The Tribal Network: Networks, Society, and New Media in an Interdisciplinary World

The interactivity of New Media art is inherently tied up with the technology that is used in its mediation. The New Media art that crosses the boundary between art and technology is interactive art not only in its content and ideas but also its form; media used as medium. In New Media Art, the concepts and practices of collaboration, sharing, interaction, free interchange, and open-mindedness appear frequently. The Golden Nica award of Prix Ars Electronica 2004 acknowledges these initiatives.

In a new category of the 2004 Prix Ars Electronica, “Digital Communities”, the Golden Nica was awarded to “Wikipedia” (USA, – an online “copyleft” encyclopedia – and “The World Starts With Me” (Uganda, Netherlands, and Kenya, – a digital learning environment about sexual health education, AIDS prevention and creative Information Communication Technology (ICT) skills for young Ugandans. Both “Wikipedia” and “The World Starts With me” are about networks, networking, collaboration, and the possibility of community based work. The Golden Nica was also awarded in the “Net Vision” category (2004) to the “Creative Commons” (, an organization that promotes collaboration and sharing through author-defined copyright management. “The goal of the Creative Commons project is to allow creators to share their works with others; to build a large pool of creative content that others can use and re-use in their own works, and restore some sanity to the intellectual property debate” (Ars Electronica)[1].

The wide-ranging social and creative impact of the internet as well as latest developments in the fields of social software, ubiquitous computing, mobile communications and wireless networking, and collaboration between diverse areas creates new participant social communities, in turn giving rise to new forms of interlinked Media art; the self-empowerment enabled by these developments allows more people to feel free to share, and to be connected in community, community that is not bound by biological-physical barriers.

Society’s desire for increasing speed causes a correspondent reliance on technology, a technology that creates both more complex obstacles through secured and limited access – the attempt to protect perceived ownership of data – as well as many continuously evolving, often unforeseen, benefits related to open communication. The speed of communication has reached a point where communities form and reform intentionally; this postmodern reflected and mediated environment leads to new tribalisms, perhaps a return to humanities first method of social organization. These new forms of intentional community allow us the possibility of freedom from the enslavement of secured information; networking, sharing, collaboration, bonding together, and transparency are fundamental principles of this new tribalism.

New Media art positions itself as a connection or bridge (interface) between these community-based networks. This paper will examine why humanity has to move in a direction of a more community based global environment in this world of accelerating speed, how New Media art influences and is implicit in the rise of new distributed tribalism, and theorize about where it might end up.

In social life, there have been changes of values. What is valuable? Value is processed in every dominant network at every time in every space. Value derives from human livelihood, resources, and power, and through the connectivity of their main activities. In the new tribalism, information and communication become the imperative – information and knowledge as the source of power, wealth, and meaning – with their attendant technological change, while the older tribalism was primarily a material hunter-gatherer existence.

Networks in old tribalism describe linear threads/paths, however, networks in new tribalism shift to planes; a movement from one-directional flows (linear time) to multi-directional/dimensional flows of information and resources. In the old tribalism, beyond a certain threshold of size, complexity, and volume of change, the flows became less efficient as hierarchical organized command and control structures under the conditions of pre-electronic communication technology. Networks become more efficient organizational forms with the new technological environment; they can be reconfigured, they can expand or shrink in free flows, because they have no center, and nodes can operate in a wide range of configurations. They are temporally organic, not spatially crystallized.

The construction of new tribal networks is socially differentiated from traditional structures by multiple and scattered spaces, and fragmented, disconnected, temporary, and individual/non-linear time; allowing for the manipulation of traditional biological space and clock time.

A network is a technological extension of the human biological organism, a new physicality and virtuality: physical hyperlink. Hyperlinks are understood as new “linked geographies” which pursue “nongeographical, real-time and mutable data, links and thick description, and interactivity” (Turow and Tsui ed. pg. 196-198). Sensual proximity densifies in high speed networks; this allows for enhanced communication, and facilitates shared understanding. Networks form richer cultural artifacts by integrating social activity as the infrastructure of power, and these networks -powered by information and communication- create a networked society. By this social structure, the organizational arrangements of human relationships of production, consumption, reproduction, experience, and expression are encoded into culture; the networks exist, re-present and re-produce themselves as recombinant sets of interconnecting nodes.

Nodes are points intersected organically, discrete spontaneous relationships in the space-time cultural data set. Networks have no fixed center, but are inseparable from their distributed and variant nodal points. Nodes increase their influence in the network, organically attracting further connections by absorbing more locally relevant information from other nodes. “Communication networks are the patterns of contact that are created by the flow of messages among communicators through time and space” (Monge and Contractor, p.3). ‘Flows’ are streams of information between nodes, or connections between nodes. Flows are the process of networks. The network exists as pure potentiality until there is information flow. Flows have self-expanding processing power because of their recurrent-recombinant and interactive-communicative aspects.

New information and communication networks are characterized by constant intersection and flexibility that allows for distribution in various contexts and applications, and this causes multiplicities of (multilevel) communication. The distributed nodes included in a new communication network gain density, not only through flexibility but from their ubiquitous spatial structure; new information networks are not limited/confined to traditional ‘places-space’, rather the spatial structure is associated with but not codified into the communication flow – everybody’s easier access to information through wireless connections and portable access devices, etc. – in a kind of ‘time-space[2]’. In this sense, alternative nodes which were minorities in the traditional and inherent power structure become dynamic and highly malleable responses to that power structure, to society, and to culture; they result in a more multidimensional social structure. A society that has more alternative subcultures allows for more self-programmable/reprogrammable ability, not just acceptance of an enforced given-society[3].

Media, art, and technology encourage the notion of an information networked society: a society founded on communication networks of interacting cultures, multi-dominant global networks of power, and a common belief in the positive use-value of sharing, rather than on localized fixed ‘seats’ of power. Appropriate combination between information/idea and distributive technology, open development of potential technologies, and organizational restructuring based on free access networking become the keys to ensuring productivity, innovation, creativity, and power sharing in the new tribal networked community.

“Collective action[4]” by social networks with their various forms of salient multiplicity tends to encourage and be motivated by a positive-developed society: a transdisciplinary, intercultural, and conversational interface, a common-ground of appreciated difference – the new distributed tribalism. Collective action works in coordination of observer and participant perspectives, resulting in consequently richer “’social capital’: networks of interaction that allow collective action, democratic participation and community” (Chambers, pg. 94). Johnny Lee, a human-computer interaction researcher currently (2008) working at Microsoft[5], built a good example of the positive use-value of sharing in a collective community. Lee built sophisticated educational tools out of cheap and easily available parts: a digital whiteboard assembled from a Nintendo wii remote, touch screen, and a head-mounted 3-D viewer[6]. Lee shares not only the information about his projects, but also the schematics and software so that anybody can share his knowledge and use it for further creative work. This attitude creates further discussion online around his “wiimote project” at, and engages people in the input and output cycle of the network. Networks powered by information and communication enlarge across time-before-space as recombinant sets of interconnecting nodes layering upon kinetic, potential, and archived narrative, a (re)making in history(s) diametrically re-mixed in contrast to the old tribal site-primal ‘history in the making’.


[Image 1] “3-D Screen” [Image 2] “3-D Screen”


Our world is wired and we cannot avoid being connected. With increasing frequency, different disciplines have collaborated building networks in a variety of ways in order to achieve their aims, but also to introduce the perspective of ‘the other’.

An artist, W. Bradford Paley, and a scientist, Jefferson Han, work on interesting ideas in their own fields. Paley, an artist and interaction designer whose focus in both worlds is the visual interpretation of patterns hidden in information, creates visual filters which let different subjects address the expression of their differences and reveals complexity in a way that is matched to human perceptual abilities[8]. Han is a research scientist who is one of the main developers of an “interface-free” touch-driven computer screen[9]. He has created a simple, multi-touch, multi-user screen interface that just might herald the end of the point-and-click era[10].

[Image 3] “Perspective Pixel” [11]

Both Paley and Han work on collaboration with people from many other disciplines in various ways according to their interdisciplinary areas of interest. Recently they worked together on a project, “TraceEncounters” (2004). “TraceEncounters” was a social network visualization, installed at Ars Electronica, 2004. It required participants to attach a small ‘chip on a pin’ (image 6) to their clothes. This enabled the position of the participant to be tracked at any time during the next few days. This live information was interpreted to provide an on-screen representation of the chip positions within a plan of the conference buildings of Ars Electronica, and this was always on display at one of the central meeting spaces. As discussions occurred and delegates gathered around particular individuals, the screen showed the changing flows of a complex pattern of social relationships centered now in one place and then another.


[Image 4] Left [Image 5] Top right

[Image 6] Bottom right

[Image 4] “TraceEncounters”, a crowd at the installation

[Image 5] “TraceEncounters”, the screen

[Image 6] “TraceEncounters”, the TraceEncounters Pin

The “GNOM Project” is another example of a networked collaborative project by a group of artists including Santiago Ortiz, Luis Rico, and Alfonso Valencia; a project co-produced by MedialabMadrid and the Protein Design Group from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid[13]. It is a research project in digital and physical interfaces for visualization, navigation, and experimentation with genetic networks.


[Image 7 (left), and Image 8 (right)] Visualization of “GNOM Project” and detail

The Project uses different forms of visualizations to explore genetic networks. For instance, the genetic interaction network in the bacteria Escherichia Coli[15] is represented in data-forms of an ‘oracle’ and a ‘landscape’ interface. The oracle interface represents “a circular interface of high control level over the node selection, where the entire network of relations can be visualized” while the landscape interface represents “a three-dimensional interface for spatial navigation, based on the metaphor of a journey over a flat and infinite landscape, where the navigation takes place between interrelated nodes” (“GNOM Project”).


[Image 9] Left: “GNOM Project” – Oracle interface

[Image 10] Right: “GNOM Project” – Landscape interface


This kind of collaboration between different disciplines not only explores relations between disciplines, but also addresses broad issues of perception, provides alternate perspective on complex questions, and solves problems beyond the scope of any one discipline. Klein introduces interdisciplinary discourse as

“new divisions of intellectual labor, collaborative research, team teaching, hybrid fields, comparative studies, increased borrowing across disciplines, and a variety of “unified,” “holistic” perspectives have created pressures upon traditional divisions of knowledge. There is talk of a growing “permeability of boundaries,” a blurring and mixing of genres, a postmodern return to grand theory and cosmology, even a “profound epistemological crisis”.” (Klein, pg. 11)


Interdisciplinary collaboration in this newly mediated world exponentially amplifies the scope and frequency of social contact and thus provides a fertile platform for mass participation and the development of new cultural forms: I have called this meta-form the new (distributed) tribalism. It creates “on a meta-level, a networked digital world provides an intellectual and social environment that is radically interdisciplinary” (Hughes and Lafortune, pg. 20). The tribe is the idea of the tribe.

Individuals are nodes of potential flows like “a steady bridge in the “between”” (Heidegger, pg.344). Martin Heidegger refers to man “as the stranger in the executed free-throw, who no longer returns from the ab-ground[16] and who in this foreign land keeps the remote neighboring to be-ing” (Heidegger, pg 346), and this “be-ing is nothing “in itself” and nothing “for” a “subject”” (Heidegger, pg. 341). Gilles Deleuze comments “an individual always belongs to a clan or a community” (Deleuze, pg. 38), and in the opinion of Deleuze, Hume views “relations as the effects of the principles of human nature … relations are the effect of the principles of human nature” (Deleuze, pg. 6-7). For Martin Buber, “I is the beginning of dialogue in community, but it is not sufficient. The We of communicative exchange must emerge” (Arnett, pg. 158), and he emphasizes “participation with others is the key to a meaningful existence” (Arnett, pg. 127-128). Humans are social animals, and tribalism is the very first social system that human beings ever lived in, and it has lasted until today. For all our social existence, a network has been a pattern that is common to our life. An individual being is a given collection of separate ideas and impressions. Impressions are defined by their vividness, and ideas, as reproductions of impressions. When an individual communicates to another (transmits the idea), that exchange creates resonance and produces something new; reception, response, transmission of re-contextualized idea, then cycle-link.

Networks always work in binary logic: inclusion/exclusion. Indeed, networks have their strength in their flexibility and adaptability, yet there is in their fundamental logic, a potentially negative aspect of collective action by the intentional community and this results from group control by nodes seeking dominance not so much of exclusivity or inclusivity, but through the manipulation of the idea of the gate itself; the right to decide. This overlay of old media on the new, of old tribalist site-centered protectionism on the openness of indecision, on the trust inherent in no-centre, on free creative interplay, has led to such interruptions in the flow as corporate legislation around copyright and sociopathic tribal scapegoating through collective flow blocking actions.

Thankfully, new tribalism also includes characteristics which distinguish it from older models of networking: a self-expanding processing and communicating capacity in terms of volume, complexity, and speed; a recombinant potentiality with digitization and recurrent flows; and, a distributed flexibility through interactive and mutual networking. Networks in new tribalism can sublimate towards these optimistic elements with a positive common belief in dynamic social networks. Interlinked, lateral, cross-boundary communication networks and newly emergent networks give expression to horizontal complexity and multiplicity, and the essential pluralism of new tribalism gives vertical depth to that shifting plane of possibility. Thus, the tribal networked society develops in a multiplicity of cultural contexts, trading in ones and zeros, nomadic but persistent, traveling at will across this new landscape in ubiquitous time and space.




Works cited

Arnett, Ronard C. Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue. Foreword by Friedman, Maurice. USA: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. (127-128, 158).

Chambers, Deborah. New Social Ties: Contemporary Connections in a Fragmented Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. (94).

Deleuze, Gilles. Empiricism and Subjectivity: an Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Trans. Boundas, Constantin V. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. (6-7, 38).

“GNOM Project.” Retrieved on December 1, 2008.

Heidegger, Martin. Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Trans. Emand, Parvis and Maly, Kenneth. USA: Indiana University Press, 1999. (341, 344, 346)

Hughes, Lynn and Lafortune, Marie-Josée (eds.). “Creative Con/Fusions.” Coursepack for HUMN 320. Calgary: ACAD, 2008. (20).

Klen, Julie Thompson. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. (11).

Monge, Peter R. and Contractor, Noshir. Theories of Communication Networks. USA: Oxford University Press, 2003. (3).

Turow, Joseph and Tsui, Lokman, ed. The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. USA: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. (196-198).





Book References

Arnett, Ronard C. Communication and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue. Foreword by Friedman, Maurice. USA: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Chambers, Deborah. New Social Ties: Contemporary Connections in a Fragmented Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Deleuze, Gilles. Empiricism and Subjectivity: an Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. Trans. Boundas, Constantin V. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Hassan, Robert. Media, Politics and the Network Society. Open University Press, 2004.

Heidegger, Martin. Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Trans. Emand, Parvis and Maly, Kenneth. USA: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Klen, Julie Thompson. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Alterity & Transcendence. Trans. Smith, Michael B. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Monge, Peter R. and Contractor, Noshir. Theories of Communication Networks. USA: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Turow, Joseph and Tsui, Lokman, ed. The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. USA: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.


Web References

Ars Electronica.


MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art. “Desighn and the Elastic Mind”.

Ortiz, Santiago. “”.

Ortiz, Santiago. “visualcomplexity”.












[2] I mean by this that the visualization of communication flow tends to map time-span rather than physical position-space.

[3] Passive, pre-determined society

[4] “Collective action is a term that has been broadly applied to a wide range of phenomena in the social sciences, including organizational communication. It main focus is on “mutual interests and the possibility of benefits from coordinated action” rather than on individual self-interests” (Monge and Contractor, pg. 159).

[5] Johnny Lee (computer scientist).

[6] See Johnny Lee’s talk at TED:, and his projects at his website:

[7] Image 1 & 2: Still images of Johnny Lee’s “3-D Screen: Head Tracking for Desktop VR Displays” project from his TED Talk.

[8] See W. Bradford Paley’s website:

[9] Jefferson Han.

[10] See the official website of the multi-touch screen, “Perspective Pixel”: See also Jefferson Han’s talk at TED:

[11] Still image of the “Perspective Pixel” from

[12] See

[13] Santiago Ortiz:

Luis Rico: MediaLabMadrid,

Alfonso Valencia: Protein Design Group

[14] Still images from

[15] Escherichia coli is “a gram negative bacterium that is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals.” Retrieved from

[16] “Ab-ground is the originary essential swaying of ground. Ground is what is ownmost to truth” (Heidegger, pg. 264).

About Suk Kyoung Choi

artist / researcher

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