Meshworks

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Contents

Description

"Meshworks ... are articulations of heterogeneous elements in terms of their functional complementarities that result in stable structures."

There are three elements that characterize a meshwork as a structure-generating process:

a) the bringing together of a set of heterogenous elements in terms of functional complementarities (the interconnection of diverse but overlapping elements);

b) the presence of intercalary elements that facilitate the interconnection (a catalyst of sorts);

c) a stable pattern of behavior, endogenously generated, that results from the interlocked heterogeneities (examples: granite, rainforest ecosystems; small towns, self-organizing markets)." (http://www.unc.edu/oldanthro/faculty/fac_pages/escobarpapers/notesnetwork.pdf)


Characteristics

The following are some of the properties of meshworks:

a) they are self-organizing and grow in unplanned directions (such as Deleuze/Guattari’s rhizomes);

b) they are made-up of diverse elements, including of course human and hon-humans, organisms and machines, representations and the real (e.g, meshworks of germs and humans in medieval cities, or of computers and humans today);

c) they usually exist hybridized with other meshworks and hierarchies (e.g., dominant, hierarchical economic structure); there are meshworks of hierarchies (e.g., the EU) and hierarchies of meshworks;

d) they accomplish the articulation of heterogenous elements without imposing uniformity;

e) they are determined by the degree of connectivity that enables them to become selfsustaining.


And the following are some aspects of meshwork dynamics:

a) there is a double dynamic at play: the increase in diversity, and the concomitant interweaving of heterogeneous elements. Said differently, there are two moments in the construction of a meshwork: i) a localization strategy, which increases the heterogeneity between localities while that within localities decreases (increased local homogeneity, at the interior of a node or site); and ii) a strategy of interweaving, by which the heterogeneity of each locality increases, while that among them decreases. (We shall see the relevance of this dynamic for understanding subaltern strategies of localization.)

b) they may form close loops where the product of one node serves as a catalyst for another. A meshwork might start with two nodes and incorporate new nodes as long as internal consistency (“autopoiesis”) is maintained. As the meshwork complexifies, new nodes are added following a selforganizing dynamic. At some point, there obtains a self-sustained intensification maintained by new nodes inserting themselves into a growing autocatalytic loop. Meshworks are often fostered by mutually reinforcing innovations and autocatalytic loops of innovation (these are well known in the history of technology; e.g., the system coal-steam-money-mill at the eve of the industrial revolution);

c) meshworks of heterogenous elements evolve by drift (also from Maturana and Varela in relation to evolution of autopoietic systems). The environment only acts as a trigger for changes within the meshwork, but these changes are not determined by the environment (there is structural coupling between meshwork and environment with preservation of internal organization, that is, of the meshwork’s autopoiesis);

d) meshworks may be formed by motions of destratification or deterritorialization of intermediate intensity, thus connecting flows and nodes that might otherwise remain unconnected (e.g., symbiotic nets of small producers involved in volatile trade in and import substitution may have created the possibility of nonhierarchical local and regional economies in history, and may do so again in the future):

e) although meshworks result from the action of many individual and collective decision makers, they take on a life of their own. They form wholes that “add themselves to an existing population of individual structures operating at different scales” (de Landa 1997: 271). However, it is a whole that does not totalize, nor unifies, the parts but that is rather added to the parts “as a new part fabricated separately” (Deleuze and Guattari)." (http://www.unc.edu/oldanthro/faculty/fac_pages/escobarpapers/notesnetwork.pdf)

Discussion

Political Implications of Meshworks

Arturo Escobar:

"Finally, this new view of the social have at least the following political implications:

a) the mere presence of a meshwork is no guarantee that all segments of society will be under less oppressive structures. The political character of the meshwork will depend on the nature of the heterogeneous elements brought together and the types of articulations established among them, and not only on who does the meshworking or meshweaving (i.e., not only because women or subaltern groups do the meshworking will the meshworks be necessarily progressive; this will depend on the de/re-stratifications the meshwork might be able to effect). Conversely, some destratifying meshworks, such as computer networks, might also lead to reactionary restratifications. And while augmenting the proportion of meshworks in a mix of meshworks and hierarchies is destratifying, it will always be a question of strategy how far this process will be pushed;

b) meshworks may perform a destratifying function in relation to dominant forms of powerknowledge: destratified power operating through a multiplicity of informal constraints. These constraints operate as catalysts or triggers in the formation of meshworks;

c) strategies of domination may also form meshworks, such as the ensemble of political technologies that resulted in the formation of the disciplinary society discussed by Foucault. These technologies might form a blueprint or general method (Foucault’s panopticon), or the congealment of nonlinear flows into a set of practices, institutions and discourses (their “mineralization,” in de Landa’s terms)" (http://www.unc.edu/oldanthro/faculty/fac_pages/escobarpapers/notesnetwork.pdf)


Hierarchies and Meshworks are always mixed

Manual De Landa:

"Herbert Simon's distinction between command hierarchies and markets may turn out to be a special case of a more general dichotomy. In the view of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, this more abstract classes, which they call strata and self-consistent aggregates (or trees and rhizomes), are defined not so much by the locus of control, as by the nature of elements that are connected together. Strata are composed of homogenous elements, whereas self-consistent aggregates articulate heterogeneous elements as such. {6} For example, a military hierarchy sorts people into internally homogenous ranks before joining them together through a chain of command. Markets, on the other hand, allow for a set of heterogeneous needs and offers to become articulated through the price mechanism, without reducing this diversity. In biology, species are an example of strata, particularly if selection pressures have operated unobstructedly for long periods of time allowing the homogenization of the species gene pool. On the other hand, ecosystems are examples of self-consistent aggregates, since they link together into complex food webs a wide variety of animals and plants, without reducing their heterogeneity. I have developed this theory in more detail elsewhere, but for our purposes here let's simply keep the idea that besides centralization and decentralization of control, what defines these two types of structure is the homogeneity or heterogeneity of its composing elements.

Before returning to our discussion of agent-based interfaces, there is one more point that needs to be stressed. As both Simon and Deleuze and Guattari emphasize, the dichotomy between bureaucracies and markets, or to use the terms that I prefer, between hierarchies and meshworks, should be understood in purely relative terms. In the first place, in reality it is hard to find pure cases of these two structures: even the most goal-oriented organization will still show some drift in its growth and development, and most markets even in small towns contain some hierarchical elements, even if it is just the local wholesaler which manipulates prices by dumping (or withdrawing) large amounts of a product on (or from) the market. Moreover, hierarchies give rise to meshworks and meshworks to hierarchies. Thus, when several bureaucracies coexist (governmental, academic, ecclesiastic), and in the absence of a super-hierarchy to coordinate their interactions, the whole set of institutions will tend to form a meshwork of hierarchies, articulated mostly through local and temporary links. Similarly, as local markets grow in size, as in those gigantic fairs which have taken place periodically since the Middle Ages, they give rise to commercial hierarchies, with a money market on top, a luxury goods market underneath and, after several layers, a grain market at the bottom. A real society, then, is made of complex and changing mixtures of these two types of structure, and only in a few cases it will be easy to decide to what type a given institution belongs." (http://t0.or.at/delanda/meshwork.htm)


Technical Meshworks as a mode of governance

Primavera De Filippi:

"Beyond the benefits of costs and elasticity, little attention has been given to the real power of mesh networking: the social impact it could have on the way communities form and operate.

What’s really revolutionary about mesh networking isn’t the novel use of technology. It’s the fact that it provides a means for people to self-organize into communities and share resources amongst themselves: Mesh networks are operated by the community, for the community. Especially because the internet has become essential to our everyday life.


Instead of relying on the network infrastructure provided by third party ISPs, mesh networks rely on the infrastructure provided by a network of peers that self-organize according to a bottom-up system of governance. Such infrastructure is not owned by any single entity. To the extent that everyone contributes with their own resources to the general operation of the network, it is the community as a whole that effectively controls the infrastructure of communication. And given that the network does not require any centralized authority to operate, there is no longer any unilateral dependency between users and their ISPs.

Mesh networking therefore provides an alternative perspective to traditional governance models based on top-down regulation and centralized control.

Indeed, with mesh networking, people are building a community-grown network infrastructure: a distributed mesh of local but interconnected networks, operated by a variety of grassroots communities. Their goal is to provide a more resilient system of communication while also promoting a more democratic access to the internet.

...

So why hasn’t mesh networking already taken off?

Well, there are technical reasons of course. The complexity to set up, manage, and maintain a mesh network is one obstacle to their widespread deployment. Getting a mesh network to work properly can be harder than it seems, especially when it comes to latency. Although the technology is there, routing protocols are currently unable to scale over a few hundred nodes and network coverage is constrained by the limited range of wireless user devices.

Another barrier is perception (and marketing). Mesh networks are generally seen as an emergency tool rather than a regular means for communication. While many mesh networks have been deployed during a period of crisis (during the Boston marathon bombing for example) or after standard communication infrastructures have been damaged or destroyed (such as the Redhook initiative in Brooklyn), very few have been deployed beforehand. They’re used more as an ad hoc measure than a precautionary one that could provide an alternative and more resilient network infrastructure.

Finally, there are political and power struggles, of course. Even though mesh networking could theoretically support the government in providing internet connectivity to poor neighborhoods or undeserved areas, mesh networks cannot be easily monitored, nor properly regulated by third parties. As such, mesh networks are sometimes regarded by the state as a potential danger — one that could disrupt public order by providing a platform for criminal activities.

The same is true of the private sector. For large ICT companies (including mobile operators and ISPs) mesh networking constitutes a new competitor in the market for internet communication, which — if it were more widely deployed — could potentially jeopardize their traditional business model based on pay-per-use and monthly subscriptions. Whether nefariously or simply because of structural circumstances, these actors are all committed to maintaining the status quo of the current internet ecosystem.

  • * *

The problem is that we are focusing too much on the technical and legal challenges of mesh networking as opposed to the social benefits it might bring in terms of user autonomy and community-building. Or have we not yet realized that we have finally reached a competitive point in communications where we can deploy more than one internet? Instead of trying to create one perfect network that will satisfy us all, we can, instead, choose between several networks to find the one that best suits us.

As has been done with Freifunk in Germany and GuiFi.net in Spain, more mesh networks need to be deployed on an arbitrary basis. This will help establish the basic infrastructure necessary to ensure the autonomy and long-term sustainability of a community-based network structure. One that, in any kind of situation, can connect people and even save lives.

But beyond the internet, the governance model of many community wireless networks could potentially translate into other parts of our life. By promoting a DIY approach to network communications, mesh networking represents an opportunity to realize that it can sometimes be more beneficial for us, as a community, to rely on our own resources and those of our peers than that of centralized authorities. It’s bringing the principles of the internet to our physical lives." (http://www.wired.com/opinion/2014/01/its-time-to-take-mesh-networks-seriously-and-not-just-for-the-reasons-you-think/)

More Information

  1. Mesh Networks
  2. Network Theory
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