Until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about the manufacture of eco-friendly, pre-fabricated, portable housing in Estonia. Then came Venkatraman Venkitachalam, a Bengaluru-based industrial automation expert whose unusually keen eye for fascinating innovation and imagery has earned him a conspicuously popular following on LinkedIn. Venkitachalam’s post showed up on my newsfeed, the image of “A tiny solar-powered, prefabricated house that can move with its owners”—the invention of “Estonian design collective Kodasema and their KODA line of sustainable, modular housing options.”
I thought the piece was interesting enough, so I shared it. That’s all—I simply clicked “share.” Within an hour, LinkedIn members from all over the world mistook me for the author of the piece and began sending me all kinds of questions about how and where to purchase these “amazing homes.” How much do they cost? Are they available in the U.S.? Are they available in Denmark? Canada? Australia? Does it come in black? Does it come in red? “How flexible is the structure, dimensions, cost… I am thinking artist’s studio workshop?” Others simply offered opinions: Everything from, “human sardine can” to “oh that is stupid cool!!! ill take one! I could so get use to something like that.”
I sent along explanations that I was not in fact the author, but only a “sharer,” a mere link (literally) in a long chain of commentators on the original piece. Others joined in to answer questions posed under “my” share. Then Jo Qualmann, a graduate student in the PolicyFutures Program at the University of Queensland, intervened some more considerably more informed insights, adding that having a small house in the city had been a dream for some time, and she had committed time researching the prospect of their availability relative to Australia’s zoning laws. She in turn received further comments and inquiries inspired by her own comments and inquiries. Then, after a couple of days, notifications of further discussion on the piece gradually turned away from me to address other members… until the notifications slowly faded into the virtual horizon, with an oddly Doppler-like resonance…
To date, Venkitachalam’s post has 82,158 likes and nearly 5100 shares. I’ve notice two new comments in the past ten minutes. Save for the exceptional popularity of the piece—and the unanticipated global fascination with pre-fabricated housing—there’s nothing particularly unique about online interactions of this kind. In the world of social media, networked discussions of this form have become commonplace for close to two decades now. Yet, as someone trained in the use and study of that comparatively primitive form of data storage known as the traditional printed book, I can’t help but think about the ways in which discussions like these highlight the profound shift from print to digital media—and, more specifically, how this shift involves some very meaningful shifts in the very nature of writing and storytelling. As authors of online texts, we never know where or how a particular posting or blog will end or what form it may take: Comments add new authorial voices, perspectives, styles, and topics; and links can extend the boundaries of an original text—for instance, the length and scope of a single post—outward into an ever-expanding, in fact endless, horizon of digital media. Traditional print texts, on the other hand, exist as physically discrete objects—a book is a singular thing with a singular author and explicit material boundaries. As alternative forms of text, blogs and social media emerge and evolve as the product of any number of authorial contributors, sprouting and growing outward, like unruly vines overtaking old walls.
With these changes come fundamental transformations in how we think about stories. Print texts literally unfold in linear order—we open books that proceed through numbered pages, one after the other, in a set direction, with a (again, literally) bounded scope. The very structure of a print book encourages and to a great degree requires this linear sequence and progression of information: Pages only move forward or backward. (We can always skip to an ending, or traverse across pages to scan an index, but these actions take us outside and against the movement of the textual grain.) Pages are numbered to maintain a sense of location in the set order of a sequentially ordered presentation of information. And like pages that contain them, the stories presented within traditional print texts tend to move in linear fashion. They have a beginning, middle, and an end. And even non-narrative content forms proceed according to some linear model. Argumentative essays, as we learned in school, present an intro, thesis, supporting body-paragraphs, and a conclusion. Histories tend to follow a linear progression, tying the textual order of print to the more fundamental perception of time as a linear progression. Research papers take similar form. And while there are exceptions to this rule, they are just that: Exceptions, not the norm.
The larger implication here involves the ways in which networks challenge traditional models of linear thought. This very blog proceeds in relatively linear fashion: Each sentence leads to the next, each paragraph serves to expand upon ideas introduced in a previous paragraph, and so on. Yet, once I post this writing to LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site, I have no idea what conversations it may inspire, who may share it, or what shape the text may assume as others add to, comment on, or move the text in an infinite range of potential directions and forms. Texts presented online operate as hypertexts: Texts composed on endless interactive links.
The French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari offer a useful way of thinking about the shift from linear to networked models of thinking. If you haven’t heard of Deleuze and Guattari, they were kind of like the Batman and Robin of French philosophy from the 1960s -1980s. Deleuze would be Batman. For my purposes here, it’s enough to know that the dynamic duo spent a lot time challenging what they saw as the linear tradition of Western thought.
To illustrate their “networked” alternative to traditional linear models of thinking, Deleuze and Guattari contrast the traditional vision of knowledge as a tree—the proverbial “tree of knowledge”—with a plant-form known as the “rhizome.” A rhizome, according to the Oxford Online Dictionary, is a continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals. The difference between linear and networked thinking is like the difference between a tree and a rhizome. A tree has particular roots that embed themselves in the soil at a particular place and give rise to branches and leaves in a particular, sequential way. Like the traditional printed text, a tree is a system of linear progression: First the roots, then the trunk, then the leaves. The roots are embedded here and not elsewhere. The branches are bound to the trunk, the leaves to the branches. Rhizomes do not work that way. The Kudzu plant, for example, is a rhizome. It can shoot out roots and stems from any point. It has no end, no leaves; it is always in process. There is no particular shape it has to take and no particular territory to which it is bound. It can connect from any part of itself to a tree, to the ground, to a fence, to other plants, even back to itself.
As French philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari have a characteristic distaste for clarity. Still, if you’re willing to work through their style, the effort pays off. Here’s a taste of how they discuss the difference between the traditional tree of knowledge and their alternative vision of thought as a rhizome:
The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb “to be,” but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and . . . and . . . and . . .” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be.” Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions. . . Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other way, a stream without beginning or end . . .
Like traditional, linear models of thought, traditional models of story are structured like a tree: First there is the beginning, then the middle, and then the end, which only has meaning in relation to the other parts. Network stories are rhizomatic. They emerge from multiple connections and allow for constantly evolving variety of perspectives that are not rooted in a single storyline, or even a grouping of storylines. As we developed stories for social media environments, our strategic thought must be rhizoomatic like kudzu. Only that way can it see beyond the single perspectives to which traditional linear thought has tethered us. Only in that way can our writing, like living with others, be an exercise in creation rather than reduction.
Deleuze and Guattari, AThousandPlateaus p. 25, Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum, 2004. Print