Communication Networks

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= An exploration of distributed communication and media in the network society

Master thesis by Jonas Andersen, for the Dept. of Information and Media Studies, University of Aarhus


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"The medium is not the message. Not anymore.

Castells (2000) shows how network organisation transcends into national, organisational, and social structures, changing the social dynamics of society. This thesis will focus on the interconnections between the technological ‘network structure’ and the ‘social structure’ (Manovich 2000; Urry 2004) in communication processes. Therefore the initial point of interest is on the different levels of communication processes and their inter-linkage.

This thesis will investigate networks as a model of organisation for complex communication systems on technical and social levels. Secondly, it will propose a functional framework for classifying communication network media. This will be achieved by highlighting three main properties of emergent communication networks as distributed, self-organizing, and social.

What network organisation has done is initially making communication more complex by providing more options for connecting and interacting in social contexts. In the context hierarchical, centralised media, organisations, and societies of modernity the complexity of communication processes was constrained by the use of centralised mass media of a centralised age. The media and the organisations behind them constrained the possibilities for communicative action and reduced the complexity of communication processes. In the network society (Castells 2000; Finnemann 2001), the structure of the information age media, organisations, and societies presents a complexity that surpasses that of communication processes. This means that instead of media reducing complexity in communication processes, communication reduces the complexity of our connections, interactions, and social associations.

Communication reduces the complexity of media.

In stating that the content of a medium is another medium, Marshall McLuhan (1964) challenged the scientific discussion of form versus content by saying that the form is the content. The medium is the message. McLuhann’s work along with the works of Harold Innis and Walther Ong (1982) has been the pivotal point of the medium ecology tradition in medium theory. But as useful as the definition of a medium as the content of another medium might be in defining communication as a Russian doll of media, it does not go far in capturing the complexity of communication in network structured social systems.

Media do not reduce the complexity of communication by setting up constraints for the way we act and communicate (McLuhann 1964 p. 28). On the contrary, communication and social action reduces complexity and constrain our use of media as tools of interaction. So communication is the medium for media, and social action reduces the complexity of our use of media. By confining communication to a specific medium within a medium, analysis of network distributed communication is reduced to medium analysis. At worst analyses will only unveil isolated isles of communication within the contexts of a specific medium. Therefore, the communication process must be the starting point of any analysis with the ambition of accounting for the full complexity in networks of human communication.

Networks have recently been at the centre of attention of an increasing number of researchers in as diverse fields as physics (Watts 2003), computer and media sciences (Resnick 1994), and sociology (Castells 2000). The power of networks spans from information survival rates during nuclear attacks to the rise of a new paradigm of a globally networked society. When analysing networks of computers, people, ants, or information, there is a tendency to focus on a single level of networks (i.e. the physical level) and from its viewpoint observing all other types of networks by applying its dynamics to self-organised network systems in general. This often lead to simplified analyses of networks, that do not take into account differences of emergent systemic levels and the full complexity of the processes at the centre of the networks. Baran (1964) gives an account of centralised, decentralised, and distributed organisation of media infrastructures and their vulnerability to nuclear attacks. In fact, Baran’s analysis for the Rand Corporation was a key contributing factor to the later emergence of the Internet. Watts (2003) suggests that attention should be given to both the ‘network structure´ and the ‘social structure’ in the analysis of networks.

For example, billions of people connect to the Internet. Viewed as a network of connectivity, it represents a highly complex environment of communication. I could potentially choose to connect with each and every user on the Internet by simply sending them an e-mail, which is by far more complexity than I can cope with the use of the relatively limited internal complexity in my head. On an interactive level, the complexity is reduced because interaction demands a shared code and sign system, and shared conventions for exchanging and interpreting these codes and signs. Some users may have Chinese keyboards, and are only able to communicate through Chinese signs whereas I only use the Greek alphabet. And even if I were able to use Chinese signs, the way I used it might be considered rude or ignorant and be misinterpreted. In order for my e-mail interaction (and other interactions) to be successful, my partner and I must share a common code and sign system from which information can be selected. We must share the norms of selecting the form of the message, and we must have in common a reference for selecting an interpretation of a message. By making my communication with some Internet users less probable, communication further helps reduce the complexity of my communication.

This brings the number of possible connections in my self-organising interaction system down to, say, two billion. Further constraints are provided by my participation in an organisation system, as the codes, themes, and programmes of the organisation represent further constraints to the communication process and the use of media. When I am at the communications consultancy where I work, I only communicate with people in the context of the codes of a private business. Making money. In this communication there are certain themes that are more likely to be communicated than others; communication strategies, branding decisions, network campaigns etc., and most communication is directed at a specific present or future project.

Any investigation of communication media must take both the physical and social levels of communication processes into consideration. This can easily lead to a conflict between the linear structured realm of technological media, and the mainly constructionist domain of interpersonal communication. Often this conflict results in one theoretical and analytical tradition colonizing the entire descriptive model. This thesis is an attempt to combine the forces of a structuralist approach of network theory originating from the natural sciences and the inherently constructionist approach of human and social sciences manifested by the social systems’ theory.

The claim is here that these seemingly opposing theoretical standpoints can not only inform one another, but are necessary in describing the basically different phenomena of technology and social processes. The integration of the structural dynamics of the physical level and the social processes of the social level is paramount in proposing a functional classification of network communication media.

After a brief introduction to the central concept of complexity the thesis will present three main chapters."


Chapter one explores the connected network level. On this technical and physical level, we will see how the range of possible communicative connections makes communication a highly complex endeavour – even without the increased connectivity provided by new network structured media such as the internet. We will see how Network organized technical media have basic functions, and investigate the structural dynamics of networks.

Chapter two shows us how the selections of communication processes and sociality help to reduce the complexity of communication by making some communicative actions more probable than others. This chapter will discuss the three social functions of communication and the sociological dynamics of communication processes.

In Chapter three, we will go on to see how communicating within the structural dynamics of physical networks and processes of distributed social systems can be applied to a functional classification of network communication of the fifth information society.