The inter-Asian contexts signaled in the title of this special issue serve a precise limiting role in relation to the issue’s topic (humans and networks) that is neither arbitrary nor determined by the more common constraints of an area studies approach to the questions it poses. The chief concern is with kinds of community, a developing, maybe even decaying concept in these contexts, where online mediation plays a constitutive part in their development. The originality of the collection lies in its various attempts to understand in a broadly ethnographical way how such communities emerge, what kinds of rules or cultures underlie their emergence, and what kinds of rules and cultures are brought into existence by it.
To begin with, the theme of novelty serves as a principle of coherence across otherwise diverse articles, in the sense of both how we should understand these communities and how they function in relation to older, perhaps residual, forms of community. Sora Park, for instance, begins with an observation that is now so often made it has become commonplace, concerning the way digital devices have transformed the working parameters of both communication and social relations. The enduring quality of the information stored on the Web coupled with the ephemeral quality of the here-and-now interactions—especially with the youth in Park’s study—has led to a recalibration of time consciousness. So, while the young people studied have become “adept at reconfiguring social relations according to persistent sociocultural norms,” the range of social media platforms have altered their “conception of temporality” (Park, this issue). The traditional desire to fit in with a social peer group fosters sophisticated techniques of self-curation on social media platforms as the communities take on increasingly digitized forms.
Alfred Montoya’s study of the social networking strategies adopted by HIV/AIDS workers in the face of drastic reductions in funding uncovers a naive adherence to information and communications technology (ICT), and a consensus, “in the absence of the material resources that had funded ‘classical’ HIV prevention and control interventions . . . , that innovative uses of ICTs could seamlessly make up the difference; that technology could save us and, more specifically, could save us money” (Montoya, this issue). Montoya’s careful reconstruction of the stages that HIV/AIDS management passes through on the way to somewhat effective networking strategies establishes an unexpected consequence in the specific local communities attracted to them: young, gay, social media savvy professional males. “It was among these men,” he writes, “that a community was being cultivated, a local, active, and engaged community that rested on an acknowledgment of shared history, shared risks, and vitally, shared responsibility” (Montoya, this issue). This curiously classical notion of a community, echoing the Latin—or, better, Roman—signification of the munus (variously service, office, duty, obligation, gift), functions alongside a localized, or localizable, context where media operates as a function of a socioeconomic scene characterized by the identity (the class, sexuality, and gender) of its users. Elsewhere, one struggles to find instances of social networking that feature any obligation of concern for one’s neighbor (let alone for a stranger). But this special issue takes this kind of phenomenon as a key concern.
Hence the limiting role of the inter-Asian contexts, which signal as much an alternative to European or American contexts as they do the need to establish the specificity and the situatedness (a fragile term) of the communities in question. The Internet (for the sake of convenience I understand by this designation all actual and potential devices connected in the global network by cable or wireless) therefore operates broadly in two incompatible ways. It makes possible (with every connection, every communication, every viral event) an illimitable number of such connections. The legacy perhaps of the diverse interests involved in its emergence at the dawn of the computer age, it simultaneously destroys, erodes, and dissolves social ties and yet maintains them, fosters them, allows such ties to thrive and evolve. Furthermore, the possibility of doubled identities, fraudulent representations, simulations, and impersonations plays well into the hands of both subversive and state interests. At a time when the contours of what we once believed we could identify as the West (Western thought, Western modernity, Western science, religion, reason, etc.) have been swept up into a reorganization of the large economies (e.g., with the globalatinization of science and religion and the emergence of powerful African and Asian markets), the focus, but also the unending paradoxes, of the small situated community emerges in formations perhaps hitherto unseen. For instance, the “young people” in Park’s comparative study and the bodies of the bodybuilders in Michiel Baas’s account of the hybrid forms of “real” (the merging of online and offline activities), which the relative permanence of the Internet allows, each illuminates both a novel and yet rational relation between online activity and community demands.
Here, the more adventurous, more challenging, aim of the special issue comes into relief. The articles in different ways respond to the requirement concerned with the designation human. In this respect, the limiting factor I have been discussing (inter-Asian contexts) forms as the communities in question also form themselves, as limited, localizable assemblies, which function as a kind of defensive mechanism in the face of various kinds of threat. This might be considered in terms of the precarity of a situation, for example, in the case of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam or in that of Aadhaar in India, which calls simultaneously on resistance to and desire for the transparency promised by ICTs. I should note here that, in the context of the database society on which Itty Abraham makes his chief observations about Aadhaar, a comparable situation has become controversial in China.
The situation there will best be understood from the perspective of a prehistory that includes the tensions between power and trade, between the ambitions of a government and the routes by which capitalist (and colonial) interests continue to navigate the geoeconomic terrain. By 2010 China could be regarded as the leading surveillance society (formulations like control society or database society may better capture what is at stake) in a world that is increasingly dependent on the digital technologies without which, for instance, Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” initiative (reactivating ancient trade routes that will link Asia, Europe, and Africa, connecting 60 percent of the world’s population) will never become a reality. As the powerful engineering behind these expanding geopolitical and digital infrastructures promises a new, to all appearances utopian, vision of “beautiful China” (and ultimately much of the world), questions should be posed regarding the fate of the individuals and communities that must somehow subsist in rapidly transformed conditions (Mattern 2017). The idea of the ecologically sustainable and transparent city (e.g., the new area Xiong’an, situated one hundred miles from Beijing and destined to take over some of the capital’s institutions) in which data will be collected from all urban spaces as well as from every citizen and stored in the cloud, blockchain style, in real time, becomes the model for the future of urban existence everywhere. Questions of the kind posed by this special issue, as well as on-the-ground ethnographic research, will be required to understand how communities can emerge and prosper, even adapt and survive, under such conditions.
Or the threat may be considered more diffusely as existential, in terms of the alienating effects of an online presence (surveillance, control, but also anonymity) that threatens to usurp the comfortable limits of everyday interaction. In these cases, formations of community arise in ways that exceed commercial or entrepreneurial interests. Such formations occupy the underdetermined space between the imaginary, where fictional, illusory, projective ideas are fostered by a shared digital culture and the reality of mundane needs. And although they serve those interests too as a matter of course, they also underpin them as a kind of condition of possibility. At the point of this excess, beyond pragmatics, the question of the human emerges as a complex of bodies and discourses, referred to variously throughout the issue as assemblages or human networks.
As most of the discussion in this special issue demonstrates, we are dealing with what can best be regarded as the deconstruction of the human (at least of several competing but classical concepts of the human). It is in this deconstructive movement that the human returns as a kind of potential: a humanity to come, an unfinished concept to be manipulated or appropriated into its own becoming, for good or ill.
The brave attempt by the editors of this provocative and meticulously researched issue to capture the wide range of its several concerns in a single title brings into relief a problem, perhaps the central problem, of the project, where the ambiguity in distinguishing among its terms (network, human, Asia) reveals beneath complex propositions an irremediably tautological formula (“Networked Human, Network’s Human”). Such a problem need not be fatal. To the contrary, it can signal a state of knowledge in transition, even revolution, as it attempts to come to grips with dizzyingly protean states of affairs. In the space of an afterword it might be appropriate to step back briefly from the exemplary studies collected here and focus on the problems posed to knowledge by the aspirations of the issue’s editors. Then it will be possible to assess the contributions within a somewhat clarified framework.
The aspirations of the project pass through some preliminary grounds: (1) a skepticism toward several carefully identified kinds of humanism, where the human designates some kind of unchangeable essence or form; (2) a refusal to accept any notion of the human that is not distinct from the technologies of networking, whether considered in terms of speech and writing or more recent manifestations carried by the Internet, social media, and the Web; (3) the consideration of the role of, indeed the idea of, Asia and the context of inter-Asian networks (this third ground is at once the most productive and yet enduringly problematic).
The aim, then, is to establish some of the ways in which humans—always in terms of the networks within which, or as an element of which, the human operates—have been envisioned or imagined. The theoretical grounds, arrived at with great care and drawing from a wide range of critical sources, posit a vision of the human that is not distinct from the functioning of networks. The human arises in the form of an imaginary, an admittedly complex term that has evolved to describe kinds of community that do not exist as such, have no ontological status, but that nonetheless exert influence on experience, on the senses of self and other. And in the contexts with which the special issue is concerned (Korea, India, Vietnam, Singapore) the human operates in these ways: as a technology; as an imaginary category; as something at once produced, maintained, but also eroded by networked media; and as something projected onto the networks that simultaneously produce it. The concept of the human celebrated by this special issue is that of a humanity to come (a-venir), an unfinished category, hospitable to an elastic range of appropriations and subversions.
The kinds of humanism and ideas of the human against which the editors gather their criticisms fall into a familiar historical region. The consideration they propose can be contrasted as a kind of departure: “We wish to build on this departure from the consideration of the human broadly (which typically means ‘in and from the perspective of the West’), to investigate, as opposed to assume, its portability” (Connor et al., this issue). The investigation into the human, especially today, is required I suppose to consider the formal excess (the human as more than—more than language, body, politics, economics, etc.) that tends to be discursively attached to its idea.
The third of the three guiding questions identified in the editors’ introduction asks, what has been the extent of the influence of these visions and imaginations of the human in relation to networks on design and policy making? It is another exemplary limitation, which allows the authors to focus the considerable weight of the human imaginary on policy making and/or design in the context of ICTs. A question about methodology remains.
Baas identifies, in painstaking technical reconstructions, the efforts (relative also to age and health) that go into perfecting the competitive body. The Internet plays a very specific and economically valuable role in preserving over time the image of the perfected body while the “real” body undergoes its inevitable changes. The relationship between the online and offline body should not, therefore, be considered by way of (the perhaps usual) oppositions but rather as a negotiation using the visual technology as a resource, for instance, allowing the bodybuilder to market bodybuilding skills in visibly (and permanently) accomplished examples. In his discussion of the blurred boundaries between the online and offline worlds, Baas pauses briefly for a footnote on Weber: “It was Max Weber’s argument that no scientific system is capable of reproducing all concrete reality, and the same goes for conceptual tools in terms of being able to capture the near endless diversity of reality. Therefore, a certain amount of abstraction is always required” (Baas, this issue). The analogy is with the bodybuilder, who cannot maintain the ideal type except in the form of an abstraction (the scientific abstraction from the mutable and protean world). Baas correctly avoids the suspicion that he is using the Weberian “type” methodologically and thus throws into relief a methodological question concerning the status of the material available to the Internet scholar.
Abraham brings out the theoretical stakes of methodology in his article, in an attempt to establish in his reading of Aadhaar the kind of database society it typifies. Again, it is the prehistory of Aadhaar (colonial and postcolonial tendencies from phrenology and fingerprinting to drugs, lie detectors, and DNA to bypass the testimony of the legal subject) that allows him to identify the stages, following a broadly Foucauldian scheme, in the passage from disciplinary society to database society (I wondered at this stage where Gilles Deleuze , who in his development of Michel Foucault’s ideas begins to hypothesize a “control society,” fits into the narrative). The theorizing becomes a bit dense: “Society, as the social collective that emerges from the database, is a product of both the internal structure of the database and the interfaces that are applied to it to generate meaning. From the paradigmatic database, the archive of all information collected, a number of syntagmatic narratives can be constructed, each offering a discrete vision of society that is as meaningful as another” (Abraham, this issue). Let me see if I can unfold it. This idea of the social collective, which comprises body parts conjoined with instances of social relation as well as discourses of rights and culture, allows Abraham to coin the phrase—essential to the special issue—human network. The interfaces that are applied to the social collective, to the human network, are the narratives that make sense of the database, so Aadhaar functions as the application of the state’s distrust of the person in its reliance on the body against the person (see Esposito 2015). The argument is convincing to the point that one accepts that the database in relation to the narratives is formed on the model of the paradigmatic in relation to syntagmatic utterances. Yet here the model is teetering on collapse. The database (the archive of all collected information) comprises not the information itself (if one adheres rigorously enough to the model) but the abstract rules by which the information is archived. The historicity of these rules is thus embodied in an assemblage by which the state maintains its historical stance toward the person.
So, the notion of the human, throughout these articles, remains resolutely abstract and perhaps reaches its logical end with Montoya’s transitional statement, “the Human draws its force, in part, from its very absence.” Here the definition of the field (the very center of which must be grasped as an absence) begins to tip into the infinite, against which, as I have suggested, these communities may be constructed by way of systems of defense. The deconstruction of the human, which cannot be distinguished from the idea of the human itself, in its historicity, implies the end of the human (the posthuman, as is popularly said). The emergence of the human, whether in discursive early modern forms like dignity, excess, or potential with no end or in later liberal senses (a priority of life beyond life, beyond bare life) cannot be dissolved so easily. These are the very terms of a critical theory that is partly responsible for helping to bring this deconstruction about. The human as a concept has been put into radical suspense throughout the twentieth century, most conspicuously perhaps by Martin Heidegger (see Heidegger 1998) but also by other writers whose concerns are with a relation to technology, or what Jacques Derrida (1998) has called a “prosthetics of origin.” Both Gilbert Simondon and André Leroi-Gourhan have been influential in discovering in the notion of humanity an inextricable connection to the technical (see Guchet 2008). If the human is anything, it should in the light of this work be regarded as inseparable from its technology.
The main feature of the field we face when conducting research on the Internet may be the absence, the “something missing” from it, that we find in place of positivities. In a strict contrast with the Weberian understanding of the field of the social sciences, as a rich and protean diversity that no conceptual system could ever comprehend in its totality, the Internet calls on, invites, additions to it, by way of what is missing from it. The absence requires further additions, which create further absences, in an unfinished project of construction perfectly modeled by a database, where archive simultaneously names the database as well as the rules by which it is formed but whose laws of composition remain structurally hidden.
Chihyung Jeon in his article distinguishes between “the human” as an idea and “human beings,” by which he means “embodied and mortal persons,” and as with much of the issue the distinction allows for a productive account of a technoscientific projection (the alpha human) in relation to the decaying and managed bodies (a Foucauldian formulation) of Koreans, “whose life and death are to be monitored and managed for the well-being of the population” (Jeon, this issue). The technoscientific discourses play a structuring and constitutive role in this narrative. Jeon analyzes three distinct discourses: the state as well as popular science offer up the image of the immortal future human, whereas fertility rates and the ubiquitous shadow of their statistics offer more starkly the image of future extinction, while the more mundane concerns in discourses of Korean youth (job insecurity, cost of living, questions of marriage—and no doubt here trends toward isolationism) situate them in relation to the potentials of a technoscience that at once can seem oppressive and yet desirable. In this way, the now classical distinctions in how the Internet has been understood (as augmentation, extension, or mediation) undergo some philosophical revision: the body of the mortal person is as much an addition, an extension, or an augmentation to the networked human as the network is to the embodied person. It is as if philosophy must fail when all it can comprehend is exhausted in the combination of bodies and languages. By attempting to recontextualize the alpha human in the cultural politics of contemporary Korea, Jeon again, like Park, raises the question of what it means to be a mortal human. Mortality, certainly, has played a role in defining the human, even in the classical age, but the contemporary demands of networked communities pose a novel and increasingly urgent challenge.
The theoretical article by Connor Graham, Eric Kerr, Natalie Pang, and Michael M. J. Fischer brings a collective experience in meeting this challenge to bear on the question of how one develops a scholarship on the Internet, especially in Asia. The two terms, Internets and situatedness, signal some necessary invention. Situatedness, instantiated by the positionality of the essay itself, grounds the Internet (or one might say situates or even augments several Internets) in communities that are not reducible to online activity and yet might have no existential status offline. The use of Internets in the plural departs not only from established practice, with the still recent but now official relaxing of the capital I commonplace, but also from the conventional sense of the term. The sense derived from engineering distinguishes the Internet, as the entirety of connected devices and all cable and wireless connections, from the Web, the coded digital content, including social media platforms, situated on the Internet. The distinction allows one to speak, as the authors do here, of Singapore “as a node for fifteen undersea high-bandwidth cables, as a host of eight Internet exchange points” (Graham et al., this issue). The originality of the departure here is not a minor innovation, as it follows a refusal to distinguish the engineering, technical factors of ICTs from what the authors develop by way of the complex of “figures, layers, stories, and rumors” by which community activity on Internets can be comprehended. The unexpected originality of the issue lies in the desire to move beyond the statistical views of the Internet and yet comprehend communal online activity as braided through narratives where the engineering and the fields of imagination must be considered as parts of a process, an assemblage, in which the relation determines the status of the related parts.