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Towards a Cultural Connectionism:
The search for organizational models for a post-web world
By Roger F. Malina, rmalina@prontomail.com

Physical systems of individual elements exhibit a variety of group phenomena. One of the most elegant examples is the work of C.C. Lin and F. H. Shu that demonstrated how spiral patterns develop in galaxies as wave patterns arising from the gravitational interaction between stars. Such phenomena demonstrate how interaction between elements can lead to coherent phenomena over physical and temporal scales much larger than the dynamic timescales of interaction between the elements themselves.

In biological systems, individual elements endowed with memory, learning and intentionality, interact in complex phenomena that we associate with living systems such as culture and civilization. Some have argued that consciousness itself is an emergent property of networks of agents with certain critical properties. Connectionist theories http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~philos/MindDict/connectionism.html are for instance advocated within the cognitive sciences as an approach for modeling the functioning of the brain.

In the cultural field, thinkers such as Gregory Bateson, Teilhard de Chardin, Roy Ascott and others have sought to describe how we can see the emergence of a "Mind at Large", "Noosphere" or "Planetary Consciousness". Such analyses have been based on analysis of observations embedded in metaphorical narratives that in themselves inject intentionality into future developments. See for instance Roy Ascott http://www.labart.univ-paris8.fr/ciren/conferences/ascott.html for a very recent update of these arguments.

As we progressively "hard wire" more and more of the planet we are conducting an experiment in the development of a complex system for which human history provides few antecedents. This new connectivity provides feedback loops that occur on time scales and geographical scales that are unprecedented. In this new environment certain skills in enhancing or provoking group behavior have a new currency and critical value. Already techniques are being developed to monitor and map the emergence of coherent on-line communities defined through their connectivity. See http://www.webselforganization.com

The proliferation of artists projects exploring collaborative work, collective work and cooperative work is indicative of a new value system that goes far beyond post modern discussions on the distributed or disappearing author. See for instance the webring of artistís projects maintained by Tamara Lai at http://www.tellamouse.be.tf . The latest issues of Switch (issue 17) http://switch.sjsu.edu is dedicated to discussions of collaborative work and provides extensive discussion of the issues involved.

A research literature on the different modes of human organization in distributed but linked systems is beginning to develop. See for instance Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, EDS "Distributed Work" (2002, MIT Press). Crude efforts at mobilizing mass movement of people (e.g. Seattle) are early indicators of new strategies. More indicative of future models are the open source movements first applied in software development but now being extended to other activities. See for instance http://news.openflows.org/article.plsid=02/04/23/1518208&mode=thread which discusses the application of open source methods to the gathering of information

Problems in vocabulary are indicative that we need a gestalt switch. We see this not only in discussions of collaborative work but also in the endless fruitless discussions of inter/multi/transdisciplinarity and even in how we view the new space of action as multi-media/inter/virtual/integrated media. The very words collective, cooperative and collaborative are ideologically loaded within organizational models that accompanied 20th century Marxist analysis. The theory of organizations needs to be recast in the context of cybernetics, graph and network theory as well as in the sciences of complexity, cognition and consciousness. A number of recent books are beginning to address cultural aspects of network theory. See for instance Small Worlds by Duncan Watts (1999, Princeton University Press). A very interesting book by Alberto-Laszlo Barabosi "Linked: the New Science of Networks" ( 2002,Perseus Publishing, 2002) makes a compelling case that the basic theory of networks leads to useful applications in fields as diverse as biology, economics and computer systems. Growing networks are fundamentally different from networks that are static or growing slowly. This new emerging theoretical framework is likely to have wide repercussions as the theories provide predictive tools on the growth of networks, their behaviors, and vulnerabilities, which will have applications in wide fields. This is perhaps one of the best examples of the principle of E.O. Wilson's "conscilience' or useful transfers of theoretical structures from one field to another.

As pointed out by writers such as Virilio http://proxy.arts.uci.edu/~nideffer/_SPEED_/1.4/articles/derderian.html, global networks create the context for global scale accidents. We need to inject memory, learning and intentionality into new connectionist organizational approaches.

Members of the Leonardo network (http://www.leonardo.info) are involved in a number of projects that address the development of the new strategies. For instance Julien Knebusch http://www.olats.org/setF12.html is leading a Leonardo/OLATS project entitled ' Fondements Culturels de la Mondialisation' ( Cutlural Roots of the Global Condition) which seeks to make visible the way that artists have addressed through a variety of ways ( telematic art, planetary art, net art etc) art marking in this new context. Most discussions of globalization are embedded in political and economic analyses. This project seeks to look at the way artists, as early adopters of networked technologies have explored the new potentialities "from the node out" rather than "from the ground up".

Leonardo is collaborating with Julian Gresser in the establishment of Alliances for Discovery http://www.logosnet.com that seeks to attack some of the serious problems that have resisted breakthrough by mobilizing a series of tools for collaboration and alliance building. One example is to seek a breakthrough in treating early childhood onset diabetes. In addition Alliances for Discovery will use many of the management tools used in establishing strategic alliances http://www.strategic-alliances.org in the business world, and seek to apply them in the context of research and invention.

Leonardo is collaborating with the UC Berkeley Center for Science Education in a NASA funded study developing user input for the proposed Virtual Observatory http://cse.ssl.berkeley.edu/nvo/nvo.htm. This initiative in the US and Europe seeks to develop a seamless cross linking of all archives of astronomical data taken by either space based or earth based telescopes. Instead of pointing a telescope at a point in the sky, an observer would point at a point in a "virtual" sky, retrieving all available data taken in that direction in space. This project must cross-link large heterogeneous databases and through grid computing enable science that cannot be done any other way. This distributed system must deploy strategies that are radical extensions of the current peer-to-peer systems that are proliferating on the web. A focus group of artists working with the UC Center for Science Education is meeting to imagine future needs of such a system. It has not escaped astronomers that the most frequent visitors to astronomical web sites are not astronomers but "the public at large". How does one tap into this interest?

One of the most impressive examples of collective work in the web environment is the SETI 'at home' project
http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu which has resulted in one of the largest computing projects in history to analyze radio signals for the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Over three million home computers are now donating time to this project which is a kind of "collective" effort that would have been impossible to implement in a pre web age.

Other projects are proliferating that seek to enlist the public in activities of "amateur science". The Clickworker project for instance enlists the help of on line collaborators to develop detailed analyses of the Martian surface, asteroids and other bodies currently being mapped http://clickworker.arc.nasa.gov top In these and other amateur science projects thousands of volunteers are enlisted to carry out distributed work on a scale that would be difficult to imagine except in the post web world.

Creative Disturbance is currently working with the Straddle3 group in Barcelona. Straddle3 http://straddle3.net is a new kind of artists collective embedded in a growing "collective of collectives" in a district of Barcelona, Spain, that is currently being redeveloped. Straddle3's projects, involving computer scientists, architects, designers and journalists range from the leading art, science and technology weblog http://straddle3.net/context to urban redesign projects, interior and book design to a project to develop software that "detects and tracks the emergence of a new idea in an intellectual community". Other notable collectives include Sarai in New Delhi (http://www.sarai.net ), closely associated with the Indian open source movement. Similar responses are seen in the emergence of "The New Associationism" movement in Japan.

Artists groups are very active in the development of such architectures of "collectives of collectives" on a planetary scale. Within these emerging web sub structures there is a proliferation of cooperation, as well as collaborative projects for a variety of purposes and on a variety of scales. Many such projects are "temporary organizations" that seem to be characteristic of a well-connected network. It is often easier to set up a new on line organization than to convince an existing organization to change direction or abandon long irrelevant assumptions.

It is clear that organizational models prevalent in the 19th and 20th century ( Federations, Unions, Cooperatives, Corporations, Collectives) are ill adapted to the new global condition, at least in their pre-web incarnations. In the tightly linked system that characterizes the web, there are very different behaviors and success rates of collective strategies (shared resources for multiplicity of outcomes), cooperative strategies (coordinated resources for parallel outcomes) and collaborative strategies (pooled resources for shared or joint outcomes).

Through the development of new connectionist strategies of collaboration, cooperation and collective work we will hopefully find out quickly whether September 11 was a bug or a feature of the world we now live in.

(I thank Roy Ascott, Josep Saldaña, Michael Punt for comments on an earlier version of this column).

(art + science) x technology = innovation + meaning
June 12, 2002 Issue

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