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Reading Notes: Week 12

In lieu of a summary this week (mainly because I don’t think I could summarize the neurology content), I’m choosing to explore some content options I haven’t done so far.

Questions with Discussion

Why are these readings (the intro material of Castells and neurology) paired? Other than the obvious goal of getting started with Castells, these seem to be paired because Castells explains the informational revolution that led to the boom of knowledge in neurology. In each of the interviews, the interviewer asks about the importance of the 1990s as the “decade of the brain,” and in three of the four interviews, the scientists refer to the advances in technology, specifically microscopy, that have allowed them to view the activity of the brain at the neuronal (cellular) level.

Castells explains these advancements as characteristic of informationalism: whereas industrialism is oriented toward economic growth, informationalism is oriented toward  technological development, the accumulation of knowledge, and higher levels of information processing (p. 17). Thus, the advancements in scientific technology are representative of the shift in economic structure.

Castells, p. 17

Castells, p. 17

What other overlaps are there between the readings? Both Castells and the neurology readings describe the processes as cyclical. Castells claims, “what is specific to the informational mode of development is the action of knowledge upon knowledge itself as the main source of productivity” which creates a circle of interaction between knowledge and technology. As we produce technology, we gain more knowledge which lends to more technological production and so on. This cycle is illustrated in the development of neurobiology tools, namely microscopy. As more powerful microscopes lend to the knowledge of neurotransmission and neuronal regenesis, scientists gain both knowledge of the processes and awareness of what they still don’t know, which leads to the creation of more powerful tools intended to reveal those gaps.

Another overlap is the stage of knowledge both readings represent (which makes sense since they’re so foundationally related). In their interviews, each of the scientists points to the informational revolution of the 1990s as just the beginning–they are only beginning to understand the complexity of the mind and neuronal processes. Similarly, Castells examines the complexity of informationalism in its early stages. While he draws on previous economic transformations, he acknowledges that his goal is to be analytic rather than predictive.

Quotes for Discussion (with Examples)

Wolfhard's Interview

Wolfhard’s Interview

“And if you had a faint idea as to how the nervous system does what it does, we could build computers that emulate the nervous system, and we’d be ahead. Whoever makes that is going to be ahead financially, militarily, if it has to be” (Wolfard, in Neurobiolgy). Wolfard’s claim here echoes Castell’s claims about the connections between information and economic growth. This statement highlights what would be the ultimate achievement in artificial intelligence. Being able to replicate the human nervous system in computers would allow for replacement of human components on, to me, an unimaginable level. Wolfard recognizes the connections between technological development and economic power–he even ties it to military power, an element that Castells doesn’t discuss in his opening material.

“In such a world of uncontrolled, confusing change, people tend to regroup around primary identities: religious, ethnic, territorial, national” (Castells, p. 3).Castell’s claim here explained the trends we see so vividly through social media–the isolating of persons and the commitment to identity. As traditions are challenged and transformed, people react strongly and publicly to maintain the cultural traditions that define their identity–it seems especially true for the traditions that have been dominant. For instance, when the Duck Dynasty patriarchy Phil Robertson made public statements about homosexuality and sinners, criticism from gay supporters led A&E to suspend Robertson from the show. In response, his supporters launched a social media campaign against A&E, arguing that the network was attacking traditional Christian beliefs about family and sexuality. Facebook posts and tweets revealed polarized opinions about the fairness of Robertson’s suspension, and many who supported him changed their profile pictures to Duck Dynasty images and began spreading an online movement to boycott the network. These actions foregrounded traditional Christianity and political conservatism as part of their identities. Despite the legality of A&E’s action, Robertson supporters were reacting to the realization that their traditions are being challenged as society increasingly redefines the balance of power.

This example also represents the connections between the networked society and the economics. Because of the increased communication provided through social media, A&E faced a public relations nightmare (they ended up reinstating him on the show). Despite this seeming nightmare, the controversy prompted an economic boom for Christian retailers and A&E (Duck Dynasty merchandise) and threatened to affect retailers of the show’s merchandise (for an article on the impact, click here).

“Differential timing in access to the power of technology for people, countries, and regions, is a critical source of inequality in our society” (Castells, p. 33). While it’s no surprise that regions that lag in technological development also lag in economic development is no surprise, Castells further claim that “The switched off areas are culturally and spatially discontinuous” (p. 33) is. In the United States, we tend to think of the the inequality as a global rather than national problem, although it has been addressed sparingly at the state and national levels. Castells argument, however, indicates that attempts to solve the inequalities at the national and state levels take a backwards approach. Take education, for example. In low socioeconomic status areas, state and local governments tend to dole out grants for technology in the classroom and community, in hopes of balancing out the inequities. Castells argument (though not fully represented by the above quote), however, is that technological development is the key factor in economic development. Thus, providing access to technology is an insufficient approach. Instead, the focus should be on helping these areas become leaders in development.

Connections with Course

Both Castells and the neurobiology chapter point to the complexity of dynamic systems. In both systems, the transfer and transformation of information is key–information is both the goal of and the catalyst for change. Here are some key points about systems that both readings suggest:

Boundaries are hard to define: In terms of a networked society, Castells explains that even as people try to hold on to markers of their individual identities, “our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self” (p. 3). Furthermore, “technology is society and society cannot be understood or represented without its technological tools” (p.5). Boundaries between nations, societies, and individuals are collapsing as they become globally networked.

Similarly, in neurobiology, the boundaries are not always clear. While we can distinguish at the molecular level, the boundaries between the human mind, the human body, and the environment are not as easy to distinguish (think Gibson’s affordances). As Wolfhard explains, “Synapses change all the time. While we are speaking, and every morning you wake up, you’re the same person-almost. You’re never quite the same person because through the day’s experience, your synapses will have changed as a result of neuro-transmission.”  The system, then, is altered by experience that results from the mere fact of existence. As researchers investigate the importance of being embodied, we realize that the boundaries that define us are far less definitive than previously realized.

The system evolves through a feedback loop: As stated above, both theories of networks identify the cyclical nature of the systems. According to Castells, as knowledge is developed, technology is produced, which prompts more knowledge, which prompts further technological development.

The system is interdependent on its many connections:In the body, neurons communicate by releasing neurotransmitters through synapses. The neurons themselves have two ends–axons and dendrites, with dendrites connecting to the axons of other neurons. Because of this structure, individual neurons can make thousands of connections, creating a complex system of connections that relay information throughout the body.

Likewise, the economic structure of an informational society is connected by the economies and technologies of other societies and defined by their own “interactions between modes of production and modes of development (p. 18). As such, “modes of [economic] development shape the entire realm of social behavior . . . including symbolic communication” (p. 18).



Castells, M. (2010). Rise of the network society. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Neurobiolgy. (2013). In Rediscovering biology. Annenberg Foundation. Retrieved from



MindMap April 6: Neurology

Neurology MindMap April 6

Neurology MindMap April 6

For this week’s assignment, I decided to map the way in which neurological principles resemble a network (as we discussed in the class activity) and to link neurology to ecology.

First, I added a new node called “Neurology.” From that node, I added nodes labeled “Nodes,” “Agency,” “Relationships,” and “State of the Network.”

From the “Nodes,” node, I added elements of the neurological process that seem to be nodes. From the “Agency,” node, I added postsynaptic (which only receives) and presynaptic (which only sends), and I added neurotransmitters.

These concepts are also linked to relationships, so I added connecting lines that connected to the words “receptor” and “transmitter,” which were branches from the “Relationship” node. I added another link between these two nodes to show that they are bound together by this relationship. I also added a node called “Movement,” from which I added nodes for the elements that actually move in the process.

From “The State of the Network,” I added nodes that explore those things that cause the network to grow or dissolve Neurogenesis and Neurodegenesis.

As I was reading about neurology, I thought a great deal about ecology, particularly the idea that the individual mind is a system within a system in ecology, so I linked the “Relationships” node in Neurology to the concept of the subsystem in the ecology section.

Because in ecology the relationships are bidirectional, I linked the unidirectionality of presynaptic and postsynaptic elements to the node in ecology discussing bidirectionality. I added a node in the middle of these lines to explore the links.

It seems to me that the unidirectionality in neurology is actually the result of looking at a subsystem within a larger system. If were were to examine the elements of the body that begin to trigger the process again, we would find that there are feedback loops that cause the neurological process to be triggered in the first place, but we only see this if we move out of the examination of the firing of neurons to look at the ecology of the body (biological processes) outside of this micro-level system.

As I was writing this, I realized that I could connect this to the laminated chronotropes in CHAT and to Spinuzzi’s multiple levels of scope in an activity system, so I drew new lines to connect neurology to them. It seems to me that neurology looks at the literal level in laminated chronotropes and it is the micro-level in the activity system.


MindMap#11: Neurobiology

Never thought I’d be typing the words Neurobiology. This week’s mind map was the easiest one for me. As I was doing the reading, I was thinking of connections. I imagined myself drawing lines from How Stuff Works to Dendrites and Axons and then drawing connections between Buses and Action Potential and Snapchat. I did […]

Mind Map: Class Meeting 4/1/14

Suzanne's Mind Map

I started this week by rearranging my mind map to make it more tenable. Like neurons that are enhanced while others are limited to "sculpt" new pathways, I too have enhanced and limited some nodes in my network. I looked at which nodes seemed to be the most connected. This turned out to be "action in a network" and "mediation". I moved these nodes off to the right hand side of the map in an attempt to re-visualize the map, perhaps see something I had not seen before. I expanded the popple to visually occupy more space and convey significance as a Latourian macroscopic node or a Castellsian mega-node. Then I started to play with the arrangement of the nodes connected to these newly-sized ones. I realized that some of the nodes seemed integrally linked to both action and mediation - doing and changing.

Distribution: Connected to mediation by way of the CHAT authors canon remapping that views distribution and mediation as forms of delivery. It connected out to my object of study, which, as a network, effected action in the underground movement by spreading ideas and building communities.

Discourse: The rhetorical situation explained that discourse can "mediate" a situation and lead to action on the part of the audience. It is connected to network if we think of rhetoric as the product of a network connecting the rhetorician, the situation, exigencies, audience, and constraints.

Hypertext: Hypertext is a tool to create discourse but has the affordance of linking out to the broader digital network. By creating links, we mediate our messages, adding layers of meaning and association otherwise not easily achieved. There is also the potential for action as Johnson-Eilola expresses through the democratic medium of hypertext, removing institutional barriers and reaching audiences who would be able to take actions to mediate the situation.

Genre: Genre is mediation in the sense that it constrains and shapes discourse by plying content into the recognizable characteristics of the form. It is also possible that genre leads to action as Miller and Bazerman contend.

 After thinking about it, I can't say I am too surprised that these are my mega-nodes. Changing, making, doing, acting - these are the issues in scholarship with which I am most concerned. Naturally, I would see these ideas as more relevant and notable than others. This remapping simply confirms those important methodological foundations.

New additions:

I plan to build off my new, streamlined map to make things more tenable. I've added nodes in green.

There are two new connections to mediation. I was struck by the idea that the neurons are shaped by limitations and enhancements - a discussion related to the building of memory (another network itself). This seems to be a kind of mediation, shaping changes, that builds the network of memory. I think sometimes I think of network growth as expansion or addition, but perhaps growth is just as dependent on where we limit or restrict it. This week's reshaping of the map, constraining it and enhancing some areas, seems an application of this principle as well.

Also connected to mediation is Castells' idea of the three stages of technology: automation, experimentation, reconfiguration. This last step is akin to mediation in that we change technology once we become fluent. This has me thinking about fluency and mediation - what other ways are these ideas linked? Academic fluency is certainly necessary before any mediation of the body of scholarship can occur. In technology, fluency is demonstrated through successful mediation, but academia seems to require other people's acknowledgment of one's fluency. Is technology more democratic in this way? More inclusive? Less obstacles? Does the validation from established experts give credence to academic fluency (once accepted) that carries more significance than reconfigurations of technology?

The last new node is off the action mega-node. This is Castells' concept that research is not discourse, but inquiry. At first, this concept takes me aback - not discourse? Not intelligent conversation and interplay between thinkers? Not carefully constructed text and speech? What have I been doing with myself these last ten years? However, after more careful thinking, I see the point. Discourse alone is not active - contradicting the Bitzer/Vatz idea that discourse motivates an audience to effect change on a situation - rather we need inquiry. Discourse is not action, but questioning can be. I wonder though if discourse cannot be also inquiring? I think it can be. Maybe a literary analysis if a poem does not lend itself to social questions to guide actions, but maybe in English studies we need to be more cognizant of how to make poetry relevant. Perhaps finding the questions is one way to do that.

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 4/1/14


What type of network structure is the brain?

In many ways, I think that considering the brain as a network is at the very core of what we have been working with all semester. Every theme is represented in the anatomical and biological functions described in this chapter: communication between nodes, macroscopic and microscopic levels, how meaning moves through a network, boundaries, and what happens to nodes within a network.

I began thinking about how the brain allows us to perceive the world, and specifically for this course we use the organ to think about other networks. It made me wonder if we recognize these patterns of interconnection because on some level we are hard-wired to think in these terms since the object we use to look out into the world is itself a network. Do we see networks because we see with a network? Like recognizing like?

Then I began to think about natural patterns and images of fractal patterns that occur in nature (This is a pretty good collection of these images). What I observed is that all of the images, whether it be lightening or a peacock feather, have main artery-like channels with smaller offshoots fanning outward (or in some cases with the reverse effect - small channels funneling together to form something large and unified).

San Francisco Bay salt flats. Image by Tolka Rover posted on Flickr.

It seems too coincidental that the pattern of the natural observable world, like the image of salt flats above, is also represented in the internal structures of the brain, like the diagram of neurons depicts below.

Neuron diagram featuring the pattern of a main channel with smaller structures fanning outward. Image by Rediscovering Biology.

It occurs to me that this is a very specific kind of networked structure in which meaning and data is transmitted outward into space from a primary root or central line. Rather than individual nodes with multiple connections, this type of network structure is more of a dispersal model showing how something is funneled into smaller and smaller locales. What kinds of networks have this kind of model outside of the natural world? What are the implications of this kind of structure? Is meaning-making limited in this centrally-directed system as opposed to the "horizontal" system Castells describes? If there is a disruption in the main channel, are there ways for the dependent branches to survive?

In some ways, this feels like the kind of network for my OoS. The synaptic terminal can either be a presynaptic neuron, outputting information into the synaptic space to then be picked up by the postsynaptic neuron. The presynaptic neuron gathers information from all its smaller branches and collects into the main channel to be released. The postsynaptic neuron distributes that information outward into its branches from its main channel. The UPS worked the same way, gathering from smaller papers into a collective before redistributing to the smaller papers once more. Gather, collect, distribute. This is more scientifically explained in the Introduction as the brain's three functions: taking in sensory information, processing between neurons, and making outputs. Who knew the neural network and the underground press worked in the same way? I imagine, like the photo series linked to above, this network pattern is likely embedded throughout the universe on every level.

Neurotransmission and Latour:

Neurotransmission is the cell to cell signaling, either chemically or electrically initiated, responsible for producing actions in the body. In discussing neurons, cells that send and receive signals, Dr. Wolfhard Almers explains, "There are neurons that send a signal to only one other cell, and there are other neurons that get input, on average, from about a thousand...There are big neurons and small neurons." This immediately reminded me of Latour's explanation of macroscopic and microscopic levels. Rather than being hierarchical, Latour's flat levels refer to the number of connections a node may have, or how saturated or dense it is, as Dr. Romberger noted. Big neurons gather input from a thousand sources while small neurons may only communicate to one single other cell.  This speaks to the requirement of a network to have variation in connectivity. Both large-scale, general nodes and small-scale, specialized nodes are needed.

Growth in the Neural Network:

Our case study assignments ask us to think about how networks grow, change, and dissolve. The information from the online chapter speaks to this question in several ways. First, there is the notion that "synapses are more plastic than fixed." These delivery and reception systems not static; they are in fact changed by the transmission process. In other words, functioning as a part of the network changes the participants. I am thinking of the observer effect in some way; we cannot be a part of something without having some effect or being affected. This strikes me as an essential part of the Ecology theory. There is an implied responsibility to being a part of a network because our presence will always have a mutable effect. The concept of long-term potentiation is also relevant here because it too implies long-term effects of action in a network. Here the idea is that once a synapse is fired, it becomes somehow enhanced. From that point on, it operates at an increased rate; the initial spark lasts even after the original stimulus. 

Don't step on any butterflies. Image from Amazon.
The chapter also explains that the "neuronal network" is also responsible for creating memory. To do this, certain synaptic connections are enhanced while others are limited. This process of growing and restricting "sculpts" the pathways that allow memory to be formed and retrieved. I think this is also a key concept when thinking about growth. It is a dual process of encouraging certain areas while actively limiting others. It can be easy sometimes to focus on one or the other - like praise to encourage without disciplinary consequences to limit or vice versa. Perhaps the lesson here is that healthy growth or improvements require both encouragement and constraints.

Neurons Need Neurons:

I was really taken by the concept of action potential. As I understand the term, it is a recognition that the signal "propagated along a neuron" is only a potential action until it is received by a another neuron's receptors. The term fascinates me because it is implying the interdependence of one neuron on another. In isolation, a neuron can only ever have the potential to do something, the impulse or possibility for action. Without another neuron, that potential can never be realized. Participation in a network allows, perhaps requires, collaboration to achieve action. Nodes need and depend on one another more fully than I had previously considered. 

Image by quick meme

Manuel Castells:


“I contend that around the end of the second millennium of the common era a number of major social, technological, economic, and cultural transformations came together to give rise to a new form of society, the network society, whose analysis is proposed in this volume” (xvii).
The summary of this text above provides a succinct description of Castells' explorations. The Preface provides a more detailed overview of the main themes:
  1. The global financial crisis of 2008 was only possible in a networked world. 
  2. Labor, work, employment have been fundamentally changed bu connective technology. 
  3. Communication has been transformed through the internet, wireless technology, and user-generated content. Horizontal networks emerge to replace vertical networks. Rather than receiving information, we are now able to create communication. The horizontal networks is “built around peoples’ initiatives, interests, and desires” (xxviii). 
  4. Space and time as humans understand it has been altered. Concentrations of “wealth, power, and innovation on the planet" have led to the creation of "mega-nodes." However,  "few people in the world feel identified with the global, cosmopolitan culture that populates the global networks” (xxxix). There is a schism between globalization and human tendency to connect more deeply locally. 
  5. Humans experience time depending on how their lives are structured; there is subjectivity now in how we experience time since we are able to exert more control over time units than before. Where time had previously been controlled by external sources, we now have "timeless time." We control time rather than let it control us - subverting biological clocks and labor schedules with flex time - an attempt to “annihilate time”. Unfortunately, this leads to a manic pace. Castells writes, “Why do people rush all the time? Because they can beat their time constraints, or so they think” (xli).
    Losing the battle against time in the networked world. Image by clairestevenson posted on deviantart.
  6. Lastly, theory and research must make sense of things. Castells argues, “The value of social research does not derive only from its coherence, but from its relevance as well. It is not a discourse but an inquiry” (xliii). The implication is for scholarship in the networked world to be of the world and not simply about it. Research should be useful.

Some thoughts about above:

    • Is the UPS a kind of horizontal network in contrast to the vertical networks of the mainstream media? (number 3)
    • Castells argument about research being useful seems to fit with the Participatory/Advocacy  methodology, which aligns with my own approach to scholarship. Could he be a helpful voice when it comes time to work on the dissertation and have the need to ground my thinking/decisions in a framework? (number 6)

One more thought:

In this hyper-connected, networked society, are we creating as many divisions as we are collaborations?

Castells writes:
“The constitution of a new culture based on multimodal communication and digital information processing creates a generational divide between those born before the Internet Age (1969) and those who grew up digital” (xviii).

“Global networks included some people and territories while excluding others, so inducing a geography of social, economic, and technological inequality” (xviii).
    The first quote suggests there is a generational division, and the second quote speaks to the digital divide. Is it simply a matter of time before there are only post-Internet Age humans left on the planet, thus eliminating that gap? Is it reasonable to think that eventually the network will fiber-optically weave through even the most remote of places on the planet? My instinct is to say no. Access and familiarity are two reasons that keep people divided in this society, but there is an active culture of anti-technology that makes the conscious choice to remain disconnected. It is not reasonable to think this element would simply disappear. The graphic below showing Facebook users in different categories suggests that while older people have an increased use of Facebook, young people have discontinued use by over half. How does this trend align with the divide along age lines that Castells notes? Could it be a rejection of the over-mediated, hyper-networked society? Pendulums always swing back in the other direction.


    Scholarship Changing the World:

    “I believe, in spite of a long tradition of sometimes tragic intellectual errors, that observing, analyzing, and theorizing are a way of helping to build a different, better world. Not by providing answers…but by raising some relevant questions” (4).
    I would just like to say that I am kind of in love with Castells. His writing is theoretical, but so readable and almost casual in tone. He is self-deprecating and humble about his work. He is funny (saving us from the bibliographic jungle? awesomeness.). But this quote is really where he wins me over. He connects back to the number six point from the Preface. Without being aggressive, he sincerely holds to a kind of practical idealism. We are not here to save the world, but we can, in a small way, help to guide things in a better direction. We can probe and problematize and rethink and remap our way to greater awareness and communal knowledge. Amen!

    Castells and UPS:
    • “The outcome was a network architecture which, as its inventors wanted, cannot be controlled from any center, and is made of thousands of autonomous computer networks that have innumerable ways to link up, going around electronic barriers” (6). I like this quote as a reference to Spinuzzi's workarounds and also the UPS as a way of "linking up" despite technological barriers.
    • “Thus, humankind as a collective producer includes both labor and the organizers of production, and labor is highly differentiated and stratified according to the role of each worker in the production process” (15). Another potential idea for thinking of the UPS. The UPS is often marginalized as a simple distribution system amidst the larger or more important work of the underground papers producing content. However, here there is the sense that the two roles - labor (producing content) and organizers of production (UPS distribution/connection/archiving system) are equally important.

    Chapter One:

    • Castells explains that there were three stages of user interaction with technology: "the automation of tasks, and experimentation of uses, and a reconfiguration of applications." He continues, "In the first two stages, technological innovation progressed through learning by using, in Rosenberg’s terminology. In the third stage, the users learned technology by doing, and ended up reconfiguring the networks, and finding new applications" (31). I think this speaks to the theme I have been working on this semester of using technology versus making technology - "critical making" in the digital humanities. We have traversed the first two stages and now must equip ourselves to lead students and scholars through the third stage.
      Digital fluency must now mean the ability  to create and understand the processes of creation. We must become fluent and help others reach Castells' third stage as well. Image posted by Halo and Minecraft on Blogger 

    • “It is indeed by this interface between macro-research programs and large markets developed by the state, on the one hand, and decentralized innovation stimulated by a culture of technological creativity and role models of fast personal success, on the other hand, that new information technologies came to blossom” (69). More fodder for the case study. Decentralized innovation stimulated by creativity and successful role models leading to a blossoming of work. This is exactly what happened in the small communities linked to large urban papers ("macro-research programs and large markets"). They were inspired by the larger, successful papers, but developed their own styles and processes for publishing. This model of creativity trickling down from massive producers to smaller producers, AND that the smaller producers are innovating - not just copying - is especially interesting to my larger research goals of positioning the Southern underground papers as relevant to the broader national movement.

    Works Cited:

    Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

    "Unit 10: Neurobiology."  Rediscovering Biology. Annennberg Foundation, 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.