Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Networked Rise of Network Society: A Review of This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams

We all know we live in a network society. But what does that mean? And what does knowing that mean for networked society? In his latest novel, This Is Not a Game (Orbit Books, 2009), Williams explores several themes, among them massive alternate reality games (ARG) and global capitalism, all in the context of the well-known "small world" thesis--the idea (pioneered by Stanley Milgram, among many others) that all of us our connected to each other along short chains of acquaintances. There have been other novels exploring the "six degrees of separation" idea, of course, but this is the Web 2.0 release--think David Lodge's Small World with more computing power and less spleen.

In Williams's novel, four friends who gamed together at Caltech--Dagmar, Charlie, Austin and BJ--find their futures revolving around a massive alternate reality game called The Long Night of Briana Hall (or, alternatively, Motel Room Blues). The details of the game itself are somewhat obscure. Pace ARG's in general, players traipse across real and virtual space to discover clues, all under the direction of Dagmar in her role as game designer and "puppetmaster" pulling the strings of this emergent narrative.

But, of course, there are problems--Dagmar's boss (and old friend) Charlie seems to be bent on micromanaging her game for his own ends, Austin is mercilessly gunned down by a Latvian assassin, BJ again becomes part of Dagmar's life. In other words, the logical extension of the "This Is Not a Game" design ethic:
TINAG--this is not a game. The game only worked when both players and puppetmasters acted as if everything was real. (138)

But although ARG's are nothing new in fiction (and their presence here is testament to Williams's own experiences and skills as a gamer and game designer), what is interesting in this novel is the way Williams harnesses the network itself as a deus ex machina and novum for his story--the network made up of "millions" of players, an unbelievably tiny number of whom post rather unbelievably literate postings on the game's discussion board, "Our Reality Network".

Here, Williams develops the other idea underlying much of contemporary interest in networks: the strength of weak ties. In a virally popular paper originally published in the American Journal of Sociology, Mark Granovetter argued that the intimate circle of friends with whom we ordinarily "network" is not really useful for something like gaining employment. Your friends are, after all, most likely in the same lousy boat you are viz. employment. Instead, what you rely on are "weak ties"--acquaintances only weakly connected back to your network. And this makes complete sense; after all, opportunity doesn't knock every day. And 'seizing' opportunity involves, by definition, some kind of risk.

This insight becomes especially important in the age of Facebook, when social networking sites stimulate the multiplication of weak ties. In Williams's book, the Long Night of Briana Hall creates a vast network of weak ties to be mobilized by Dagmar for various, utilitarian purposes--saving her life in the first pages of the novel, solving the mystery in the final pages. This is what Dagmar thinks of as:
the Group Mind, lots of little autonomous agents out in the world, each with a skill set and a knowledge set, each with her own motivations, her own joys, her own alternate reality, all networked together in the great gestalt, the great becoming, that was the world. (365)
That is, the online network created by the ARG allows Dagmar access to "short chains" that connect her with resources around the world--highly proprietary financial information, contact with Indonesian para-military groups, etc. Dagmar's network folds and connects in more-or-less believable ways--players know someone who knows someone, resources are mobilized and the plot moves along.

But there's something disingenuous here as well, as one of the posters to "Our Reality network" reflects:
We're used to following the whims of puppetmasters, but puppetmasters with real-world policies are another matter. Is this a good idea? Should we follow anyone who provides what they say is entertainment, even if it comes with an ideology? (365-66)

That is, the vast networks of weak ties that people cultivate today are their own raison d'etre. Do people accumulate hundreds of 'friends' on Facebook with an agenda? Is there an underlying purpose to working on one's room in Cyworld?

As a plot device, the social networking that Williams describes works well, but still, I think, doesn't capture the semi-altruism of social networking, i.e., that it is an end in itself. Or, rather, Williams just gives us one side: the neo-liberal social networking where all of us our reduced to obsessively chasing down our network contacts on LinkedIn, nonce Willy Lomans employed in selling ourselves. But the other side is a strange altruism, where weak ties are their own reward, and where social networking seems to take on the kinds of importance once granted to kinship (not that kinship isn't shot through with utilitarianism).

To me, it's this circular logic that's the most interesting (and perhaps most profound) dimension to social networking. People accord importance to the cultivation of weak ties; they develop countless software applications helping people to cultivate, maintain and and manage weak ties; these networks of weak ties confirm the importance of weak ties.