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The role of networks


Networks are a very important element supporting the rise of technocapitalism. Networks typically involve collaboration. For invention and innovation, networks have become the means to collaboration, helping diffuse knowledge, reproduce creativity, and pull together the resources needed to undertake research.


Networks have become easier than ever to establish and join. The Internet, the Web and telecommunications have allowed the creation of networks for most every social and economic activity in existence today. Helping this dynamic is the rapid decline in the cost of networking during the past four decades, which helped provide easier access on a global scale.


The networked organization is typical of the emerging technocapitalist era. Those organizations can be found in sectors that are most typical of technocapitalism, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, genomics, bioinformatics, software and biorobotics. The survival of many firms in these sectors depends on their network relations for research. As a result, for example, a proliferation of research unit-to-research unit (R2R) network linkages has occurred in recent times, to pursue collaborative projects and share research resources.


Some of this collaboration has led to networked alliances between organizations. Such alliances are often broad-ranging and may involve not only research activities, but also production, marketing and service. Research, however, is what usually pulls those alliances together, at least in the sectors and organizations that are typical of technocapitalism. Networked research alliances often involve, for example, the co-ownership of patents derived from collaboration, joint use of laboratory equipment and facilities, and the sharing of revenues from discoveries. Many of those alliances also help share the cost of research personnel and materials, thereby saving the participant organizations resources that can be redeployed to other activities.


Networks targeting research can also occur outside companies. The most important example of this possibility is the Open Source movement for software design, which created the Linux software kernels. This kind of networked research includes thousands of software programmers, working voluntarily in their spare time, with no compensation, to prepare code that will then be made available to anyone freely in the Web. By making it available freely to anyone, they practically guarantee that the software will be used and then improved, as other software specialists expand and test the kernels, and correct flaws. By placing subsequently improved versions in the Web, also available for free, it is assured that the process will continue and be compounded. It may not come as a surprise, therefore, that the software developed through this kind of networked collaboration is often of higher quality than the one produced by software companies that prevent free access to their code, or that closely guard it as property.


How do networks support the rise of technocapitalism?


Networks have supported the rise of technocapitalism by, first, growing rapidly and linking diverse activities and organizations that are vital for invention and innovation. A major force behind this dynamic is the fact that the value of networks usually increases exponentially as they expand, simply by including more participants and facilitating access.


With networks, therefore, value increases with abundance. The larger a network becomes, the more valuable it is likely to be. This characteristic of networks is diametrically opposed to the centuries-old notion found in economics, which assumes that value results from scarcity. That assumption, fundamental to that discipline and probably its single most important precept, is therefore irrelevant for networks.


With many networks, as the number of nodes increases arithmetically, the value of the network may increase exponentially. This dynamic has been a vital force behind the rising importance of networked firms and research alliances. It has also contributed much to support continuous invention and innovation, by helping reproduce creativity in faster and more effective ways.


Second, networks have helped technocapitalism emerge by diluting some of the hierarchies and control structures that hinder invention and innovation. Networks have helped individuals and some organizations overcome those obstacles by bypassing hierarchies and structures, allowing them to reach out and link up with potential research partners and resources.


Some of the best examples of this dynamic can be found in the research unit-to-research unit (R2R) and business-to-business (B2B) networks. The Internet and the Web have made these linkages possible at low cost. As a result, for example, new small firms with very limited financial means but strong research creativity might be able to link up with numerous partners to pool resources and cross-fertilize ideas. Similarly, organizations requiring research outsourcing or supplies can request proposals from other firms at very short notice, cutting down the time and costs needed to find partners. This practice is becoming a major support of continuous invention and innovation in small firms, saving much time and resources that can be redeployed to improve research productivity.


The dilution of hierarchies and control structures afforded by networks can also provide greater flexibility to organizations. By networking with other small firms, many organizations are able to structure their internal operations to better suit their research as conditions change. Thus, for example, the loss of key research personnel can be remedied by redistributing tasks to members of a network. This can allow a small firm to shift gears quickly and replace the needed skills. Flexibility through networking can also increase the diversity of interactions, to diffuse knowledge and reproduce creativity faster by linking with many different entities simultaneously.


Third, networks have promoted decentralization and the devolution of functions. This characteristic has helped technocapitalism emerge by making it possible for decisions to be made at levels that are closer to research projects. Very often, research personnel in direct contact with a project have a better idea of what needs to be done. By allowing those individuals more responsibility for decisions, it may be possible to expedite and improve results.


Redistributing decision-making can also have an impact on creativity, by providing more autonomy to pursue insights freely and quickly as they come up. Some companies have even found it beneficial to let some research groups operate outside the organization, much as if they were on their own. This practice can help creativity by allowing those groups to network with other firms and researchers outside, gaining new knowledge that they might otherwise not have access to.


Fourth, networks tend to promote change on a continuous or systematic basis. Technocapitalism is about continuous, systematic change. Networks serve this need by growing, contracting, evolving, interlinking or phasing themselves out to accommodate the needs of their participants.


To reproduce creativity and accumulate knowledge, few qualities are as important today as the possibility of rapid adjustment. Networks allow this to occur by facilitating knowledge, interaction and decisions. The scopes of networks can, for example, change and adjust quickly to be more supportive of creativity, by including new members with certain qualities, by linking up with clearing-houses of new knowledge and patents, or by linking up with other networks with compatible objectives and resources. As those adjustments occur, participants also gain the possibility of modifying their scopes and objectives.


An important question that remains to be answered is to what extent networks---and the features discussed here---will be taken over by oligopolistic corporations. Will these features mostly benefit small enterprises, and individual researchers, or will they be taken over by large corporations with vast market power? On the answer to this question depends whether networks may serve a liberating purpose---and support the new technologies of technocapitalism to benefit humankind---or whether they will become the tool of a few and very powerful corporations to impose their priorities on us.




For publications on networks and related topics by this author, please see the Publications section of this website.


Copyright Luis Suarez-Villa