From neural patterns to network society

Karin Ohlenschläger and Luis Rico


Barely a century separates Ramón y Cajal’s discovery of the structure and function of neuronal networks from Manuel Castells theories about The Rise of the Network Society. Nonetheless, during that time, things on all levels of society have changed at one of the fastest rates ever. Our dizzying techno-scientific, social and cultural evolution has created a new paradigm based on both the complexity of the multiple realities we operate on simultaneously and the interconnection among processes and events that used to be seen as separate, incompatible or simply incomprehensible. This new scenario is structured as a network of networks, understood as our most advanced tool for interpreting and comprehending the diversity and complexity of contemporary experience. In the late 19th century, for the first time, the brain was able to observe its own neurons and nervous systems in an unprecedented exercise of self reflection. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, global society is facing the need to think of and build itself based on this new paradigm. The absorbing reality of the Internet influences how we think and act. In fact, we are no longer the same as we used to be. Now we know we are interconnected on all levels of human activity. Any pretensions at autarchy in the area of knowledge or creation have been gradually rendered obsolete by this new, fluid space we move in. Its very permeability is a new way to understand and construct reality. Through the Internet, identities are increasingly open, creation offers a way to communicate more than ever before, and it all provides a fresh outlook on the human condition. Through the Internet, identities are in creasingly open, creation offers a way to communicate more than ever before, and it all provides a fresh outlook on the human condition.

Neurons operate as nodes in the nervous system and global society interacts in a similar manner. The hyper-connected Internet never sleeps, always humming away, and asking us questions. Its answers are always thoughts online. A text being written as it is projected over us all, a story that grows and branches out infinitely, like Borges’ gardens and labyrinths. Nobody knows the shape or limits of this living labyrinth but all of us, from individuals to nation states, are aware that we take part in it, generating energy and information flo ws and, in the best of cases, producing knowledge. It’s a Copernican revolution: we’ve moved from Sartre’s “each man for himse lf” to Internet theorists’ “person-as-node”. Thus, just as the same information flows through all our cells, a universal story is created by our social and cultural interconnections, which we are actively creating at every moment. There is no place for isolated stories in this forum where art, philosophy, literature and science are constantly engaged in dialogue, not only with and for themselves, but among each other and for all. Being a citizen today means being part of a highly dynamic, changing system where huge flows of energy, matter, and knowledge are moving incessantly. Exploring our world is once again an adventure, where the image of a neural network, just as shown by Cajal, has grown and become the paradigm of Internet.

Banquete_nodos y redes (banquet_nodes and networks) grew out of this theoretical and practical need to re search the new conditions of the Network Society and the flowing space that define the globalized world of the 21st century. In this context, the model of cultural production that has prevailed up until now, always based on a dominant center and unquestionable axes, has yielded to a new structure with multiple nodes and networks. This structure is characterized by its constant flow of information and exchanges, as well as by interaction, connected dialogue within a network where each point is a node, an outlook and a story. In short, we are talking about a new system of cultural production and transmission. It is multi-centered, dynamic, and horizontal, acting in an interconnected and interdependent way. It is an expansive system where ideas and concepts, as well as subjects, entities and institutions are all agents and catalysts for the process of cultural transformation.

In this so-called Information and Knowledge Age, where electronic cognitive and physical packages are part of the system, can we redesign to transform cultural institutions to behave with the plasticity and learning flexibility that molecular, cellular, neuronal sensory systems have enjoyed for at least 500 million years? Might we form an eco-physiological view of creation and dissemination of knowledge analogous to the sensory metabolic and reproductive processes of life itself? Might we dispense with rigid deterministic, compartmentalized mechanical belief systems that impede cultural flow? Can we re-connect and re-combine necessities that are separated mainly by our habits of thought? From the interaction between art, science and technology in the 20th century synchronicities can be inferred that are worthy of nurture.