Building upon the “Renaissance Networks” Meme

In most of my work, I’ve argued in one way or another, that this “shift” to a network society is not “new” by any stretch of the imagination. It is, in fact, a shifting to a form of social relations that was dominant throughout our species history, probably as early as Australopithicines (if not earlier), and not replaced by another form until circa 10-12,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revoltion (aka the Neolithic Revolution). I find it exceedingly unlikely that any species would evolve for several millions of years without developing specialized neural circuitry to handle the problems and opportunities inherent in their social environment (along with mechanisms to detect cheaters). As Cosmides and Tooby have noted, “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind”.

Inherent in much of the discussion over this “shift” is a concept of linear time that I find exceedingly frustrating. The implication is that this shift is either an evolution (or revolution… take your pick) that is following along some pre-determined teleological vector. What is lost in the discussion, mainly because the linearity of time is assumed, is the recognition that this is not a “radical” change but, rather, a “phase change” – a shift between different forms of social relations, all of which are inherent in the human species (see Alan Fiske’s Structures of Social Life).

“Phase transition” is a nice analogy from physics, which my longtime friend Dr. Von has applied to discussions of “emergence” and network theory in the past. I agree that it is a useful way of shorthanding complex but apparently seamless changes in human social network behavior, where “tipping points” mark significant alterations, that we cannot explain as a sequential process.

In any event, cyclical conceptions of society and time have a long pedigree. Polybius argued for cyclicality in governance as did Confucianist assumptions regarding virtue and the mandate of Heaven or salvation concepts inherent in Hinduism and Buddhism. What social network phase transitions may be creating may be less cyclical in nature though than asynchronous; permitting divergence, co-evolutionary development and fusion of behavioral trend lines.


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1 comment on this post.
  1. Drew Conway:

    A much more cerebral take on this meme from the elder Conway, and I thought you might enjoy it: <a href="