Networks: mates, nodes and cells

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  • Published 20040302
  • ISBN: 9780733313868
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

THE TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION had scarcely begun to gather momentum when management consultants, alert as ever to an emerging opportunity, coined a new way of describing how business was done. Out went elites, hierarchies and information on a need-to-know basis; in came networks, alliances and information overload. The new network model of business required fundamental (and with the right consultant as guide, expensive) rethinking of the old ways.

As Don Watson caustically noted in Death Sentence (Knopf, 2003), “This new model, we are told, makes for much faster decision-making, essential in modern global companies built around products, customers and geography: so much faster that managers are nodes. Communications bounce off these nodes in horizontal flows across silos. Nodes are ‘what it is all about’ the experts say: nodes and networking between silos. The essential difference between leading edge companies now … is that in the old days only the top end of the hierarchy had daily need of communication: now just about everyone in the company does … This is a radical change.”

The change may not have been as radical as the consultants first postulated but such is the built-in obsolescence of the advice business that was no bad thing. As the consultants moved on, the debris of their language – of networks, nodes, cells – became the publicly recycled litter of an earlier fad.

Now we are caught in a web of networks – there are business networks, social networks, family networks, online networks, school networks, matchmaking networks, trade networks, alumni networks, women’s networks, gay networks, community networks and terrorist networks. There are ambitious Jobs Networks and costly projects to Network the Nation. Google throws up more than a million links to networks in Australia alone in 0.06 seconds.

At the peak of the dotcom boom, Manuel Castells’ prediction in The Rise of the Network Society (Blackwell, 1996) that “technology had the capacity to transform the social landscape reshaping the material basis of society” appeared to have been realised. As business became even more rapidly global, information increased exponentially and interdependence – environmental, social, commercial and political – became a tangible reality. Networks were everywhere, the building blocks of a new world.

It was ironic that it was another (terrorist) network that brought this sanguine world view to a juddering halt, at least briefly. Talk of terrorist networks has become particularly pervasive since September 11, the bombings in Bali and the intervention in Iraq. There are those who argue that terrorist organisations have learnt the lessons of the network age better than most. This may well be so, but Paul Wilson, who has studied criminal networks for decades, worries after years of visiting the Philippines, that until the underlying causes of terrorism are addressed solutions may only be temporary.


WHILE TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES may have pushed network talk centre stage, it is social networks that really touch our lives; the webs of family, friends and colleagues that help define and give meaning to our lives. These are among the many networks explored in Webs of Power.

Networks don’t just happen, they can be created. As Frank Moorhouse writes, networking as a tool for self-advancement has “been outed”. As Frank reflected on the deliberate new networks, he was increasingly troubled by the pervasiveness of the old networks, entree to which was bestowed by wealth through the gates of the elite private schools. As private school enrolments soar, his essay, “Welcome back, Bakunin”, mourns what this may mean for the egalitarian Australian tradition.

The deeply held suspicion that it’s not what you know but who you know is reinforced by this trend. Yet the power of the elites is itself circumscribed, as Gerard Henderson writes. Those who are thought to have the most power feel (rightly) constrained by other checks and balances in the political system, and some of the most derided elites are a long way from the centre of power.

The search for power in a political system is always elusive. A tale, which is probably apocryphal, is told with relish in the Canberra press gallery: a new prime minister is advised by an admired leader, “Try to stay in power long enough to change the 500 people who really run the country.” But really running the country is not so simple, even stacking boards with cronies may not deliver the desired outcomes. Former cabinet ministers have written that even as they got closer to the centre of power, it still slipped through their fingers.

The tale of three networks of insiders are explored here: the relationship between the government and the public service, which Mungo MacCallum suggests should be renamed the government-of-the-day service; the pursuit of short-term political advantage in NSW, which Quentin Dempster argues has distorted public administration and eroded without debate the traditions of the Westminster system; Anne Tiernan documents the limits of vicarious power and the trials of apprenticeship for ministerial minders in the online supplement to this issue.

Within any social network there are some individuals who are more connected than others. Bridget Griffen-Foley recalls the way that the veteran Canberra correspondent Alan Reid exercised the power that he cultivated. Magnetic individuals, like Reid, are the essential glue in any small world which Malcolm Alexander finds is particularly concentrated in public sector advisory boards in Brisbane. All of which is grist for a satirist’s mill, from which Charles Firth divines a doctrine of the top 500 (mates).

It is ironic, as Gideon Haigh reports that not long after we were swamped with the jargon of networks at the beginning of the 21st century there should be a resurgence in the “new nepotism”. The sons and daughters of the rich and powerful have moved into the seats warmed by their parents in public life in unprecedented numbers in recent years – possibly an unanticipated outcome of the search to balance work and family or a sign that in the age of brands the family brand would prevail.

Some of the complexity of family life, of the bonds of trust and belonging, are revealed in the photo essay, drawn from the finalists in the Energex Arbour Contemporary Art Prize last year. Life is no less complex for families at play, as The Sandman illustrates in his recollection of life as the manager of a junior cricket club. The politicking, the infighting, the search for advantage and the joy of belonging are as acute in a kids’ cricket team as anywhere.

Others found networks where they least expected. When Lee Kofman emigrated from Israel to Australia she did not anticipate that she would rediscover her mother tongue in a Russian video library in East St Kilda; and Steven Alward joined a group to collect contemporary art and was surprised to find it gave new meaning to his life.


AT THE CORE of the new network jargon is the recognition that technology not only made information more readily available but that it also made connections – at least in the technologically enabled world – easier than they had ever been. As Jock Given reports, however, there were many flaws in the electronic pork barrel that was supposed to network this nation.

Nonetheless, the connections facilitated by ubiquitous, always on, communications devices are unprecedented, “augmenting human powers of organisation and integration”. More talk and more words bounce through the airwaves and along fibre-optic cables than could once have been thought possible. Imaginary friends and virtual strangers became fleetingly intimate, as Adam Muir describes in the online supplement to this issue.

This may be the beginning of a very different form of social organisation or the sign of the undying need for human beings to connect with each other. Teenagers who have never known a world without text messaging or the ever-widening circles of MSN Messenger or ICQ, wonder what the fuss is about, how it would be possible to organise a life, make new friends, enjoy a moment’s privacy, share intimate secrets without the tools that build their networks. But for those who grew up budgeting for long-distance phone calls, the change in less than a generation could not have been more profound, and it was not just about the cost of calls.

Social activists have been quick to grasp the opportunities the technology has presented to mobilise like-minded friends and colleagues. As Natasha Cica writes, in the current political climate, dominated by fear and insecurity, the need for friends is greater than ever. The internet is an important tool in this connectedness. It is awash with online petitions and support networks. is one of the most successful. It generated a million signatures for its petition to the United Nations against intervention in Iraq, millions of dollars from former investment banker George Soros and boasts more than two million international activists. While the success of generates vociferous detractors, it uses the old tools of political activism. Similarly, Rural Australians for Refugees, one of the many refugee-support groups that have flowered in Australia over the past three years, used the internet to supplement traditional meetings, lobbying and letter-writing campaigns, as Anne Coombs describes in her essay that challenges preconceptions about rural Australians. In “Uncle Sam’s bastard children”, Tom Morton reports on those who now use the internet and its network logic to challenge globalisation and the established forms of political organisation.


AT THE SAME time as visions of a networked society were reaching their zenith – and it is worth recalling that enthusiastic reviewers suggested that Castells’ three-volume treatise was the Das Kapital of its age – trends were pulling in contrary directions. Chris Chesher reviews the current thinkers writing about a world in which connection is not bound by place.

As Castells noted, however, at the heart of the networked society there is a paradox, while information systems and networking enhanced human powers of organisation and integration, they also had the potential to subvert the traditional Western concept of self. People felt lost in the growing gap between globalisation and identity and searched for “new connectedness around shared, reconstructed identity”.

Creed O’Hanlon’s disturbing memoir goes to the heart of this turmoil and the havoc it can wreak. His snapshot captures the difficulty of maintaining a sense of self in a frantically networked, always-on world, forever in transit, never arriving. Solitude gains new meaning in a world of connected brains, as Natasha Mitchell writes. The place of the individual is also explored in Andrew O’Hagan’s powerful essay on the sovereignty of the watchful in which the desire to be noticed is given new meaning in cities dotted with surveillance cameras, with reality television beaming from every screen.


THE GAP BETWEEN the individual and a networked world and the need to create new connectedness moved onto the political agenda after Robert Putnam outlined the loss of connectedness in fin de siècle America in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000). He described a fragmented society that had lost a sense of community in an over-satiated consumer world. It was an analysis that resonated around the developed world and informed public policy debates and innovations in a flurry to redevelop the lost “social capital” that came from active civic engagement.

And in the ever-adaptable world of modern commerce, “community”, once identified as a deficiency, was created and co-opted. The networkers in the dotcom world recognised it first and “community” became one of the buzzes of that industry. It was near the top of the must-have list for any website that valued its URL – the internet could create communities that were being lost to fear, fragmentation and consumerism. Soon community became a commodity, sold from billboards and television screens, packaged into housing estates, clothing brands and worked into publicly funded schemes in towns and neighbourhoods.

The more complex task of redeveloping social capital, the civic engagement and participation that generated both personal and public benefits was more complex. John Kane and Haig Patapan analyse attempts in Australia to use the internet to foster political participation and draw important and sometimes overlooked distinctions between e-government and e-democracy. Julian Thomas describes an ambitious project in a much-studied public-housing estate in inner Melbourne to subvert the “digital divide” by giving the residents access to computers and the internet – critics regard this as window-dressing but those closely involved see remarkable new connections being made. Patrick Bishop describes a more traditional, yet innovative, approach of taking the government back to the electorate with community cabinets.

The task of building social capital generally focuses on people in particular places but the memory of history, established relationships and limited funding can limit its effectiveness in unexpected ways, as Josephine Barraket argues. A prison is the most enclosed “place”, yet Debbie Kilroy found a way to build social capital among women in jail. With Kris Olsson, Debbie describes the process by which she learnt from being “inside” how to share power rather exercise it. In the process she helped build a prisoner support group that gained national attention when Pauline Hanson and Di Fingleton were incarcerated in Queensland prisons last year. Debbie’s remarkable story puts flesh on the bones of talk about “social capital”.

The webs of power woven by networks create a rich and dense cloth.

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