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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).

 

References

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

Neurobiolgy. (2013). In Rediscovering biology. Annenberg Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.learner.org/courses/biology/units/neuro/index.html