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Global Flows and Networks
Alex Steffen, 3 Sep 04

Brian Holmes' work on flowmaps makes my head hurt, in the good way. It's warp and woof with Thomas Barnett's "New Map" and John Arquilla's "Netwar", and of the work of Worldchanging ally Francis Pisani.

"[W]hat happens, when a world becomes visible?

"In 1996, the sociologist Manuel Castells took this high-angle view on global integration: 'Our society is constructed around flows of capital, flows of technology, flows of organizational interaction, flows of images, sounds and symbols. Flows are not just one element of the social organization; they are the expression of processes dominating our economic, political and symbolic life.' Castells focuses on the ways that managerial elites have constructed a world-girdling space of commercial and industrial operations, articulated by electronic signals circulating in real time. He describes the technological innovations that underlie this space of flows, as well as the social formations that uphold it. He does not claim that it is the only relevant social space on planet earth, but he does claim that it is dominant – and foresees its domination extending far into the future.

"Three years later, in an article entitled Computer-linked Social Movements and the Global Threat to Capitalism, the activist-academic Harry Cleaver took an opposite, subterranean perspective, not from above but from below the territory of everyday experience: 'As a metaphor for thinking about the ceaseless movement that forms the political life and historical trajectory of those resisting and sometimes escaping the institutions of capitalism, I have come to prefer that of water, of the hydrosphere, especially of oceans with their ever restless currents and eddies, now moving faster, now slower, now warmer, now colder, now deeper, now on the surface. ...

"These two perspectives on the global integration process are opposites: they sketch out an antagonism, a field of cultural and political conflict. Yet they share the image of flows, along with a reference to computer communications. ... The maps that issue from this imaginary space of flows both express and actively influence the development of a globally interacting society..."

The world's a profoundly weird place these days. Understanding global nets and flows is critical to understanding anything at all about the world in which we live. This is a dense and darn-near reader-hostile essay, but it's worth pulling it apart and looking for the many little crunchy good parts.
(thanks, Ally #1!)

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Food for thought indeed. Of particular interest to me is that he notes the ever-increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Money chases money, and those that don't or can't are left ever further behind. What he perhaps mentions tangentially but fails to note directly is a phenomena most directed represented by the open source movement: the gift economy.

In fact Holmes talks directly about activism, and reaction to this disparity, but I see a very distinct difference between pointing out disparities (the goal of activism), and directly acting in a way counter to obviously established patterns (the goal of activity-ism, to coin a word).

There are large and probably exponentially-growing groups of people who are ignoring the "chain of command" entirely, and seeking to directly effect functional change by building new and useful tools and services. All of this is empowered by the same network that has facilitated the globilization of capital. What, for instance, will be the result of putting an internet terminal in the home or village of India's or China's rural poor?

Collectively, we the workfare state (since I'm definitely not part of the elite :-) represent most of the planet's population. When we get together (something a lack of available communications has prevented for most of human history), we can have a rather dramatic impact, not just on policies or politics, but directly and economically. Witness the effect of Linux on Microsoft, the P2P effects on the entertainment industry, or though political, the effect of on U.S. politics.

Ironically, the same information network that has so fueled the flames of global economics provides all of us with the tools to behave in a fundamentally different way. We can act for ourselves, and effectively "opt out" of globalization and it's frequently ill effects by choosing to make our own lives better through community-based efforts. So where Holmes implicity seems to see negative trends, I also see very positive possibilities.

Posted by: neil verplank on 4 Sep 04



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