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Evolution of the Social Fabric
With the development of communication technologies, the interlacing of inter-individual relationships has become progressively intricate and difficult to comprehend. During thousands of years relationships have been mainly hierarchically structured by families or tribes, and more or less anchored on territory.
The invention of scripture, horse transportation, printing techniques, the compass, the triangular sail, steam machines, the telegraph, the radio, the telephone and now the web have each contributed to the extension of human interactions into wider spaces (Poe 2011). Authority relations have expanded in scope from family, group, tribe and city to kingdom, nation, empire, continents, etc. And communication tools played a central role in these political transformations. In parallel with the extension of the scope of social interactions, societies have often admitted simultaneously different powers, e.g. temporal versus spiritual, local versus global, corporate versus central, etc., concomitance of which has been facilitated by the development of communication technologies. For instance, printing techniques played an important role in the dissemination of ideas, which contributed to the rise of Protestantism. In the same vein, the decreasing cost of paper and the industrialization of print processes in the nineteenth century allowed the emergence of a broad audience popular press.
Here, we attempt to draw a parallel between the social fabric, which results from the interlacing of individual relationships, and distributed computing. More precisely, to record the structure of modern societies, we refer to the topology of computer networks and the architecture of parallel machines. We hope that this will help us see the “OnLife” human condition from a new and fruitful angle and that this could also help to clarify the notion of hyper-connectivity, referred to above.
It appears obvious that the connections between humans depend on their ability to exchange information and the way they communicate, both greatly affected by the development of ICTs. Classically, telecommunication engineers distinguish different modes of diffusion: unicast, where the exchange of information comes from one point—the sender—to one another—the receiver—, broadcast, where one point—the sender—sends simultaneously to all other points, and the multicast, where the information is distributed from one point to a selected set of receivers. Those modes can easily be reused to qualify human communications, which can be assimilated either to inter-individual, i.e. to unicast, or to collective exchanges, i.e. multicast. However, natural communications do not allow exchange from one person to all, that is to say, in technical terms, to broadcast information. It is only with mass media, at the end of the nineteenth century, i.e. with the development of newspaper, and, the twentieth, with radio and with television, that broadcasting took off.
Note that, in addition to these different modes of diffusion, which define different logics of communication, spatial proximity plays an important role, or more precisely, played a crucial role during thousands of years while, today, with electronic communications, it plays no role at all. More precisely, technological enhancements considerably increase the scope and the speed of information exchanges, ultimately making all the communications quasi-instantaneous on the surface of the earth.
Lastly, there are multiple communication networks that may coexist simultaneously, which does not mean that everybody has access to all of these networks. Indeed, for different reason related for instance to physical proximity, the language used, the necessary equipment, etc. between networks are barriers that are difficult to cross. However, with the Internet this multiplicity of co-existing networks tends to be reduced. To illustrate this, let us remind ourselves that the word Internet is an abbreviation of the inter-network locution, which means that this network originally constituted an attempt to connect all previous existing networks.
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