Tag Archives: Individual

New Memes for a New World

Memes are cultural DNA, that is, the elements of cultural code that generate the world that characterizes a particular culture, a particular time, a particular civilization. They are the basic ideas informing a world view, articulating the values and norms that people accept as true. Memes are the design elements of a culture.

Listed below are some of the most important memes of the global network society, a society that is now emerging from the digital transformation that characterizes our world. These are new memes for a new world.

1. Information: One of the most important memes of the global network society is the idea that the world consists of information and not of things. Information is a relation and a process and not a substance, an individual entity, a bounded individual. A world of information is a world of relations and not of things.

2. Networking: Because Information is relational, it exists in networks. But networks are not things. Otherwise, we would simply have collective things instead of individual things, similarly to the way we talk about organizations instead of individuals. Networks are neither organizations, nor individuals. They are neither things nor collections or compositions of things. Networks are processes of making relations, associations, connections. One should speak of networking as a verb instead of network as a noun. Networks are not bounded systems operating to maintain their structures. They are dynamic, changing, and flexible. Human beings as well as everything else in the world are informational processes and therefore exist as networks, that is, they are ongoing, historical processes of networking. Systems are becoming networks.

3. Emergent Order: Information (and networking) is a level of emergent order above the levels of matter and life. Just as life emerged from matter, so information emerged from life. And just as life is neither reducible to matter nor can it be derived from it, so information is neither reducible to life, nor can it be derived from it. Information is therefore not cognition in the brain or a mental state. The brain does not use information. The brain is an organ of the body that is used by information. Information is a form of being in its own right and of its own kind.

4. Integration: The physical and biological substrates are integrated into information. This is the principle of integration, which states that higher levels of emergent order integrate lower levels, that is, they are more complex and variable then lower levels. This implies that with the emergence of information, matter and life have become informational processes. Just as life can do things with matter that matter could not do on its own, so can information do things with matter and life, that they cannot do on their own. The emergent nature of information and consequent integration of matter and life is why science and technology are possible.

5. Common Good: Information is a common good, a common pool resource, which implies neither that it cannot be monetized nor that it cannot be administratively regulated. It is regulated and monetized as a common pool resource within governance frameworks that are certified and audited by government. Since information is not a bounded entity, a thing, it cannot become private property. Western industrial society is based on the belief in individuals who own property.

6. Global Network Society: Society is no longer Western industrial society, but a global network society. Nation states will be replaced by global networks. Individuals and organizations are becoming networks that are not territorially defined. Society is not a group of individuals, but a network of networks. There is nothing outside of society. Nature is part of society. The integration of matter and life into information makes society all-encompassing. The world is society.

7. Governance: Society is most effectively regulated by governance instead of government. Governance is self-organization, or non-hierarchical organization. In the global network society hierarchies are inefficient and illegitimate. Decisions are made on the basis of information and not on the basis of a position in a hierarchy.  

8. Design: Governance is by design, which means, it is constructed by design processes which are guided by the network norms generating social order. Design means that networking can be done in a good or bad way. The good ways of networking can be described as network norms.

9. Network Norms: The network norms are: connectivity, flow, communication, participation, transparency, authenticity, and flexibility. These are the values and norms of the global network society.

10. Computation, Computationalism, Computational Paradigm: Information is not to be equated with digital information that can be processed electronically by computers. The computer should not be used as a metaphor for understanding either the brain or society. The brain is not a computer. Society is not a computer. A computer is a computer, and nothing else. Digital information or electronic information processing is a derivative form of information that arose late in the history of society and is dependent upon and embedded in many non-digital networks that have developed over thousands of years. Nonetheless, if computation is understood very generally to be the iterative application of simple rules to information out of which more complex forms of information arise then networking in all its forms can be considered to be computation. This general definition of computation is independent of the computer and can therefore be used as a definition of networking. Intelligence is networking. Artificial intelligence is electronic information processing.


Crazy Love or the Modern Predicament

One the most famous love stories of modern Western culture is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is a story not about love, but about what it means to be modern. What does it mean to be modern? Among the many meanings modernity may have, one is that it designates a problem. The problem is how can I be at once an individual and a member of society? The problem comes from the myth of free, autonomous individuals who originally exist in a state of nature in which they are involved in a war of all against all (Hobbes). This is chaos and a lose/lose situation in which everyone in the end dies. The only way out is for these free individuals to freely(!) enter into a social contract. But the moment they sign the contract, they become members of society and must conform to social constraints. Or, as Kant put it, henceforth there is freedom only under the law.

Paradoxically, this means that individuals can only exist when they give up their free individuality and submit to social constraints. But if they do this, and this is the paradox, then they are no longer autonomous individuals, they become products of society, that is, good citizens, family members, etc. Once the contract has been signed, the free individuals lay down not only their weapons, but also their individuality. They tend to disappear as individuals and become typical members of society. This may insure peace, but it has a price. If these free individuals disappear, then who is the social contract (society) for? In order for the contract to be valid and the law not to be mere tyranny, the individuals must be free before the law has been instituted and not only afterwards. But if individuals are free before the law, why do they need the law in the first place?

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The One and the Many or What can Sociology Learn from Physics

Ever since its beginnings in the 19th Century sociology has been concerned with the problem of the one and the many. In other words, how can individuals be integrated into society. How can one community arise from many individuals? This was not a new problem. Long before, political philosophers such as Grotius, Hobbes. Locke, and Rousseau attempted to solve this problem. For Western democracies, the answer was the social contract. Hobbes argued that the many isolated individuals, who in a state of nature were inescapably involved in a war of all against all, decide, on the basis their naturally endowed rationality, to lay down their weapons and submit to a central authority. So arose the Leviathan, or society. The individuals remained fundamentally isolated and free, since if the central authority was not strong enough to guarantee peace, it could be deposed. For Rousseau on the contrary, the individual must be completely integrated into society which becomes then not a sum of individuals, but a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts,  the “general will.” This problem was then taken up by the new science of sociology which defined itself as the study of those social structures, organizations, and institutions into which individuals were taken up, transformed into citizens, or professions such as carpenter, baker, engineer, businessperson, politician, etc. The individual became a “person” (mask) that was socially constructed. As Shakespeare said, and as modern sociological role theory assumes, social existence is role-playing. The world is a stage and all individuals are but mere actors playing the roles society puts at their disposal. This solution seems to leave out the individuals who were there first, that is, before they learned to put on masks and play roles. Who are the individuals if personal identity is through and through a social construction and it is impossible to find an individual who is not somehow already “socialized,” completely alone and so to speak “in the wild?”

What does this have to do with quantum mechanics? Does not contemporary physics face a similar problem of the one and the many: On the one side there are particles, isolated points, hard and material. And on the other side there are fields, waves, or some kind of plastic common substance that seems to be able to account for all phenomena without reference to particles.  The particle seems to have suffered a similar fate as the individual. Originally considered the basic building blocks of reality, both social and material, that from which all activities arise, both the particle and the individual have become a product of the forces that bind them together with others into a “community.” Luhmann even goes so far as to ban individuals from society, which is a system made up of communications and not of individual human beings. The debate in physics is still raging, just as in sociology. Are there particles, or fields, or both, or neither? If matter is fundamentally a field and not a perhaps infinite number of individual particles, which are somehow bound together, we have a very different vision of reality and of what we are made of than has traditionally been supposed. If neither society nor nature are made up of individuals, but of fields or relations, then we may still need to talk about individuals who are related, but they are nothing outside of these relations. The individual is no longer the beginning of social or natural order, but a way in which nature and society configure themselves and create order. Perhaps the question of the one and the many is not the right question. We do not need to start from individual things, whether individual human beings or particles and then try to figure out how and why they enter into relations with one another in such a way that order arises from chaos. We could just as well ask how and why order uses such things and whether it really needs them. Many new theoretical projects in physics are moving in this direction. In sociology there are also endeavors to simply drop the typically modern Western individualism that lies at the heart of the problem of the one and the many. Of course, people are not “vibrating strings” – or maybe they are…