In spite of recent work attempting to complicate the concept, the metaphor of the “network” as a mechanistic descriptor for how data connects us to people, places and things online persists. A common critique claims that thinking of networks this way implies an information ecology where explicit and obvious connections between “links”are most valuable because they can be tracked, marketed to, and mined for greater means of connection with “users” later. This is inadequate, the thinking goes, because living organisms and the ecologies they inhabit are simply not machines (or “not simply machines”). Even the notion of the network as an “information ecology” typically conceives of its world as too closed and too human to foster viable, holistic care for all of the people, places and things involved in it.
In common industry parlance, “network” still has these mechanistic connotations in spite of landmark work like Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity (2001) that attempted to recover the term from this history of use. In A Counter-History of Composition (2007), Byron Hawk claims that Taylor’s take on network complexity is an outgrowth of “complex vitalism,” an attempt to articulate the intricate relationships in digital technology, for example, as a living system. Thomas Rickert counters in Ambient Rhetoric (2013) thatTaylor’s theories (and even Hawk’s reconsideration of them) have a difficult time developing a theoretical language adequate for ecological concerns largely because they emphasize the explicit and overt and thereby fail to articulate ways to attune to the more implicit and covert ambient background that shapes the context from which language and conscious thought arise (99-107). Rickert claims that if we attune to ambience we will start to “push against the metaphors of node, connection, and web,” and arrive first at “metaphors of environment, place, and surroundings and second to metaphors of meshing, osmosis, and blending” (105). Taking these metaphors as a way of thinking through our immersive connection to the environments we inhabit, Rickert claims that language gets woven into the environment and becomes inextricable at the level of ambient attunement. This means that “language and environment presuppose each other or become mutually entangled and constitutive,” and this “opens us to forms of ‘connection’ that are not driven solely by links.” The implications of this are profound, knowing that this guiding metaphor of the “network” plays such a significant role in how we write online, both in algorithmic code and at the more obvious, interface level that most “users” only see.
As key participants in the construction and maintenance of digital environments, algorithm writers are at high risk of perpetuating this particularly destructive metaphorical tendency. Tarleton Gillespie claims in “The Relevance of Algorithms” (2014) that algorithms produce and certify knowledge, and this has political implications. Through Rickert we might extend this to say that when the language of an algorithm becomes presupposed, its driving metaphors do as well. Gillespie’s model is a good starting point, but his concern is largely for the human public. His ideas do not do enough to look to the larger, nonhuman ecological matters in which algorithms interact. Without great care, such algorithms risk describing people, but also places and things as mere quantities, as purified, aloof or otherwise violently abstracted nouns whose role in the lives of “users” (itself a violently abstracted noun) is simplified to, say, “marketability,” or “function,” or any other violative descriptor. They risk reifying this violence into the lives of the people, places and things that come into contact with their code.
If these risks are legitimate, then a few key questions come to mind:
- How do we avoid treating the quantities (be they people, places, or things) that play an essential role in algorithms as mere (violently abstracted) objects so that, rather than becoming connotatively denigrated, they are invited to responsibly participate in whole ecologies of people, places and things?
- Rather than sweeping out these holistic connections for the sake of simplicity, marketing or other “uses,” what moral imperatives could replace this normalized thinking?” How would this thinking integrate a deeper ecological sense to be equally concerned with person-to-person ethics and those of nonhuman interaction?
There is also the interesting chicken-and-egg metaphysical question (offered by Daniel Hocutt) of whether it is only algorithm writers who must attune to their respective environments in order to write morally sound algorithms, or whether the algorithms themselves are not, in ways, seeking attunement.