Is the Net Working?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Almost a full year ago, while I was still an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I was given the assignment to create some new and original “ism” — some philosophical worldview that had never been thought of before. It was a daunting task. More intelligent, more creative, and more angst-ridden people have already formulated ideologies about nearly everything under the sun (and above it), and they’ve been doing so for centuries. But something worthwhile did emerge from the Presumably First Ever Ism Summit — the concept of “Networkism.” This simple student-produced school of thought resonated with me as a sociology major living in a communications major’s body.

The manifesto of Networkism — drafted, unfortunately, not by my group — held that all people, things and ideas in existence are interconnected infinitely. It’s not a novel concept, to be sure, but what philosophy can be anymore? I still remember the group’s inspired presentation. With just four hand-drawn and hand-colored pictures, the students told a story that purposely went nowhere but was about everything: A hole in the ozone layer represented “pollution”; “beauty” was an orange and purple sunset, which we now know is helped along, aesthetic-wise, by the abundance of CFCs in our atmosphere; “romance” was a couple viewing this sunset; and “etiology” was the girlfriend having used a can of hairspray in getting ready for the date.

We love the Internet because it represents Networkism’s upside. The “Interwebs,” as the cool kids these days say, are a breeding ground for the Hegelian dialectic : There are ideas (theses), rebuttals to those ideas (antitheses), and everything that happens in between, which usually involves the two (often more) sides making concessions and hybridizing concepts (synthesis). Networkism makes all of this happen, and it makes it happen instantaneously. It connects the CFCs to the sunset to the hairspray. But nothing is good in excess, right? While most everyone wants and likes feeling connected to other people and ideas — contributing to the dialogue, feeling visible, accepted and socially relevant — is it not somewhat unnatural how easily this is achieved with just keystrokes? The Networkism zeitgeist may, in fact, only be facilitating illusions of relevance and cheapening social capital, which makes connectivity all the less impressive.

We need to start asking a question in the face of Networkism: Is it possible to be too plugged in? A popular theory in sociology called “the strength of weak ties” says that it’s good to have a social circle composed of people we’re not exactly close to because it broadens our horizons. I suppose that’s why Facebook bothers differentiating between “Friendship” and “Networking” in its “Looking for” options, and I suppose that same logic can extend to ideologies and schools of thought — as in, it’s probably good to swim in a sea of many ideas, some even polemical or counterintuitive to our own, than to wade in a pool of like-mindedness. But if we are actually pushed farther apart due to the ease and ubiquity of technological connectivity, a more intuitive theory called “the weakness of weak ties” may need development. Networkism could actually be making the interweaving of concepts so quick and easy that finding meaningful patterns is harder than ever.