Does a network have an inside?

According to Bruno Latour, it does not.

tywen kelly
6 min readJan 14, 2021

Latour, a philosopher, writes in the essay Some Experiments in Art and Politics, “…networks have no inside, only radiating connectors. They are all edges. They provide connections but no structure. One does not reside in a network, but rather moves to other points along the edges.”

The understanding of network as a mere nested series of smaller structures is old and outdated, for Latour. As he points out, it is rooted in a Renaissance prescription of the hierarchy of the universe known as scala naturae, which lays the ground for modernism, a movement which Latour is highly skeptical of. The scala naturae model is important to focus on as it describes a nature which is composed of a network of small things grouping up and forming larger ones: atoms to chemicals to molecules to cells to flesh to human, and so on. This Christian-originated visualization places God and the most lowly of living things (dirt, trees) on opposite ends of a vertical spectrum. Humans are somewhere in the middle, below angels, but above the rest of the animal kingdom.

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana (Wiki)

An understanding of networks which are composed purely of edges attempts to run counter, orthogonal, and perpendicular to this model, in effect t-boning its rhetoric. Networks here are a proxy for understanding the nature of the world, not just the internet. A networked-understanding proposes that hierarchy is relational rather than vertical. Networks, for Latour, are a mental tool to leverage a razing of linear, vertical, near-feudal understandings of the universe, and a way to deconstruct notions of “residing in” a scene. What he seems to suggest is that a model of the universe which tries to carve an “inside” does not in fact hold water so to speak, because for him it does not have volume in the first place. A space like scala naturae attempts to hold the very oceans with the all-encompassing Godly scale of its ontological superstructure. For Latour, what irks him most, is that this space does not actively invite a kind of understanding he prefers, which is to understand things through power dynamics, affective exchange, and simple moments of epistemological being-ness.

For the most part I agree with Latour’s observation that there is a need for something like a network to provide a new metaphor for understanding the world and opening channels into new modes of being. The structure of scala naturae is indeed simplistic, and it is clearly not aligned with a reality that I and most people live day to day, which is to say subjective and not completely conscious of where one is in the vertical hierarchy. Most of the day we do really just coast along, one our well-traveled edges in our own corner of the world’s megamesh network. Yet, there remains to me some inkling of truth in the idea of a structure, pattern, or something superlarge, out of the scope of my perception that scala naturae brings out in me. I do intrinsically feel that there exist “hyperobjects,” as Timothy Morton might say, which are huge forces or systems that are out of my comprehension but I nonetheless feel the effects of. I do feel that I inhabit and “reside” in a hyperobject, which for me, is represented by a massive network.

Buckminster Fuller’s Utopia or Oblivion also seeded in me the idea that in three dimensional space there is no up, down, left, or right; and thus that the metapattern of all things in the universe is to consistently have an in and an out, like a law of physics. He writes, “there is no shape of space — there is only omnidirectional nonconceptual “out” and the specifically directioned conceptual “in”.” Fuller’s point with this comes in the context of him talking about Cartesian grids (though he doesn’t call them that). For him it is impossible to ascribe a “shape” to space when space in real observational life is entirely non-Euclidian, anti-Cartesian, so wobbly and soft and full of intersecting edges that to claim “that book is on the left side of the desk” is downright anti-scientific. The notion of a lack of “shape” to something in space or of space, but that which nonetheless has a discernable inside and outside, is a tricky conundrum, and in my mind perfectly describes hyperobjects and the slipperiness of networks.

In reading Fuller I come away with the idea that everything is composed of an inside and an outside, and very little else, let alone a distinct “shape.” What defines a thing might not be if it is left or right of another thing, but might be its inability to be reduced to what it is inside and what is it that’s outside of it. (This aligns with how Graham Harman defines “objects” — that which cannot be described by a sum of it parts, nor extrapolated to a mere relational hyperlink.) If this is the case, then it would be very difficult to not see networks as just another “object” or “thing” in the universe. Networks are not merely a bunch of nodes, nor are they mere links. They have an emergent aura and cannot be reduced to an inside and outside — but, this does not mean they don’t have an outside and inside. Perhaps, if I were to put words into Latour’s mouth using Fuller’s language, I’d say that networks don’t have a shape and they cannot be shaped, but they do have an inside and an outside, and that they can therefore in some sense be resided in.

The other consequence of object’s having an in/out is that there will inevitably develop patterns. If object A has an outside, then Object B must be inside or outside of Object A. Object A might then be inside or outside Object C and Object C…. ad infinitum. With such a dualism, it is possible to envision a binary tree, or fractal, emerging from the cracks, splitting like mitosis. IT’s like the old mathmatical paradox: if you take a thing of fixed volume and cut it in half, the surface area grows with each cut, with the infinity as the limit, while the volume remains unchanged. Networks seem to have this dualism embedded in it; a thing with infinite surface area but a fixed volume. We can logically follow that if networks are objects then they must have patterns. For surely, every thing has a pattern, otherwise it wouldn’t be a thing. Plus, a network would only not have a pattern it were a true random sprinkling of vertexes connected by lines. But, we can certainly note this isn’t true today: baked into networks is a bias. We can see patterns, they are not random.

Economists might call this bias innate to networks the “network effect”, or an observation of the positive correlation between the number of connections a node has in a network to it overall value, and that nodes in a network tend to connect more (not less) in a network. A parallel claim is Stewart Brand’s proclamation: “information wants to be free; and expensive,” which means that information appears to have a tendency to touch other information and become a higher-quality bit of data. Networks are also of course biased by their makers, imbuing conscious and unconscious decisions that mimic social power relations. The fascimile-ness of the network is slanted with the trajectory of history, the environment, and the emotional context in which it is employed.

So if a network is an object, and I think it is, or at the very least a hyperobject, then it should have an inside of outside, but have no shape. It has volume, but an infinite surface area, giving it an apparent lack of an “inside” if you don’t look hard enough. We can feel, materially, the effects of this inside and outside by feeling the patterns emanating from networks. We live it day to day. We are in a network at all times. We are pattern-seeking beings so we can deeply pick up on its signal. But we can’t describe it beyond just “edges” because it has no shape. And we truly do subjectively, dumbly reside in its metapattern whose pattern is simply that is has an inside and outside, but in a shapeless form composed of more than just edges. It’s pretty simple!