Life in the Network | Shaka McGlotten
Life in the network
Is life in the network life, or is it something ghostlier (Figure 1)?
This life, like others, evinces intelligence and self-preservation, and it has a permeable shell, a shell made of bones, blood, and skin, and also of polycarbonate, fiberglass aluminum, and liquid crystal displays. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, I’d like to introduce you to cobalt, germanium, graphite, indium, lithium, platinum, potassium, sand, silicon, silver, tantalum, tin, and tungsten (Figure 2).
All of us have already swiped right.
Life in the network leaps from circuit to circuit: from the mediums of transportation to money to institution.
Screens—blue light emanating from black mirrors that reflect fantastically distorted versions of ourselves—are everywhere present. They organize the rhythms of daily life.
My students tell me they sleep with their phones.
A past lover answers texts at all hours. Others expect that I do too.
Our always on devices are perpetually of the moment—have you upgraded yet? And they are artifacts of violent conflicts, desperate struggles for bare survival, and deep, geological time (Parikka 2015) (Figure 3).
Life in the network is always attuned to potential pleasures. I can use the encrypted instant message app Telegram to text my pot dealer for a delivery. Then, cuddles with bae, Netflix and the chilling that is increasingly shaped by algorithms that predict, usually accurately, what it is we will want to watch next.
In the gravity well of porn loops, some stay indoors and edge for days. Pleasures and other possibilities multiply, and they contract as boredom, cocooning (Ito, Okabe, Anderson in Farman 2012), and addiction (McGlotten 2013, 2018).
Temporalities and spaces multiply and contract, too. There is instantaneity or its promise—the hookup that arrives faster than a pizza, or who drags things out until it’s just not worth it anymore (Figure 4). There’s the drawn-out time of spacing out, browsing, or bingeing: life in the network is life in the rabbithole.
There are new knowledges about one’s nearness or distance to one another that shape the desire to make contact or to evade it. It never occurred to me to turn on the find my friends feature, but my partner insists on it. Now I’ve started to check in on him. Is he really where he says he is?
Our media cocoons are undeniably cozy. No wonder, then, that we prefer being alone together (Turkle 2011). Of course, there’s nothing really wrong with that. Anti-relationality is still sociality, even as it is arranged against sociality’s normative demands to relate in particular ways (see Berlant and Edelman 2014).
Life in the network is built on infrastructures of other networks. Though I tend to think of it as nesting egg of networks of power, control, and exploitation: the global production of and circulation via networks have been birthed from the expropriated resources and labors of others. Networks are grids imagined and imposed on the world (Ingold 2007), they are things that knot us together, and they are resolutely material objects, submerged underwater, crisscrossing the ocean floor, filled with “signals moving at the speed of light” (Starolsielski 2015, 1) (Figure 5).
Traveling to, in, and around New York City, my life leaves digital traces available for some Sherlock, flesh and blood or artificial or imagined, all three or more, that might be interested in tracking me down or figuring out who I am, or what I’m about to do. GPS, purchases, CCTV, social media tags, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio signals are fed into neural nets that identify, sort, and target me. Or, more obviously, and with my full consent, Moves, one of the apps I use to congratulate myself for burning calories: my moves near and in New York City burn like the white-hot veins of some strange organism, or a flash of lightning. Following Paul Preciado (2013), “I [have] become one of the somatic connectives that make possible the circulation of power, desire, release, submission, capital, rubbish, and rebellion.”
Knitting and knotting
There is no network without protocols, “the systems of material organization [that] structure relationships of bits and atoms in which they are embedded” (Galloway 2010, 289).
Rather than a node in a network of edges and planes, my life in the network feels more like a mess of tangled yarn.
I get wound up, fraying when I do, knitting myself closer to others. I’m the yarn, and I’m the knitter, threading myself through others as they thread themselves through me. We are all threaded through by the yarning of the networks that are the ordinary stuff of life today.
Honestly, though, I don’t really know much about the protocols of yarn, just as I remain uncertain about the protocols for the hard-to-talk-about liveliness of networks, their deep times, or the genres of thinking and feeling and writing that I am trying to stitch together here.
The RAQS Media Collective (2003, 365) offers some useful thoughts about yarning in the network: “Fabrics, and stories, are made from yarn. A yarn is a snatch of reality that travels by word of mouth. Or it is shipped along with lots of html cargo. It is said that each fragment of code contains rumors and gossip, or yarns about the makers of the code.”
I started living my life in the network in 1997, just as I was about to graduate from Grinnell College. During my last semester there, I spent countless hours in a corner nook of the basement computer lab. I was in that nook because I was looking at porn or trying to find it using unwieldy early search engines like AltaVista. In rural Iowa, I had no network of queers to rely upon, those with whom I might learn more about the protocols, and pleasures, of my queer desires. The story of the beginning of my life in the network has left many traces—nothing digital ever really dies—so I’m certain that there are still fragments of code that gossip to one another about the shape of my longings.
In Lines, Tim Ingold offers another alternative to the imposed-upon-us-and-the-world network concept: the “meshwork.” A meshwork is made up of the entangled lines of a life lived, of trails, threads, traces, rather than lines connecting points abstractly mapped onto the world (80-82).
The deep code of my yarning is the desire to remember that I am never not connected. Though, sometimes, it’s unknitting and unknotting the trails, threads, and traces of life lived in the network that’s hard.
I forgot about that
Many of the admittedly disparate yarns I tell here were first presented at the 2016 Queer Circuits in Archival Times conference. Not long after the conference, I became obsessed with Marie Kondo’s decluttering method. The KonMarie approach asks you to touch everything you have and to let go of the things for which don’t have a clear use and, more importantly, it asks you to keep only what brings you joy. I found the material stuff easy—clothes, papers, miscellany. All of my photographs—the non-digital ones, I mean—are now stored in a box in my closet. There aren’t that many anymore. However, I have since found myself looking for things I realized I’d discarded, like that Star Wars boxed set that is so much a part of my felt histories about technology!
My digitalia presents significant difficulties though. The scale of my queer archives stored on various hard drives is utterly overwhelming. Decluttering won’t be possible. I’d spend months doing it. Still, I’m obsessed enough to dig in a bit, to see just how vast a task it would be. I do a spotlight search for “queer archives” to find the PowerPoint I created for the conference, and to see what else might be buried in the archive. I find the PowerPoint, but the search terms also point me to a folder nested deep within other folders. It’s labeled “OLDDISKS.” I click randomly on files, surprised how frequently “archive” appears. Here is a sampling of the texts I find:
“All the archives from the humanities are getting closer [to other disciplines].” That’s in a copy and pasted chat with an informant for my master’s research on early online queer publics. It’s so out of context, but I must have been talking to someone familiar with academic cultures, and I must have been making some point about how the discipline I’d accidentally found myself in—anthropology—was finally taking critical theory seriously. “Archive” also appears in detailed descriptions of art I wanted to make. I hadn’t left my art practice behind yet, and I was eagerly diving into the possibilities of digital media. The word appears again in other notes for other never-quite-realized ideas. Still, they anticipate the work I have done in the nearly two decades since, during which time I’ve never strayed very far from my interests in media, technology, and sex. The following notes are archived in a long-forgotten 1999 document titled, curiously apropos of Ingold’s work, “Lines”:
More Misc. thoughts, etc.
a) Queer science fictions and harlem renaissance (looking toward . . .)
b) And Richard Wagner, whose sci fi is importantly about past and present
--those who succeed, like Wotan after stealing the rhein gold, etc, in the end they enter the crypt of valhalla. Consider (godly) contracts and enCRYPTion.
c) Sex archives (dawn of?) and history of prosthetics.
"Lines” refers to the lines I was writing for the screenplay of a short film I had started with grad school friends. The portions of the screenplay I find in the document open with an overhead zoom on a gay couple in bed. One of them gets up to put on armor reminiscent of a Stormtrooper (“the uniform gives the distinct impression of being more than a little fascist” is written in parentheses just like these! And there’s a Star Wars reference!). And later, there’s a line that frames other thoughts on porn and online cruising: “**vampirism: internet as draining my time.” I was clearly reading Marx for the time because a quote from him follows: "Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”
What to make of these archives? I work to reconstruct their meanings even as I understand that archives often are comprised of fragments whose relationships to one another may forever remain opaque. Or, there may be no relationships at all; some archives are just data dumps.
Still, here’s another go at threading these ideas together.
In 1999, I named the artistic and theoretical work I was undertaking “queer science fictions.” Another variation I used was “queer (social) science fictions.” The science fiction literature in which I had been so deeply invested since childhood was jumping off the pages and increasingly shaping every part of my life: I was navigating William Gibson’s cyberspace; I was holding Star Trek’s communicators in my hand; and within only two years, the War on Terror laid the groundwork for a new era of American empire-building, a period that also saw the rise of an increasingly militarized police that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Stormtroopers that had left such a profound impression upon me in 1977.
I was much less certain about the notes on Wagner! Although I was never much of a fan, I unsurprisingly thought of his Ring cycle through the lens of science fiction. The “enCRYPTion” bit is especially tantalizing. I was thinking quite early on about dataveillance and data security, so perhaps I was struck by the ways crypts seal in the dead, housing the knowledges of the once leaving. Encryption likewise seals knowledge, although it still affords the possibility of unlocking.
“C” is the most obvious. My dissertation was largely comprised of archived stories about public sex and the ways these practices were simultaneously migrated into virtual spaces while also being supplanted by them. My interlocutors, those who cruised Austin, Texas, especially the university where I studied, archived remembered pleasures and, in the wake of HIV/AIDS, still-living losses.
Queer Circuits in Archival Times, New York Public Library, May 21, 2016
On the final day of the conference, I flirt with a genderqueer person with glitter on their cheeks. Heartbreak is rolling through me in waves, and I tell them about it. They scrunch their face in pained sympathy and gently touch my skin. Later, I realize it’s the anniversary of my wedding with the husband I was never not in love with, the one who’d broke things off a year earlier. I’m vibrating on the trains I take to my friend, my ex squared, the one before the one I’m vibrating for. I manage to get into his apartment before breaking into sobs. He sets me up on the airbed, lights candles, and gives me a consoling Kindle queued up with The Golem and the Djinn. In the morning I’m worn out but feel good enough to get on Grindr and hook up with someone in the building, yet another addition to my own desiring archives, just like this text and all those sure to follow.
Notes on Contributor
Shaka McGlotten is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Purchase College-SUNY. They are the author of Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality (SUNY Press, 2013) and co-editor of Black Genders and Sexualities (Palgrave 2012) and Zombie Sexuality (2014). They are an Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellow and recipient of a 2018 Andy Warhol | Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant.
Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. New York: Routledge.
Ito, Mizuko, Daisukc Okabe, and Ken Anderson. 2009. “Portable Objects in Three Global
Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places" in The Reconstruction of Space and Time,
Rich Ling and Scott W. Campbell, eds. New Brunswick: Transaction Press: 67-87.
McGlotten, Shaka. 2013. Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality. Albany: SUNY Press.
-------2018. “Porn Fast” in in I Confess, Thomas Waugh and Brandon Arroyo, eds. Montreal: McGill University Press, forthcoming.
Parikka, Jussi. 2015. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Preciado, Paul B. 2013. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York: CUNY Feminist Press.
RAQS Media Collective. 2003. “A Concise Lexicon Of/For the Digital Commons.” In Sarai Reader 2003: Shaping Technologies, 365. http://sarai.net/sarai-reader-03-shaping-technologies/.
Starolsielski, Nicole. 2015. The Undersea Network. Durham: Duke University Press.
Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. New York: Basic Books.