Swarms and Networks

“I also suggest,” Zygmunt Bauman wrote in 2008, “that identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation.” “Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation,” he went on to say, “turns into a lifelong task …. There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing.” The result, he added, is “a lot of tension and anxiety.” There is no remedy or cure for this anxiety because “the efforts of identity formation veer uneasily, as they must, between the two equally central human values of freedom and security.”

I’m not sure what to make of the emphasis placed on the tension between freedom and security. The book to which these words form a part of the Introduction, Does Ethics Have A Chance In A World of Consumers?, was published in 2008. I would assume that Bauman was working on the text in the mid-2000s, that is to say very much in the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed. In this context, a focus on the freedom/security binary makes some sense. Make of that opposition what you will. Bauman goes on to make a number of interesting observations, which I think it worth our time to consider. I’ll note two of them here, and one or two others in future posts.

1. “In the void left behind by the retreat of fading political authorities, it is now the self that strives to assume, or is forced to assume, the function of the center of the Lebenswelt …. It is the self that recasts the rest of the world as its own periphery, while assigning, defining, and attributing differentiated relevance to its parts, according to its own needs. The task of holding society together … is being ‘subsidiarized,’ ‘contracted out,’ or simply falling to the realm of individual life-politics. Increasingly it is being left to the enterprise of the ‘networking’ and ‘networked’ selves and to their connecting-disconnecting initiatives and operations.”

2. “In a liquid-modern society, swarms tend to replace groups, with their leaders, hierarchies, and pecking orders …. Swarms need not be burdened by the groups tools of survival: they assemble, disperse, and come together again from one occasion to another, each time guided by different, invariably shifting relevancies, and attracted by changing and moving targets …. A swarm has not top, no center; it is solely the direction of its current flight that casts some of the self-propelled swarm units into the position of ‘leaders’ to be followed for the duration of a particular flight or a part of it, though hardly longer.”

While Bauman was writing, social media was still in its infancy, but I’m struck by how useful 1. and 2. can be to helping us understand the social role of social media. Swarm: is there a more apt metaphor to capture the fluid dynamics of social media platforms, whether we are talking about viral memes or Twitter mobs?

Social media platforms materialized the social conditions that Bauman was describing. The networked self and the swarm became visible and, thus, traceable when they manifested themselves on social media platforms. Consequently, they also become subject to manipulation. Platforms (apps, etc.) are to the digital age what institutions were to pre-digital modernity. Power flows through them.

“Watching any individual ‘unit’ in the swarm,” Bauman went on to write, “we would find it daunting to explain the twists and turns it followed, and even more daunting to grasp the secret behind the amazing similarity and synchronicity of moves made by the great number of individual units.” Until, that is, every movement of the unit could be monitored and recorded with frightening precision, as is the case with the operations of individual “units” or users on social media platforms. Suddenly they become legible, subject to analysis and manipulation. Our politics are now driven by actors who understand this new state of affairs.


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