Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Power of the Network

Whether they named it specifically or merely described the concept, a number of scholars we studied in my Digital Rhetoric class referred to the idea of the network in trying to understand how rhetoric finds its place in the new-media world.

Brooke (2009), in Lingua Fracta, discusses a shift of focus from text to interface in the study of rhetoric. In a similar vein, Weinberger (2002) argued that the first step in acknowledging the different space(s) of the Web is to shed the metaphor of the container, meaning that a study of a text (some object to be examined, explicated, or deconstructed) itself yields much about its ingredients (ideas and arguments), but it does not necessarily address how that text interacts with other texts. The image below captures the concept of the network, where there are sites of interaction surrounded by open space.

I recall an experience I had with this tension between text and interface when I was involved with the process of housing Hurricane Katrina evacuees at Camp Williams, Utah, in 2005.

In the fall of 2005, when thousands of Louisiana residents were left homeless in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, about 600 were flown to Utah and sheltered at Camp Williams (shown in the image below). The local and national media interest in the evacuees was intense, and as public affairs officer for the Utah National Guard, it was my responsibility—along with my public-information counterparts in Utah state government—to escort reporters onto the base and arrange for media interviews with evacuees.

At first we tried a one-to-one ratio of escorts and reporters, where one escort would accompany one reporter from the time the reporter entered the base to the time they left. However, the demand for media access to the base quickly overwhelmed our small staff of escorts. So we went to what we called a “Zone Defense.” This entailed stationing an escort at key locations on the base (information center, barracks, dining facility, recreation room), where reporters would most likely encounter evacuees, and having them assist any reporter that came to that location.

Katrina evacuees at Camp Williams, Sept. 8, 2005 (Utah National Guard photo).
We found that we were much more effective when we focused on the interface between reporter and escort in the various layers of the network rather than the labor-intensive method of focusing on a single text (meaning an individual reporter) from start to finish.

Rice (2012) put it very simply, “We live in the age of the network” (p. 5). This idea was a primary focus of his book, Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network.  He characterized Detroit “as a situation and not only as a physical space, [engaging] in a project about invention, rhetoric, and how we engage with spaces of meaning” (p. 6).

With that in mind, Rice’s (2012) citing of Hayles (2005) makes a lot of sense: “The network [is] the place where meanings come together, break apart, form hubs, connect and disconnect” (p. 6).

From a theoretical perspective, Latour (1999), is one of the main proponents of Actor-Network Theory, describing it as a “summing up of interactions through various kinds of devices, inscriptions, forms, and formulae, into a very local, very practical, very tiny locus” (p. 17), meaning that it follows the actors, describing what they do, and taking into account their individual and collective influence on each other.

In this approach, process is generally more important than content. As Rice (2012) observes, “The importance of the network is not that information connects, but rather that the connections affect other connections. . . . Networks move and are moved; they transform and translate experiences and ideas as they form and break connections. They do things “(p. 70).

Rice (2012) adds that “[Johnson’s] Sleeper Curve suggests that, in McLuhanist fashion, media content is less important that media structure. Exposure to complex structures . . . can lead to complex thinking” (p. 177).

That complex thinking is facilitated by the network. Howard (2011) contends that “the power to control information no longer resides exclusively with the institutions of the state; it resides in media networks; and media networks are constituted by social relations and communication technologies” (p. 20). And referring specifically to the social media impact on the Arab Spring—but which could be applied to the network in general—Cambié (2012) added that “co-creation—the act of producing content by sharing voices and ideas from a wide audience—is probably the most important lesson that communicators can draw” (p. 31).

Rice (2012) explains that “[we are] drawn into narratives  . . . because of a specific, personal connection” (p. 59). So, naturally, my entry point in starting this blog was to further explore my lifelong fascination with Salt Lake’s wide streets and grid system. But aren’t these simply a container which channels the traffic here and pedestrians there?

I can share my thoughts about what the founders of Salt Lake were saying when they established the grid system of wide streets in the city, and what I think others are saying back to them—which I will do in my next post—but that is merely one text that by itself will not add much to the conversation. The real issue is to get at how other Utahans and visitors to Salt Lake interface with that system, what it means to them, and how they share that information.

This can only occur through the intersection of opinion, experience, and rhetoric that is uniquely accommodated through the digital sphere.



Brooke, C. (2009). Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Cambié, S. (2012, January-February)." Lessons from the Front Line: The Arab Spring Demonstrated the Power of People--and Social Media." Communication World, pp. 28-32.

Hayles, K. (2005). My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Howard, P. (2011). Castells and the Media: Theory and Media.Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Latour, B. (1999). "On Recalling ANT." In Actor Network Theory and After. J. Law and J. Hassard (Eds.), pp. 15-25. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rice, J. (2012). Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books.

No comments:

Post a Comment