Meditation on Participation

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In The Presence of Networks: A Meditation on the Architectures of Participation

-- John Hopkins (for the Pixelache 2007 festival publication), Helsinki, 17 March 2007


Architectures of Participation is a compelling phrase that attempts literally to frame a deeper fundamental of human existence. This text is a preliminary meditation on that existence and its profound presence.

On the immediate surface, the phrase suggests the grandiose, the monumental, and the static and rigid hegemony of brick-and-mortar -- a suggestion that appears to contravene the deeply dynamic nature of the broader continuum of human relation. This continuum, generated in part through participatory actions, is a far more fundamental space that circumscribes much of our passing presence in this world. We will have to dig deep to find the foundations.

Participation is one reductive descriptor that applies to the infinite range of personal energies expressed and shared during our lived be-ing. Participation is a condition that does not leave our lives until we leave our lives. Participation starts when life starts with the participatory synergy of reproduction. This prototypical participatory act is phenomenal in that the energies of two human beings combine to create the presence of a third human being. Participation is the root of life. Participation follows life in the synergies of parent with child, friend with friend, partner with partner, colleague with colleague, stranger with stranger. We participate in life, in living, every moment.

In the search for another way to understand participation, and to understand the dynamic of social collaboration, it is critical to leave materialism behind. Or at least leave the limited understanding of material expression as a defining Cartesian and mechanistic concept and move instead into a universe defined by and indeed comprising a dynamic configuration of energized flows. This is the basic assumption underlying the following thoughts.

Without this shared human presence, life would be a desert of phenomenal natural events each more alienating in its unpredictability than the previous. It is through the challenging dialectic of human relation that we find understanding, and, ultimately, some meaning in our brief presence in this world.

Social systems frame or perhaps even comprise this fundamental participatory nature of life. These systems are characterized by dynamic constellations of Selves desiring relevant interaction with Others -- most apparently to enhance physical survival. When the system functions properly, the body wins the battle for a time; but what happens to the spirit?

Individual isolation within or as an affect of social systems applies at least a patina of madness to one's presence in the world. It is primarily the a-social or the mad who retreat voluntarily from all human contact -- along with those who are in pursuit of the greater-than-social spirit. The yogi, the hermit, the vision-quester all retreat to isolation in the desert or on the mountain -- to those special places where the brute energy flows of physical nature actively drain the ordering life energy from the body system. This at the same time the chaotic natural flux allows the human spirit to expand almost without limit, but at the definite expense of bodily degeneration. The spirit wins the battle for a time; the body loses.

So, while some humans withdraw to the empty places to watch stars and clouds, let the spirit expand, and listen to the creaking groans of the earth, the rest of us are left elbowing each Other in order to get to the head of the queues for mating, food, and shelter. We fall back to the body fighting for dominance over the inevitable change of dissolution and final death.

Along with the jostling and elbowing for position, small groups gather to share their energy-draining experience and calculate the relative benefits of coordinated survival. Safety seems to inhabit numbers, and numbers add up to enhanced reproductive odds. Numbers also frame the abstracted domain of technology and machines. Machinic devices seem to help guarantee the dominance of one small group over another by supplying some slight edge on reproductive viability. These social constellations create or mandate structures of human relation which pool labor -- the cumulative expended energy of individual lives -- while endeavoring to create survival-technologies that will prolong the life of the collective.

A life-time is a limited period of organized organismic existence that each of us is endowed with by means of some indeterminate process. A primary characteristic of life-time is its absolute and unconditional limit: it runs out. We apparently do have some degrees of freedom to choose how we spend that life-time, so it becomes a question of which pursuits, interests, necessities, and diversions should populate our days. We often forget the absolute limit to it all, and proceed as though there is an unlimited amount of time. There is not. Each moment is a unique passing-through of experience, expenditure of time, and, more importantly, expenditure of energy. Each moment represents a small incremental dissolution in the organized structure of our embodied presence, entropy gnawing at our bones, energy flowing outwards. Each moment's survival is an expression of energy flowing from our bodies. Yes, we spend more or less time ensuring that we take energy into our systems to help maintain the necessary order, but it is never enough: the battery slowly runs down. With this in mind, how then do we choose how to expend our life-times, our dwindling energy stores? Do we value every moment as we should?

Time moving (there is no Other time!) is energy (which is motion) is change (all is) creativity (the foundational expression of energy) is life (the Self is limited but desires immortality and, indeed, is immortally transcendent).

One major choice we face is how much energy to expend in the course of interacting with the Others who populate our lives. How much face-time/energy do we spend on each human we come across. How much time do we spend on those remote Others we cannot see, or cannot hear, or cannot touch? How much time on those many Others who populate the social system we live in. The ones we cross paths with in random and determinate movement? The ones who forcefully find our paths and deflect them from their natural trajectory? The ones who, by their gravity or Light, attract or repel us?

It is this process of giving and receiving energy that is the very fabric of life-time, it accumulates to be the essence of our presence and our life.

Starting from the unitary encounter of the Self with the Other, there is, in the dynamic of the encounter, a sensation of flow (and of a lack of flow). Many terms and instances in language and social structure frame this sensation. It is clear that when there is an open and bi-directional flow between any two individuals that out of the encounter comes an excess of energy -- a condition of in-spiration following the encounter. In the opposite case, in a situation of blockages between the Self and the Other, the encounter is often a loss of creative inertia -- where there is a direct relationship between the sustained intensity of the engaged flow and the creative possibilities coming from it.

If one looks at an accumulation of these binary human systems, each with a potential energy surplus, there begins to appear two structures. The first is a simple network, where individuals in a limited system are connecting, engaging, and being energized by those encounters -- each encounter generating a surplus of energy. The network becomes the source of a powerful collective energy.

The second structure is an evolving social structure, which, by nature, seeks to harness those energies, the energies generated from these individual encounters, for the collective 'good.' The imposition of defined social pathways controls and harnesses the movement of energy between individuals. The fabric of a social system is the accumulation of these proscribed pathways or mediations. Some of the energy invested in the process is tapped off into the social system when the Self and the Other engage with each other through these mediated pathways. Each encounter mediated by the imposed pathways is drained to a greater or lesser degree of its vitality, at the same time that the social system is strengthened by the accumulated energies.

What is this web of interacting flows that together are the accumulated and energized field of a social system? What is the relationship between the individual, the engaged pair of humans, and the collective in this space of flows? Moreover, again, why do we as individuals participate in this system, giving up major fragments of our life-times to it?

By spending one's life-time in the labor of common good, the duration of life time is apparently increased, statistically. By giving life-time to the social system, the social system reciprocates by making available collective, though temporary, solutions to the problem of death. The process of many individuals surrendering their own life-times to the collective creates a pool of energy that can then be expended based on the desires of those who control the social collective. This energy bank, as it were, allows the collective to engage in energy-intensive activities to secure its common survival (though clearly the survival of any particular individual with in the system is secondary!). The larger and more complex that the social system is, the greater the demands on the life-times of those who chose to participate in it. The pathways through which the social system draws these energies from the individual become ever more pervasive, and, at the same time, they recede into near-invisibility compared to the over-riding issue of the survival of the social system.

Does this process actually increase the quantity of life overall? If energy can be neither created nor destroyed, then the energy bank represents a concentration of energy while a relative scarcity of energy remains the condition of the individual. Concentration and rarefaction.

There are more things to meditate upon regarding the relationship between the Self, the Other, and the social, but to close this short text, and to return to the original phrase Architectures of Participation, a few more questions should be posed among the many possible.

What does it mean to participate? Does it mean agreement in action? Does it assume surficial homogeneity of intent? Is there a reciprocal exchange implicit in a participatory system? What characteristics do the prototypical participatory events in life exhibit? What mechanisms exist to guarantee the auspiciousness of participation? Is intuition a key filter in the process of energized participation. Can the individual life-energy contributed to the social system by recalled? Is there a collective means whereby the social energy can be tapped to insure the good of each individual (versus the corporate collective)?

Participation is a set of actions, tasks that might occur back-to-back, face-to-face, or side-by-side. The physical placement of the bodies in relation to each Other gives fundamental characteristics to the participation. Whatever material form it takes, participation precipitates a deeply seated change in point-of-view, in internal energy states -- shifted by the energy of the Other. Participation affects an internal transformation that in turn changes the world.