The word ecology continues to surface. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ecology as:
noun [mass noun]
| the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.
When I click on the term deep ecology (who knew?), I get something closer to the intended meaning for 'networked' practice:
noun [mass noun]
| an environmental movement and philosophy which regards human life as just one of many equal components of a global ecosystem.
On 'the network' as an ecology, Adrian Miles says:
We're just one actor in this system. We are not the centre and we're not driving it.
In fact, it also changes us. We have no control over the way Google is re-wiring our brains. A Columbia University study has found that our ability to retain information in the internet age has declined, because we know we can just 'Google it'. The way in which technologies have the ability to change our minds means we are just one part of a larger network.
In around 370 B.C, Plato wrote in Phaedrus of the moment Theuth (said to be the inventor of writing) presented his invention to god himself, the King of all of Egypt, Thamus. Thamus would regularly enquire into the uses of inventions brought to him by his people, so that they could become useful to all Egyptians in general. To him came Theuth, who had many inventions but writing was his greatest accomplishment. He claimed, to the King:
"Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt of memory and wisdom."
Plato, with exquisite foresight and wisdom, delivers Thamus' an almighty swift cutdown:
"Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this case; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have a reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society."
Of course, Plato's text is ironic; he writes his argument against writing. But what this passage communicates is that writing, as any other new technology (like the internet), can make lame the human faculty that brought it to existence; the power of the mind, leaving only a baseless impression in its place. Are our minds weakening because we have permanent storage for ideas on us everywhere we go?
The scope of these ideas, of the network, are here ruminated upon by American technologist David Weinberger. He elegantly considers The Network to be as dynamic as a human brain when defining the space of it:
'The geography of the Web is as ephemeral as human interest...'
The world of the internet is a New World. Its navigation can therefore be problematic if it has few rules of engagement and fewer lines of authority. Of time he says it is like a story in progress, whose narrative waits for the renewed want of the user:
'The Web is woven of hundreds of millions of threads like this one. And, in every case, we determine when and how long we will participate based solely on what suits us. Time like that can spoil you for the real world.'
On that last bit, Weinberger considers the difference between real-world and internet time. Real-world time is a series of "ticks to which schedules are tied" where internet time doesn't move beyond the user's interaction, waiting for the moment they should want.
Unlike real-world selves, online selves are intermittent and most important according to Weinberger, are written. Online selves are crafted; eBay user 'firewife30' is a crafted identity. New worlds create new people:
'If we're ambitious, the world appears to await our conquest...we can't describe our world without simultaneously describing the type of people we are. If we are entering a new world, then we are also becoming new people.'
The self that constitutes a continuous body moving through a continuous map of space and time is being re-written by a Web of connections no longer bound to the solid earth; we are said to have gained both the randomness and the freedom of the airborne. I wish it felt that way.
Knowledge within the network can be unsystematic and uncertified, but because it comes 'wrapped in a human voice', Weinberger argues it can be richer and in some ways more reliable:
'The lively plurality of voices sometimes can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts.'
What Weinberger concludes is that the network is based on new assumptions of space, time, self and knowledge: the Web is an enabler for shady self-exploration as much as it gives easy access to transactions of the most mundane: a quilt off eBay?
Now, I am a person who deeply values the capital of knowledge. I love learning new stuff. One of my greatest fears is to lose the faculty of mental acuity and memories so a disease like Alzheimer's. So, I can't help but find myself longing for a simpler time—when children grew up with strong arms because they used to swing on trees instead of the new kind, who see chiropractors for their unhealthy spines. I've started taking a Meisner class just so that I can connect to people by looking in their eyes and responding with an open heart. It's a simple premise and yet remarkably difficult.
What these writings communicate ultimately, is that the network is affecting the perceptions we have of ourselves as we engage, but it's also eroding human's most primally distinctive feature: our brain, our intelligence. I'd extend that to our beautiful capacity for sensitivity in the real-world. It happens because we aren't God to the network, we are just a small part of it. It plays us.