Monday, July 15, 2013

Digital Rebellions: Ulises Ali Mejias's "Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World"

Activism and academia would seem to go hand-in-hand, but often, too much of the former is seen as a detriment to the latter, thus leaving many an academic monograph equivocating its political inclinations. Such is not the case with Ulises Ali Mejias's Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World - one of the most provocative academic texts to be released in 2013. Provocative, not because of extreme claims regarding network ontology per se, but because Mejias makes his claims so fluidly and sensibly, that poking holes in his line of thought becomes not only difficult, but undesired. The overall thesis, in an exceedingly reductive form, is that networks (or, as a singular presence, the network) create inequality amongst users while perpetuating a myth of equality through democratic access to information and the ability to increase social capital through social media usage. That is, the network episteme, as Mejias calls it, "reinforces a narrative where participation is productive, while nonparticipation is destructive." Ultimately, these issues have resulted in a "nodocentrism," which accounts only for that which exists within the network, as only these nodes can be mapped, explained, or accounted for. Moreover, the network creates a monopsony, where there is only a singular buyer for a multitude of sellers (YouTube, Twitter). All of these inequalities, threats to democracy, and perpetuating of class-based income deficiencies can be traced to a network logic, which commodifies that which once belonged to the public sphere, in exchange for a fallacious sense of subjecthood belonging to individual users. Essentially, the public receives subjecthood through the network, while corporations see profit margins rise. The issues are confronted by Mejias, who seeks methods to disrupt both the network, itself, and its underlying logic. Mejias is not, however, calling for an outright rejection of the network, or its demise through illegal means such as hacking or piracy. However, he proposes that the way in which the network can ultimately crumble is if it were to be intensified to the point at which it negates itself, which can be achieved through what Mejias calls "unmapping."

If all of that sounds a tad abstracted, it's simply my attempted brevity. Mejias rarely leaves his theoretical claims as such without providing recourse to examples from the network. Referencing "Quit Facebook Day," colleges converting to Gmail, and YouTube videos, among others, Off the Network functions as a text for those new to such discussions, but would also be a welcomed addition to the bookshelves of the most hardened new media theorist. Mejias self-admits this wide-ranging desire for the book and, all things considered, he has ventured an excellent would-be manifesto, were the writing not as equally informative as it is political.

Underlying Mejias's claims are a theoretical framework drawing from the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Manuel DeLanda, primarily the former, from whom Mejias appropriates a discussion of the virtual and actual to explain network logic. Such a section serves a twofold purpose - to explicate the specificity of how the network is being conceptualized, but also to reintroduce readers to Deleuze's concepts, in a manner that is less introductory than explanatory. I am always struck in monographs by how the scholar chooses to handle information that most anyone affiliated with the field would already be familiar with. Here, Mejias introduces Deleuze not only by giving his first name, but by labeling him as "philosopher." Such is to be expected as in accordance with Mejias's introductory remarks, but he does not sacrifice rigorous scholarship for the sake of potential introductory readers - the analysis, itself, will be a challenge even for those steeped in Deleuzian language and philosophy, yet the end relation between the network and Deleuze proves apt, since as more and more aspects of the public sphere become controlled by private interests, the need to more concretely define the socio-economic functions of the network drastically increases.

If anything slacks Mejias's work, it's what often sullies any manifesto: a lack of real solutions, in favor of experimental suggestions. In other words, Mejias establishes the stakes with nuance, clarity, and compelling arguments, but the proposed resolutions, while fascinating in a theoretical sense, seem more ripe for their catchy alliterative potential than actual, practical basis. According to Mejias, the ways of disrupting or unthinking the network are to address three tenets: paradoxes, parasites, and paralogies. Unlike his earlier discussion of the network with example-based reasoning, Mejias opts to explain each of these proposed tactics through other theorists, substituting their claims for empirical evidence. For example, when discussing paralogies, Mejias simply explains the term from Jean-Francois Lyotard with quotes from Lyotard himself, as if his claims for their "resistance" capabilities suffices as data. In this case, after explaining the network through theory-example based reasoning, abandoning the earlier logic is detrimental to offering an applicable alternative. Furthermore, Mejias seemingly drops these proposals shortly after their introduction, mentioning paralogies only a single time more in the entire monograph.

These frustrations with a lack of examples are culled somewhat by a passage near the end concerning Alternate Reality Games (AGR), though it remains difficult to understand exactly how these tools pose any perceptible threat to disrupting the digital world. Nevertheless, any reader of academic-manifestos likely understands that concrete answers are seldom offered and, in most cases, even desired. Off the Network is perhaps an addendum to that rule, given the proficiency of the first half in making the economic inequalities of the network seem so egregious as to be obvious - though, of course, the user-as-product rule continues to operate unchallenged. At its heart, that is what makes Mejias's book so indispensable - its rigorous explanation of the ubiquitous on a comprehensible level. Though solutions for disruption remain unconvincing and largely absent, the idea of "unmapping" can seemingly take shape merely from the awareness of network ontology offered here. Mejias has provided an excellent starting point for further, "disruption"-based scholarship.

Off the Network was released by University of Minnesota Press on May 21st. To purchase the book, click here or to download a PDF, click here.

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