Review of “Networked” in Science And Public Policy

Reviews of Networked are beginning to be published in academic journals. This review in Science and Public Policy is especially nice and insightful and we got permission to republish it. We are very grateful for that.

By J. Francisco A ´ lvarez
National Distance University of Spain (UNED)

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman are two outstanding researchers on the topics of the internet and the social changes triggered by information and communication technologies (ICT). The work carried out by Rainie at the Pew Research Center and by Wellman at the University of Toronto is well known in academic circles concerned with the network society. Those who are exposed to, and closely follow, the changes arising from the network society may know these two authors particularly well, since they are indeed both generators and analysts of new trends in cyberspace.

Around 60 books which include in their title the word ‘networked’ appeared in the Library of Congress Online Catalogue for 2012. It is probably not in the process of concept coinage that the authentic novelty of Networked: The New Social Operating System lies. The concept itself can be traced back, through previous work by these same authors to the widely read books by Manuel Castell. Yet, in my opinion, the way in which Rainie and Wellman make use of a quasi-fictional narrative to analyse the network society is truly innovative. Starting with how, in practice, certain characters experience all aspects of their lives within the network society—a truly transitional process which turns them into actual networked individuals— we can observe how a new type of sociability is thus generated from the multiple weak links which are possible thanks to the spread of ICT.

Prima facie, Networked exhibits a chronicle of daily life on the internet, with examples and practical situations, while at the same time capturing a large number of outcomes from research studies, reports and statistics that point towards the strengthening of a triple revolution which is currently taking place. In this process, the internet, mobile devices and the social networks are interwoven. This triple revolution supports what we could call a new type of social operating system, amounting to a new mode of human functioning. This transformation is not the simple outcome of the latest technological trend, but rather it is deeply rooted in sociability’s powerful impetus towards the establishment of extended human groupings, now enhanced by new capabilities for mobility and network expansion.

In a metaphorical sense, the book is thus a real ‘notice to mariners’ sailing the new world of digital transformation. Networked provides extensive recommendations and advice addressed to us all, the common people, for greater efficiency in our human activities within a sociotechnical society.

The specific cases described in the book show aspects of the network society in great detail, in a highly zoomed close-up. Still, this highly descriptive feature may hide what, in my opinion, is the best aspect of this very smart and witty book, namely, the characterisation and conceptualisation of the new actors, the networked individuals, who make up and structure network society.

When we understand this transformation and realise that now society moves, is organised, and is structured around the new social operating system (networked individualism), we can apply these new notions to any aspect of our personal, working, training and social life and consider the transformation that each of those aspects has undergone.

As the book progresses, it shows in practice both how a new social fabric is arising and how new types of individuals are interwoven. I believe that what we have here is a very well-balanced description and an enlightening prospective analysis which shows a broad range of possibilities and offers us a very useful metaphorical tool with which to understand our society. We find ourselves in a new society which operates in a different mode, where many frontiers are blurring:

Or we observe:

The key issue here is not the more or less good narratives of some characters that appear in the book. This is not fiction about the internet, it is a conceptual building on the triple revolution idea which points to possible paths for the network society in future.

The metaphor of the ‘operating system’ is a very powerful tool to understand what happens in our society beyond the obvious and increasing use of all types of devices and prostheses in our daily lives.

More and more weak links, fewer and fewer strong ones, offering a fine multi-layered weave that offers individuals new capabilities and provides them with other options and other goods in all overarching activities, ranging from their family, work, enterprise or hobby groups, to political parties or research teams.

Perhaps the best explanation I could offer for what networked individualism is about is to describe the process I have followed myself, as a networked individual, to carry out this review. To start with, I reached an agreement with the editors by email, following my positive response to a general request they put forward by email. But the most significant aspect is how I obtained extensive data on Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman without leaving my home desktop, a research style that would have been impossible only 10 or 20 years ago. But, as we can read in Networked,the transformation not only affects an individual, the changes are also relational. Thus you, the readers, are also able to change your experience as readers of reviews.

I ask you to take part in two short practical activities because I believe that they allow a better understanding of the main topics in this book. I suggest you connect to the following two internet sites and watch two videos that are freely available and accessible.

The first link is here, a video from the University of Arkansas, Clinton School of Public Service (4/14/2009) where: ‘an expert on social, computer, and communication networks, sociologist Barry Wellman gives a lecture titled, Connected Lives: The New Social Network Operating System’. Here we are able to observe the views developed by one of our authors three years before Networked was published as a book.

The second action I suggest you carry out is to follow this other link, where ‘Lee Rainie (6-5-2011) discusses technology and libraries at San Francisco Public Library’.

This review tries to show how currently the reviewer’s activities need and must change as we (both reviewer and reader) are networked individuals with an enhanced reality and with many new capabilities. This review is neither limited to, nor exhausted within, its 1,300 words. As a tweet, even just a few words can contribute to opening our eyes, modify our old surroundings and help us become part of a new global, interwoven society of individuals.

I do strongly recommend that you read Networked in depth, an experience which now involves an enlarged, multimedia reading. As the authors said in their preface:

. . . we note that all revolutions are lumpy. For example, despite all of our revolutionary talk, this book is still a traditional book—whether on paper or as an e-book. (p. x)

Rainie and Wellman offer us a truly powerful conceptual tool to help us think about our society. The idea of a new social operating system, transferring the notion of the operating system, as it is used in computer science, to society as a whole, is changing our comprehension of the network society and it challenges our traditional notions about sociability, social networks and human capabilities.

J. Francisco A ´ lvarez
National Distance University of Spain (UNED),
Despacho 318, Paseo de Senda del Rey, 7, 28040 Madrid, Spain;
Email: jalvarez (at) fsof.uned.es.

Networked: The New Social Operating System by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman

MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012, 378 pages, US $29.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9780262017190

 

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