Ned Rossiter (2006) Organised Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions

Rotterdam: NAi Publishers. ISBN 90-5662-526-8..

Kirsty Robertson

Ned Rossiter’s complex and thought-provoking book, Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions, focuses on emergent institutional forms characterizing systems of networked communication. Rossiter argues persuasively that in the discussion of networked culture, a reformulation of traditional thinking around organizations is necessary in order to counteract the obsolescence of representational democracy, and to refocus attention on relational moments of antagonism outside of state structure and immanent to online networks. Thinking about network culture in this manner offers the possibility of rethinking the sustainability of critique in a world that is often characterized as one with ‘no outside,’ that is, a society in which everything is co-opted, leaving no independent position from which to stage a critique. In order to do this, Rossiter locates his main argument in a contrast and comparison between the networked organization and the organized network, the first characteristic of hierarchical and centrally organized institutions, the latter defined by its horizontal organization and vertical mode of interaction. Organized networks are described as enablers of change, as emergent socio-technical forms that arise from the limits of both tactical media and more traditional institutional structures. It is suggested that the organization of the apparently chaotic multitudes operating in cyberspace as a part of the ‘disorganized’ creative labour underlying the systems of intellectual property offers the potential for non-representational radical forms of democracy that can work against the vagaries of neoliberalism. ‘Transformation,’ Rossiter writes, ‘is conditioned by a capacity to become organized’ (215).

Arguing that neoliberalism and economic globalization have created a situation wherein the former institutions of organization (for example unions, the state, the firm or the university) can no longer function as sites for political change, Rossiter suggests that the solution lies in the socio-technical dynamics of the mailing list, blog, wiki or content management system (14). Such formations, he argues, form the basis of distributive, non-linear and project-based organized networks that work against the bureaucratic sclerosis that threatens even the most radical networked organizations (49).

Honing in on the term network itself, Rossiter notes that it has become near ubiquitous, a pervasive metaphor used ‘to describe a range of phenomena, desires and practices in contemporary societies’ (46). The utopian language often associated with networks –fluidity, community, flexibility, openness, transparency, and speed –refers not only to the utopian potential of networks, but also to the way that networks are ‘produced by regimes of power, economies of desire and the restless rhythms of global capital’ (48). The latter, however, is often ignored, so much so that the political potential of networks is misdiagnosed, associated with the chaotic and open potential of the network, while overlooking the way that that very openness is conditioned by the structures of power being critiqued (48). Thus, the challenge for politically active networks is not necessarily to create new tactics, but ‘to make strategic use of new communications media in order to create new institutions of possibility’. That is, to organize.

It is in this call for organization that Rossiter’s argument differs from those of many other theorists working in the area. Where often the chaos and disorganization of the multitude is celebrated as an important condition of possibility (see, for example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri), Rossiter points instead to the imbrication of networks within capitalist society, their complexity, and the way that, rather than being limitless and borderless, networks are always already in between –a part of the state, but not reducible to it, a part of capitalism, but not reducible to it (39). It is therefore necessary to understand the limits of networks in order to understand their potential. Disorganization, Rossiter argues, is a dead end street –what enables the opposition also contradictorily enables the very framework of power it seeks to disrupt, and in turn creates the precarious labour that defines both the fluidity of network structures and post-Fordist labour. As Rossiter writes, ‘The tendency to describe networks in terms of horizontality results in the occlusion of the “political”, which consists of antagonisms that underpin sociality. It is technically and socially incorrect to assume that hierarchical and centralizing architectures and practices are absent from network cultures’ (36). The internet is not an inherently democratic institution, and while it may encourage practices of collaboration and sharing, these are not immanent to its being. In other words, while organized networks can be described as relatively autonomous, in order to remain sustainable a certain degree of hierarchization and centralization is necessary.

Thus, for Rossiter, it is not disorganization that should be celebrated, but organization that should be encouraged. Without organization, the purported radicality of networks is both effect-less and affect-less, operating within regimes and structures of power, yet having no effect on them. ‘Networks are at a turning point and their capacity to exist depends on developing technics of organization’, he writes (56). Thus, the goal is to ‘scale up their operations in ways that would situate them within the formal/centralized quadrant, but in a manner that retains their informal, distributed and tactical capacities’ (75). The central objective of Rossiter’s project, then, is to find this balance: how can organized networks participate as players in state and non-state policy and tactical initiatives without losing the fluidity that separates them from already existing structures?

The precarity of the network is both its strength and its weakness, and even as people engage and disengage, even during periods of activity and inactivity, there is potential to organize within those limitations. What the organized network offers is the potential to be organized, yet not necessarily co-opted. Never static, the organized network can do more than simply point out the problem, more that be stultified in the wake of an all-encompassing capitalism.

In a sense, Rossiter’s formulation follows the tired debate over where radicality should be situated –inside or outside of institutionalized power. But tired is the key word here, and though at times Rossiter’s working through of his theory does threaten to fall in with this division, or even to tumble momentarily into a celebration of the neoliberal frameworks he purports to criticize, his nuancing of the intimate relations between networks and institutions already in existence does complicate the binary position of the above critique. It is the subtlety of Rossiter’s argument that makes it both political and effective. The idea, he suggests, is not to bureaucratize the flows of information, but to encourage the emergent institutional forms that appear and disappear, but nevertheless have the potential to effect change beyond the realm of the virtual.

And yet, organized networks are not yet recognized as actors as such, and must be so in order to effect any change. Moving outward from the definition of the organized network, Rossiter analyzes the impact on organized networks of the development of the creative industries model as an outgrowth of neoliberalism and Third Way politics in Britain. Characterized by precarious, flexible labour, the creative industries model has broadly impacted the development of networks, and also of a large unorganized workforce involved in the production of content and IP. Rossiter repurposes the ‘disorganized labour‘ inherent to the creative industries model to ask how it ‘might institute a mode of organizing sociality immanent to networked forms of communication media’ (27). The question then becomes how to mobilize, and Rossiter’s answer lies in the need for a non- or post-representational democracy.

Turning to theorist Chantal Mouffe, Rossiter introduces agonistic democracy, using Mouffe’s theory that rational consensus is doomed to failure because it disengages with the political. Antagonism, Mouffe suggests, can be a condition of possibility (51). Mouffe’s agonistic radical democracy, however, is premised on the political institutions of the state. What happens, however, with a non-state public sphere? In the world of online networks there can be no unity or identity such as ‘the people’, and democracy cannot be organized around party politics. In the online world, the nation-state, on which much of Mouffe’s argument is predicated, does not, as such, exist. How can democracy, or one vote per person, function where participation is based on the freedom to disengage? Democracy, it would seem, cannot be easily mapped onto the network, and where attempts have taken place, they have often descended into mere lip service to representative politics (85). This scenario is clearly illustrated by the multi-stakeholder approach taken at the recent World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), where numerous non-state groups were invited to participate. At WSIS, Rossiter argues, the invitation of NGOs and other civil society groups to take part in the negotiations was celebrated as heightened democracy, yet resulted in a replication of the status quo. In fact, the very inclusion of civil society might, in this case, point to the increasing ineffectiveness of supranational governing and policy development bodies (exemplified most notably by the United States’ bypassing the UN in order to invade Iraq) (80). Nevertheless, in spite of potential ineffectiveness, it was issues of interest to large business and governments –cybercrime, security, electronic surveillance, taxation, IP protection, digital piracy and privacy –that were foregrounded, rather than, for example, concerns over Internet governance, access, the political economies of root servers and domain names, or open source software that might have more accurately represented those involved as multi-stakeholders (78).

Even if there had been a consideration of more diverse issues, in the relationship between government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations at WSIS, negotiations that took place existed in a different temporal framework from where the policies were to be implemented. The massive bureaucracies of the countries involved (after all, in spite of the apparent transnationalism of the internet, the nation state has not disappeared) contrasted with the speed at which decisions could take place within the environment of the negotiations –a networked organization trying to take on the positive aspects of the organized network without acknowledging their different systems. In the end, the involvement of extra-governmental bodies was trumped by the architecture of state implementation of programs, and the slow speed with which change could take place. At both the level of the negotiations and of global communications networks, the flow of information might be greater, but questions of accessibility remain. For Rossiter, then, more lasting change can come about from outside of the frameworks of negotiation defining contemporary talks over the future of international communications technologies. The apparent harmony created through multi-stakeholderism occludes the antagonistic relations that Rossiter argues underpin the relationship of creative industries to the organized network, of the future of democracy on the internet, and of the potential organization of labour through the organized network.

Turning to intellectual property rights, Rossiter begins to bring together the points of his book. Within the discourse of intellectual property rights, he suggests, lies the possibility of an agonistic politics. Pointing to the uneven distribution of income derived from IP, Rossiter notes the vertical imposition of IP regimes on nations that have leapfrogged liberal democracy and notions of the welfare state in order to fully participate in neoliberal democracy. In turn, such conditions bring into being the global disorganized labour (from outsourced telephone call centres to the Silicon Valley) that characterizes the labour producing IP. But, the uneven distribution of income brings with it the possibility of organization. Moving far beyond Mouffe, Rossiter notes that ‘IPRS constitute a hegemonic field of articulation of “the political” in which identities of states, peoples, NGOs, corporations and supranations entities are contested and reconstituted in ways that challenge a neoliberal order as it currently stands’ (69).

Thus, on the one hand, IP as a system for making profit is only accessible to those with economic clout and access to the information and legal systems of IP (108). But, on the other hand, the opportunity for an agonistic relationship lies in the fact that the system can be challenged from within –for example through indigenous ideas of collective ownership, or through peer-to-peer sharing or open software movements that make use of the systems of intellectual property in order to challenge their concentration in the hands of the already-wealthy (109).

Drawing together questions surrounding intellectual property with those involved in creative labour, Rossiter suggests that the way that intellectual property regimes function provides a constitutive outside for creative industries by ‘alienating labour from its mode of information or form of expression’ (113). Drawing on a series of interviews with creative ‘practitioners’, Rossiter found that in spite of the significance of IP in establishing information and knowledge economies, it is not an important source of income for most creative workers. He writes, ‘A focus on the role of intellectual property regimes reveals that the labour-power of the core constituency of the creative industries — information workers, programmers, designers, media producers and so forth –is the primary vehicle for exploitation and exclusion’ (107).

As the horizontal structure and fluid modes of creative labour give way to vertical hierarchical dimensions of the New Economy (i.e. who controls IP), then the extent to which workers are able to mobilize their potential power comes to matter greatly (141). Again, traditional forms of organization fail, for the end product here is not a material object, but a potential, the potential future value of IP (143). Indeed, the ‘disorganized labour’ noted by Rossiter (146) makes possible the exploitation of IP as a fundamental part of the building up of creative industries. It becomes difficult both to organize the workers –the precarious labour making possible these new forms of immaterial commodity, and even more so, it becomes difficult to organize action. How does one organize a strike against the immaterial? Because the product bears little relationship to its potential value, exploitation forms an undercurrent throughout (144). There is no transcendence of traditional forms of capitalism here, but rather an infolding of new issues into similar forms of exploitation. Importantly, this creates class dimension as inherent to creative labour, despite the purported openness of the system. The question is, can labour organize itself and find new forms of agency within an informational mode of connection in spite of the demise of union power? And the answer, Rossiter suggests, is yes.

Rossiter argues for what he calls a processual democracy –a post-representational form of democracy that corresponds to the new institutional forms described here as organized networks, and is also willing to admit (unlike Hardt and Negri) the class dimension of the multitude as it is categorized as the socio-technical labour power of those producing IP (198). This is co-operation as opposed to conformist unity. In the process by which the organized network is instituted lies its potential for new relations, new institutions, new socialities, new democracy.

The thread of Rossiter’s argument lies in how to engage labour power with the political, and how to strategically situate and secure a position for tactical media within socio-technical systems. He writes, ‘organized networks are the social-technical system best suited to further develop the possibility of an inclusive information society. Since they have the capacity to operate on multiple scales of practice and communication, the challenge for organized networks consists of how they will engage with their counterpart –networked organizations –which, after all, are the dominant institutions’ (96).

One of most interesting elements of this book is the way its form reveals its content. Scattered across the internet are the thoughts of Ned Rossiter that have been pummeled and cajoled into the final book, helped along through numerous previously published chapters, introduced at conferences, and built up through the input of others. The traces that make Rossiter’s work a collaborative one (its own organized network, if you will) are still apparent in the numerous conferences, listserves and postings that trace its coming into being –its own process. The work’s comparison to a network is both a strength and a weakness, for the tentacles of inquiry that form its main questions are oft forgotten in tangents that speak to the interests of the moment. What this does is give Rossiter’s book a presentism and an of the moment zeitgeist that lends it a sense of breathless excitement for the potential development of organized networks. But this also occasionally detracts from the power of what are the series of interesting and important questions that mark the trajectory of the book. In other words, Rossiter’s book is an essential one for those involved in the conversation around networks, the Internet, creative industries and IP. Yet in the balance between not boring one’s own cohort through introductory comments, and introducing the topic as a whole to a wider audience, Rossiter primarily favours the former, something that makes this a fascinating and carefully crafted book, but perhaps keeps those arguments from others who might make use of them. In some ways this is an unfair criticism –an academic text should not pander to uncomplicated analysis, but the importance of the issues covered in the book call for the greatest accessibility, something that hopefully Rossiter is able to do in his many other speaking and writing engagements.

All in all the book is an important and timely one, but one also tends to call on one’s own interests, and indeed, I found myself wondering throughout at the dismissal of tactical media. In order to argue for the organized network as both a fluid and organized structure, Rossiter is perhaps forced to shortchange the impact of protest movements and tactical media. He is careful not to dismiss them entirely, but after all, the multistakeholder approach (with all its inherent complications) taken at WSIS was a direct result of the protests at the disenfranchisement of civil society at other similar meetings. Similarly, the role of the internet in protest movements from the Zapatistas to the ‘anti-globalization’ movement and others is largely downplayed, but the net arguably set in motion the need for and construction of organized networks. This leads Rossiter to an argument that is largely disembodied, largely situated in the theoretical in spite of the role biopolitics play in creating the conditions of exploitative labour and control. Perhaps these questions define the limits (or the constitutive outside?) of Rossiter’s argument.

This is not to suggest that Rossiter’s book isn’t an important one –it is. His navigation of a clear route through some of the most tangled problems of the last decade, and his promotion of solutions to some of those problems, deserves careful consideration and indeed action.

Kirsty Robertson is an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Museum Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She recently completed a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Visual Arts and the Constance Howard Research Centre in Textiles at Goldsmiths, University of London, England. Robertson’s postdoctoral work focuses on the study of wearable technologies, immersive environments and the potential overlap(s) between textiles and technologies. She considers these issues within the framework of globalization, activism, and burgeoning ‘creative economies’. Her work has been published widely, most recently in an upcoming article on surveillance and contemporary art in The Communication Review, and in Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation//Collective Theorization (London: AK Press, 2007)