on the planet? My instinct is to say no. Access and familiarity are two reasons that keep people divided in this society, but there is an active culture of anti-technology that makes the conscious choice to remain disconnected. It is not reasonable to think this element would simply disappear. The graphic below showing Facebook users in different categories suggests that while older people have an increased use of Facebook, young people have discontinued use by over half. How does this trend align with the divide along age lines that Castells notes? Could it be a rejection of the over-mediated, hyper-networked society? Pendulums always swing back in the other direction.


Scholarship Changing the World:

“I believe, in spite of a long tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, that observing, analyzing, and theorizing are a way of helping to build a different, better world. Not by providing answers…but by raising some relevant questions” (4).
I would just like to say that I am kind of in love with Castells. His writing is theoretical, but so readable and almost casual in tone. He is self-deprecating and humble about his work. He is funny (saving us from the bibliographic jungle? awesomeness.). But this quote is really where he wins me over. He connects back to the number six point from the Preface. Without being aggressive, he sincerely holds to a kind of practical idealism. We are not here to save the world, but we can, in a small way, help to guide things in a better direction. We can probe and problematize and rethink and remap our way to greater awareness and communal knowledge. Amen!

Castells and UPS:
  • “The outcome was a network architecture which, as its inventors wanted, cannot be controlled from any center, and is made of thousands of autonomous computer networks that have innumerable ways to link up, going around electronic barriers” (6). I like this quote as a reference to Spinuzzi's workarounds and also the UPS as a way of "linking up" despite technological barriers.
  • “Thus, humankind as a collective producer includes both labor and the organizers of production, and labor is highly differentiated and stratified according to the role of each worker in the production process” (15). Another potential idea for thinking of the UPS. The UPS is often marginalized as a simple distribution system amidst the larger or more important work of the underground papers producing content. However, here there is the sense that the two roles - labor (producing content) and organizers of production (UPS distribution/connection/archiving system) are equally important.

Chapter One:

  • Castells explains that there were three stages of user interaction with technology: "the automation of tasks, and experimentation of uses, and a reconfiguration of applications." He continues, "In the first two stages, technological innovation progressed through learning by using, in Rosenberg’s terminology. In the third stage, the users learned technology by doing, and ended up reconfiguring the networks, and finding new applications" (31). I think this speaks to the theme I have been working on this semester of using technology versus making technology - "critical making" in the digital humanities. We have traversed the first two stages and now must equip ourselves to lead students and scholars through the third stage.
    Digital fluency must now mean the ability  to create and understand the processes of creation. We must become fluent and help others reach Castells' third stage as well. Image posted by Halo and Minecraft on Blogger 

  • “It is indeed by this interface between macro-research programs and large markets developed by the state, on the one hand, and decentralized innovation stimulated by a culture of technological creativity and role models of fast personal success, on the other hand, that new information technologies came to blossom” (69). More fodder for the case study. Decentralized innovation stimulated by creativity and successful role models leading to a blossoming of work. This is exactly what happened in the small communities linked to large urban papers ("macro-research programs and large markets"). They were inspired by the larger, successful papers, but developed their own styles and processes for publishing. This model of creativity trickling down from massive producers to smaller producers, AND that the smaller producers are innovating - not just copying - is especially interesting to my larger research goals of positioning the Southern underground papers as relevant to the broader national movement.

Works Cited:

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

"Unit 10: Neurobiology."  Rediscovering Biology. Annennberg Foundation, 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. I really like that you are making connections between how networks work and their shape. I also like that you are finding examples of style/tone of scholarship you like. (Be warned, I too like/am a more "casual" scholar and sometimes I'm called out on it!)