Complex networks in contemporary information environments provide designers with new opportunities to design with and for users. Common depictions of networks do not account for the complex structures of computer networks, composed of layers of protocols that both enable and constrain the functions of the Internet. Computer networks are not only technological, but also representative of social, political, and economic values. Through understanding the realities of networks in contemporary information environments, designers have opportunities to use their understanding of specific systems to design with and for users.
Network as Process
Networks are abstract and their actual structure is often invisible to users; however, they have become a familiar aspect of everyday life. Computer networks have reconfigured how information is shared and allude to a new popular conception of freedom. Although networks propose a nonlinear and perhaps different way of thinking, they also require forms of control to operate. This tension is what makes networks possible and making it visible to users can help give them a sense of agency. Because networks are not arbitrary technological systems, the density of networked relationships in specific contexts must be understood. Complex networks in contemporary information environments provide designers new opportunities to design with and for users.
Different network structures did not originate at the same time, but have “morphed through the classic stages of node and link chain networks” to Paul Baran’s idea of distributed networks in the 1960s (Burke, 56). For Baran, every node in a distributed network could send information in several routes, making information much harder to destroy in the event of a nuclear attack (Baran, 3). Before Baran there were two existing models for communications networks: centralized, which relays information through a central hub, and decentralized, smaller centralized networks joined together. Today the three icons of these networks (see fig. 1) extend beyond conceptions of computer networks and act as “symbol, infrastructure, and […] organizational diagram[s] or geometry” (Burke, 56). Actual computer networks are much more complex than these simplified models, often distanced from users by interfaces that give little to no information of network processes. According to Burke, “the complexity of today’s network organizations exceed visualization” (58). With such complexity unavoidable, are there possible actions to help users get better feedback from these systems?
The Internet is often portrayed as unregulated and open, disregarding the existence of control. In Protocol, Alexander Galloway explains that networks always have protocol – “a language that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships, and connects life-forms” (75). To access the ‘free’ (horizontal) structure of the Internet a user must submit to a Domain Name System (DNS), an inverted tree-shaped structure (see fig. 2. Galloway, 9). Computers must pass through this trickle down process to connect to the World Wide Web. DNS is only one of many protocols related to the World Wide Web. HTML and CSS are not only a ‘toolkit,’ but also languages that create rules anyone making a webpage must abide by (Galloway, 6).
Protocol is not inherently good or bad; it is necessary and its implications depend on context and use. Too often is existence is ignored and pushed aside, leaving users unaware of processes of control in networks. Protocol has the opportunity to be carried out through design as clear components of a network that reflect its values and purpose through its structure. Making protocol visible can show that networks are more than just a ‘connection’ to a massive global system; actions through networks perform functions that have significance that extends far beyond being a technological network.
Manuel Castells recognizes that networks are social and economic as well as technological (Burke, 74). Castells uses the technology company Cisco as a model of networking that coordinates a business philosophy, technology, and social interaction (Castells, 180). Fitting to their products, the service model for Cisco is based on networked website interaction that organizes customers, suppliers, partners and employees. This execution of elaborate networks also occurs at a time where cross-border transactions in bonds and equities have risen from 2.8 to 151.5 percentage of Gross Domestic Product in the US from 1970-1996, part of a larger shift in global economic circulation (Castells, 102). Much like Cisco’s business operations, the technical aspects of protocol are explicitly social and economic as well. Decisions made in these systems indicate underlying desires and reasons that certain systems behave the way they do. Understanding networks beyond technological possibilities can link together technology, social structure, and economics by carefully articulating user needs in particular systems.
Computer networks promise an unmatched level of openness while simultaneously creating systems that likely require the most control in history. New network structures have emerged over time to offer new ways of exchanging information, always needing a delicate balance between surveillance and resistance. Designers must have a clear sense of why a network is structured the way it is, what regulations are in place and why, and the significant of a network being much more than technical features. This knowledge can be used as a way to structure experiences and processes for users as well as a way to design with users by making their agency visible in a network. Networks give new opportunities to give users design agency, awareness, and a role in the design process when the unique conditions of a network are understood.
Baran, Paul. (1964). On Distributed Communications. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
Burke, A. (2007). “Redefining network paradigms.” In A. Burke, T. Tierney, & T. T. Anthony Burke (Ed.), Network practices: New strategies in architecture and design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Castells, Manuel. (2000). The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
Galloway, Alexander. (2004) Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.