We cannot become a Network Society until we understand the Networked Dimension

This is a useful introduction to the idea of ‘Network Society’ although I have a slightly alternative take on it and a much more positive view of how this could benefit society.

I believe that we exist within a very different reality than we did 20 years ago.

At some time during this period there was an inflection point whereby networks no longer only existed from our eyes, screens and fingers forward but from all points everywhere at all time.

At that time our entire social reality entered for wants of a better term — a Networked Dimension.

We didn’t see it happen and everything felt the same.

But a fundamental shift occurred and recognising that it has may help us to understand how this new networked dimension to our reality could be utilised to advance society and solve some of the issues we face.

When I look around I can see lots about networks but they are always either social study or network theory/science.

It’s the study of the thing or of arising phenomenon.

I’m suggesting something much more fundamental.

This isn’t Network Theory, or Network Thinking, or Network Perspective, or anything else I can find out there. These all have their use in understanding networks but I feel there is another step we need to take back.

Of interest is the work of June Holley and co of Network Weavers where (social) relationships become the focus.

Simone Cicero’s work with platforms and ecosystems is related.

Actor Network Theory too for its attempts to explain the way the world works. I’m not proposing anything quite that grand!

I guess it’s a question of abstraction and perspective.

20th Century Thought

When we look at how society and the economy works it would be fair to say that it’s quite object based, hierarchical, machine like and Newtonian.

It’s perfectly obvious that it would be. That’s the history of our thinking and the civilisation that we have built with it.

It could be no other way than it is.

Everything currently looks a bit like like this.

Our organisations look like this. Our institutions. Our economy. Our education system.

But what if I told you that now we have entered a Networked Dimension it’s possible to completely rethink all of this.

Thinking Abstractly

The idea of the Networked Dimension allows us to conceive of an abstract model for our existing reality.

Once a society is sufficiently networked it becomes possible to view the world through another perspective — that of the network itself.

From our perspective we see networks as things that exist within our reality, we have attached them to our understanding of the world. The alternative perspective suggests that our entire social and physical world (our reality) now exists within networks and we now need an entirely new understanding for this reality.

It should then possible to also view social need and economic activity through this perspective giving different insight.

When we create an abstraction it is possible to conceive of the world in a different way.

One abstraction for our world could be:

  • Needs (purpose) exist.
  • Actors (people/organisations) exist.
  • Relationships (between actors) exist.
  • Capacities (human, knowledge, services, expertise, products etc) exist.
  • Combinations of these produce activity in the world.

I am able to connect this with my initial thoughts for a Networked Dimension.

So I am able to attach an abstracted description of the world; Needs, Actors, Relationships and Capacities to a theorised space.

This starts to give me the ability to see the world from the perspective of the network, a perspective which is not concerned with the physicality of things or the way in which things are done.

This suits a world where increasingly networks, collective efforts and place-based approaches (e.g. Asset Based Community Development) are being used.

In this world understanding the need/purpose and consistently ensuring good relationships and communication become primary concerns as opposed to who is running the show.

Local authorities and institutions begin to look more like capacity delivery and development organisations that exist to transfer skills and knowledge and provide support. Working with where possible and working for when necessary.

Previously the maturest organisations would lead, decide, enact, commission or procure now their role changes so that they are less bound to their internal structure and hierarchical role and can begin to behave in more boundaryless and relational way.

They can become networks acting in networks within the networked space.

The network perspective also places a new focus on questions of capacity and availability.

How do the capacities of organisations (resources, knowledge, expertise etc) become best available for the; multiple uses, multiple locations, multiple times, and multiple actors for which and by which they may be put to use within the network?

Previously an online library may have sufficed for knowledge distribution but now it may be that on-demand expertise or creating Continuing Professional Development opportunities may deliver and transfer capacity far more effectively through the network.

It is a different type of thinking more suited to the network age.

Ensuring that networks are functional is critical.

  • What is the health of the network?
  • How is language and terminology used?
  • How are actors onboarded/offboarded?
  • How are disparities reduced or removed?
  • How is the network facilitated?
  • How is capacity developed?

These questions are not being asked within local partnerships or settings except in rare circumstances where network knowledge is available and known to be of importance.

There is no consistent approach being used even though there is a common set of concerns, needs and potential.

A Common Model for our Networked Reality

I feel that there is a way of developing a model which is beneficial to understanding how we might work with and within networks.

By removing the organisational apparatus and infrastructure from view it allows to to see the potential which exists or which could be developed further.

By understanding that the networked space obviates distance it can bring as an example national institutions and expertise into local settings alongside local actors.

By understanding capacity and how it is delivered or developed it changes how we look at our organisations and how effectively they contribute to networks or multiple outcomes.

By understanding need, potential and capacity we begin to think more developmentally about our networks and the outside world.

By understanding the need for onboarding/offboarding and the asynchronous/synchronous nature of networks it changes how we design supporting systems.

By understanding network health we can anticipate need, potential or problems ahead of time and address them as part of generalised and expected network activity.

By focusing on relationships we improve relationships across the board and contribute towards better outcomes everywhere.

These are not just understandings and awareness that are applicable to the network, they are also beneficial to us back in the real — they fundamentally change how you see the world and your place within it.

The Big Questions

Remember our entire reality has shifted into this networked dimension.

This includes our government and our legislation. It includes what we do and how we do things.

We could leave things as they are — yes.

Or we could make every effort to understand what this means and what its potential might be.

  • What could a networked society look like?
  • Should we have additional rights in this new public/private space?
  • What would networked legislation look like? How would it behave and draft in rapidly shifting contexts and to change to fit unique local contexts?
  • there is much to ask and to learn…

First we comprehend this new dimension, then we explore its potential, and then we discover a new world.

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.