The concept of a network today designates something completely different than it did a century ago, at least to most technologically literate individuals.  In the 21st century, ‘to network’ can first and foremost be a verb indicating an exchange of ideas as well as a tangible object.  Therefore, utilizing the term network in conversation today evokes primarily visions of people communicating with each other and also, more appropriately, images of connected, pervasive technology, such as personal computers, cell phones, TV and radio broadcasting towers, the Internet, and even online discussion groups, all of which have lead to a faster, more universally aware global community.

The history of the term and established definition of the word itself, in all of its various manifestations, is of course recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.  The noun network in this context means most fundamentally something “in which threads, wires, or similar materials, are arranged in the fashion of a net” [1] or also a “piece of work having the form or construction of a net.” [2] So, essentially, the idea is that a network is an intertwined collection of things, connected in a specific shape and having a specific purpose (the dictionary also tells us that nets were used primarily to ensnare and capture things [3]).  So, here, a network is simply a physical tool.  But, historically, the word is itself an amalgam of two other root words, net and work, net signifying not only the object with which we are now familiar, but the concept of a active, communal gathering of energy, and subsequently work referring directly to the unique task or function of a particular thing.  So, distilled down to its essence, a ‘network’ can also indicate a lattice-like grouping of things that are combined to perform an explicit task.

In an essay entitled “Automation: Learning a Living” from his technological tome Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan writes:
“It is a principal aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system.  Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.  As biologists point out, the brain is the interacting place where all kinds of impressions and experiences can be exchanged and translated, enabling us to react to the world as a whole.  Naturally, when electric technology comes into play, the utmost variety and extent of operations in industry and society quickly assume a unified posture.” [4]

Here, McLuhan is drawing a comparison between the mind and the concept of an electric network, illustrating how both systems are in fact similar in terms of how they establish an integrated, complex, and dynamic way of interacting with the world around them.  McLuhan identifies an innate, metaphorical similarity between the mind and the concept of a network simply because both have the power to expand in an essentially infinite sense; both systems operate based on a series of growing, composite connections.  While the mind absorbs all sorts of varied and distinct stimuli, it has the ability to separate and make sense of each individual piece of data, and formulate a response based on past experience, and also in relation to other, seemingly dissimilar information.  For McLuhan, the notion of an ‘electric network’ (from a power plant, to a simple circuit, to a grouping of computers, for example) also has the ability, like the mind in a sense, to perform a quick, intricate scheme of associations, providing intelligent and reliable responses to a wide range of queries almost instantaneously.  But, the most interesting aspect of McLuhan’s analysis is in fact what it lacks; there is no set definition here, only challenging new perspectives that seem to redefine and actively create the future.

So, while it may seem like Marshall McLuhan was, in fact, predicting the arrival of the Internet (the largest ‘electric network’ known to man), he was not really speaking precisely about personal computers or even telecommunications in general.  He was more interested in the expansive power of the media, advancements like movable type and the telegraph, and in terms of ‘electric networks’, power systems such as electric energy.  We must remember the fact that McLuhan was writing in the 1960s, and not in the 1990s, and because of this should be seen as more of a commentator than a visionary.  Frank Webster, in his relatively contemporary work Theories of the Information Society, speaks much more directly about the quickly mounting scope of the Internet as a whole, addressing the model of a network in a completely different light altogether.  “[The] conception of the ‘information society’, while it draws on sociology and economics, has at its core the geographer’s distinctive stress on space…the major emphasis is on the information networks which connect locations and in consequence have dramatic effects on the organization of time and space” (see time-space). [5] For Webster, an information network is itself indicative of the transmission of ideas and correspondence over large stretches of area in a way that was previously not available, except by slower, more rudimentary means (like the telephone, land transportation, or even something newer such as fax, for example).  The Internet (and other similar, computer-driven information networks) provide an incredible opportunity for on-going collaboration between groups of people across expansive geographic boundaries, a collaboration that was in a sense predicted by writers like Marshall McLuhan, but only recently realized in the past few decades.

According to Webster, and as a result of the enormous increase of and advancements in technology focusing “on ways in which networks underline the significance of the flow of information”, today most “writers put emphasis on the technological bases of the information network”, an approach present not only in the work of Manuel Castells, but also Mark Hepworth and John Green for example. [6] In other words, many authors seem to be much more interested in the technological advancements themselves rather than the timeless, overarching concepts which work to create them.  Green, in his generally surface-level analysis on media and technology entitled The New Age of Communications, identifies the power of networks solely in terms of how they were perceived and employed in the mid-90s, as products of the landmark Integrated Services Digital Network technology, or as it is commonly referred to, ISDN.  “A growing number of companies use ISDN to enable telecommuters…to tap into the company’s local area network (LAN), communicate with colleagues at the office, and use all of the LAN’s other broadband features…The rise of the Internet’s World Wide Web has also spurred the growth of ISDN because it allows the transmission of data at 128,000 bits per second, more than four times the speed of the fastest modem.” [7] So, we can see even from this short excerpt, and just as Webster predicted, that defining key media vocabulary only in terms of the technology that provides it to us can turn out to be a dangerous process as all systems and related advancements will eventually date themselves to the point of serious insignificance.  Ironically enough, compared to Ethernet and Wireless networking, the terms LAN or ISDN seem completely irrelevant to us today.  But, ten years ago, these were not simple buzzwords.  They were in fact the GSM or DSL we know today – hot, powerful technological innovations that would prove to expand significantly the scope of communications across the globe (and, of course, generate seemingly endless revenue).  So, even though the fact that electronic hardware becomes quickly dated is a completely relevant perspective in the terms of this discussion, what it does not compensate for is how important key concepts (such as that of the network) transcend mere temporal boundaries.

Instead of talking, then, about a key media concept like that of a network in terms of the technological components that make it a reality, how does Webster suggest that it should be discussed in general?  Well, the author says repeatedly that we are now firmly in the age of the ‘network society’, and he equates this relatively nebulous phrase with the more familiar concept of an ‘information society’, so it becomes clear that it is not the technological component that is most important for Webster, but rather the informational element of this burgeoning new system. [8] In some ways a redundancy, this phrase illustrates a distinct connection between the idea of a electric network and the dynamic complex of human society, showing us how the newly created tool (technology) is quickly becoming the preferred mode of communication (medium) for the masses.  McLuhan himself was always interested in the global dissemination of information, but denounced in many ways how the conservative (and also in certain ways, destructive) mass media made this information available.  Remember, of course, “The medium is the message.”  But, not everyone was so quick to dismiss the media, or implicate in such a indistinct manner.

One of McLuhan’s most outspoken opponents , Hans Magnus Enzensberger, states openly that one of the central reasons that this information is even out there in the first instance is due to the presence and power of new media technology, and the participation of the mass media itself in this on-going dialoguing process.  According to Enzensberger, “it can be demonstrated that a linked series of communications or, to use the technical term, a switchable network, to the degree that it exceeds a certain size, can no longer be centrally controlled but only dealt with statistically.” [9] Simply put, once what we know as controllable media (i.e., e-mail, online magazines, or a personal website) gets large enough, it becomes completely impossible to control, only to record and observe.  In a sense, media become their own distinct entity (the Internet would again be a perfect example of this) which circumvents established societal norms, rules and regulations.  Later on in the article, Enzensberger states that the “electronic media have not only built up the information network intensively, but they have also spread it extensively.” [10] So, in some ways, it seems as if the author (unless he is actually a luddite in disguise) would have to be openly in favor of the mass media and technology in general because it makes information available to large groups of people who would have never had access to it in the first place (a statement I would most certainly agree with).  For Enzensberger, this process is not only scientific and educational, but also it is a completely political one, driven by the need for the burgeoning left to find ways to respond appropriately to the totalitarian media monopoly held for decades now by the conservatives.  The article is in many ways a call to action, openly demanding that people employ the media as their own, uncensored political voice in an increasingly marginalized global village.

Works by Margaret Riel [11] and Margaret Morse [12] also discuss more specifically how network and electronically distributed spaces contribute to communication and educational collaboration across the globe, and should be investigated in more detail in any discourse about information technology and the power of the network.  Like Enzensberger, and certainly McLuhan, these writers see the concept of networking being one of the most important discoveries in the history of the electronic medium, one with the potential to educate and notify large groups of people in countries completely unaware of or unable to cope with the advent of the modern day information culture, contributing positively to awareness of other social structures and, ultimately, getting one step closer to the ‘global village’ concept established by McLuhan in his earlier writings, now almost 50 years ago.  If technology is growing at that speed today, where one man’s predictions can become reality in the space of his children’s lifetime, imagine how quickly things will be progressing 50 years from now.  Maybe by then, even the concept of a digital network will become wholly obsolete.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

J. Kenyon Meier
Winter 2003

[1] Oxford English Dictionary Online [Accessed 01 February 2003]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall.  “Automation: Learning a Living.”  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).  348.

[5] Webster, Frank.  Theories of the Information Society.  (New York: Routledge, 1995).  18.

[6] Ibid.  19.

[7] Green, John O.  The New Age of Communications.  (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).  60.

[8] Webster, Frank.  Theories of the Information Society.  (New York: Routledge, 1995).  20.

[9] Enzensberger, Hans Magnus.  “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation.  Ed. Druckrey.  (New York: Aperture, 1996).  64.

[10] Ibid. 65

[11] Riel, Margaret.  “Cross-classroom Collaboration in Global Learning Circles.”  The Cultures of Computing .  Ed. Susan Leigh Star.  (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995).

[12] Morse, Margaret.  Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture.  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).


Enzensberger, Hans Magnus.  “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation.  Ed. Timothy Druckrey.  (New York: Aperture, 1996).  65.

Green, John O.  The New Age of Communications.  (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).  60.

Markham, Annette N.  Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space.  (Walnut Creek:  AltaMira Press, 1998).

McLean, F.C.  “Telecommunications: The Next Ten Years.”  The Granada Guildhall Lectures, 1966.  (Manchester: Granada, Ltd., 1966).

McLuhan, Marshall.  “Automation: Learning a Living.”  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).  348.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Corte Madera: Gingko Press).

Morse, Margaret.  Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998).

Oxford English Dictionary Online. [Accessed 01 February 2003]

Riel, Margaret.  “Cross-classroom Collaboration in Global Learning Circles.”  The Cultures of Computing.  Ed. Susan Leigh Star.  (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995).

Tufte, Edward R.  Envisioning Information.  (Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1990).