Blankensee Colloquium 2012

Neighborhood Technologies. Mathematics and Media of Dynamic Networks.

Funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies, Berlin

Tobias Harks, University of Maastricht
Sebastian Vehlken, Leuphana University Lüneburg

When sociologist Thomas Schelling published his research on housing segregation in major US-American cities in 1971, he accomplished more than just contributing to a novel type of ›social mathematics‹. With Schellings interest in the mechanisms of social segregation and his respective models, the analysis of actual neighborhood dynamics converged with a ›neighborly‹ research method. Starting from some basic local – aka neighborly – micro-relations of a defined number of agents behaving according to a restricted rule set, Schelling dynamically generated macroscopic segregation patterns. Henceforward, neighborhoods in a two-fold way (as objects and as applications) constituted a new research paradigm in which the complex macro-behaviors of a system and the non-linear dynamics of social collectives are generatively and procedurally put forth by rigidly defined microscopic neighborhood relations. Hence, neighborhoods depict an intermediate or meso-range for the linkage of single local agents with the overall global dynamics of social networks in many different scientific disciplines, from Sociology to Biology, to Epidemics and Logistics, and to Robotics or Neurology. Neighborhood technologies can thus serve as a principal element not only of a further understanding of social network dynamics, but also of developing an adequate (media) history and theory of social networks – a task the 2012 Blankensee Colloquium engages with from a transdisciplinary perspective.

This ambiguity of neighborhoods as scientific object and as application today plays an important role in mathematical optimization and algorithmic game theory. In optimization one employs the notion of neighborhoods to define local search methods for efficiently computing good solutions for computationally hard optimization problems. In game theory, neighborhood relations are relevant for both the methodology employed (unilateral deviations of players define a neighborhood) as well as the actual model under investigation (game theoretic analysis of social networks). These disciplines on their part search for actual objects and systems where neighborhood relations play an important role – in order to subject them to mathematical analysis. Their major focus lies on predicting, evaluating and qualitatively assessing the state of an uncontrolled system that is determined by distributed actions of (rationally behaved) individuals based on their available information. The following research questions reflect the major streams of research in this field: Do the actions of individuals guide the system eventually to stable state (Equilibrium Existence)?  How long does it take to reach a stable state by myopic actions of individuals (Convergence of Learning Processes)? What is the complexity of computing/predicting future states of the system? What is the quality of the system at any point in time with respect to a predefined social objective? To which extend can a designer implement rules of interactions so as to drive the system into a desirable state? How vulnerable or manipulable is a system if a group of individuals (e.g. a Flash Mob, a Facebook campaign by parties etc., or Spam-Mail-Clients, Virus) coordinate their actions? How well can simulations help predicting the system state over time?

Likewise, for some years a growing interest in neighborhood-induced effects can be discovered in the cultural and media studies. Be it – to mention only two examples ¬ the ongoing discourse of swarm intelligence and the role of distributed (online) communication networks for political action, be it a media historical approach to local based media (e.g., GPS-navigation) and their influence on a transformation of concepts of space and time: Neighborhoods come to be part of a not only topographical and topological, but also conceptual transformation. They become (as techno-social groupings) an influential driving force of (global) mass movements, and they transform themselves into eminently technological arrangements. In this sense, neighborhoods are the core or central hub of dynamic networks and their theories and concepts. Typical research questions in the cultural and media studies consider the democratic potential and altered hierarchy levels inherent in techno-social networks, and thus the future modes of socio-political participation. They ask about the relation of ›pattern and purpose‹ (Thacker 2004) in collective human behavior, and how the abovementioned and other forms of locally organized neighborhood technologies differ from older forms of network structures. They inquire the imaginations and fears which might be raised by the ›uncontrollable‹ effects raised by self-organizing systems without regulating agencies (e.g. ›fluid‹ terrorist networks), the emergence of ›collective intelligences‹ or ›swarm stupidities‹ by the techno-mediated collaboration of many users, and last but not least the epistemological status of describing ›emergent phenomena‹ and complexity levels deriving from micro behaviors in local neighborhoods.

The 2012 Blankensee Colloquium attempts to short-cut the above described ›two cultures‹ of a preoccupation with dynamic networks in the Humanities and in Natural Sciences via a re-wiring of their discourses, theories and applications: With the mere metaphorical, but multilayered Humanities account on social networks and swarm-like collectives on the one hand and the conceptually stringent, but often dimensionally poor accounts of mathematics on the other, we seek to comprehensively address this research field not only by establishing a platform for the thorough discussion of neighborhood concepts and notions across scientific cultures, but also to invite researchers from disciplines which concretely apply multi-agent systems in their respective research contexts. The questions raised in the Humanities and in Mathematics are simultaneously of highest interest for the (e.g. biological, sociological, epidemological, or robotics) research in dynamic networks and for the development of agent-based technological systems. This research has in many ways transferred conceptual levels and scientific problems of neighborly organization into operating technical tools and possible engineering solutions.

Such a transdisciplinary bridging may on first sight seem overambitious. But the current discourse on social networks at its core inevitably demands for such a perspective and seems feasible if hooked on one of its essential elements: the modeling of neighborhoods and neighborhood behavior. For this reason, we like to address the ›historical limbo‹ often displayed in the Natural Sciences as well as the often exhibited ›technological unconscious‹ of debates in the Humanities. Researchers from the former ›culture‹ are to be confronted with a whole history of concepts, meanings and ideas which could contribute to a creative re-thinking of existing terms and resulting ›world views‹. Likewise, researchers from the latter scientific ›culture‹ could profit from a clearer definition and understanding of the technological basis social networks develop from. Thus, the 2012 Blankensee Colloquium uses this also as an occasion to search for, engage in, and establish new, transdisciplinary neighborhoods. By this transdisciplinary discussion between mathematics and media and cultural studies, we will historically and systematically arrange the various meanings and concepts of neighborhoods. With the help of well-chosen technological applications and related experts, we will inquire in which (similar or contrasting) ways they are virulent in different scientific disciliplines. We expect instructive returns in the following main areas of interest:

A much more differentiated, media-historically enhanced and technologically informed notion of common buzzwords like ›bottom-up approach‹, ›agent-based modelling‹ or  ›swarm intelligence‹: We are interested in the respective definition of neighborhood and how it can be conceptually and technically implemented. How do local neighborhood relations generatively affect global collective behaviors, what relations emerge between micro- and macro-perspectives? What kinds of media technologies play a role in these procedures, and how do development processes of computer hardware and software effect them? From where derive different neighborhood models and ideas of bottom-up-modelling and how deviate they from another (e.g. graph theory, game theory, zoology...)?
A more differentiated account of the respective epistemology: How, when and why have complex networks and their relations been built on local neighborhoods and ›generated‹ instead of being ›designed‹ or ›constructed‹? How do neighborly methods and technologies interchange with their research objects, i.e. actual neighborhoods? How are neighborhood models tested and evaluated? How are respective theories, models and simulations developed and verified, and on what levels do they interact?
A more sophisticated and concise conceptual discussion of social networks: How do neighborhood technologies operate as a ›social principle‹? How does a definition of ›the social‹ transforms if it is no longer the exclusive object of sociological studies, but merely a modeling factor and generative element of dynamic systems of various kinds?

With neighborhood technologies, we install a core attractor which the open-minded and outstanding experts of (or scholars interested in) the transdisciplinary spectrum of social networks will engage during our two-days workshop. Moreover, we expect that neighborhood technologies can serve as a useful term for accumulate and attach theories, concepts, technical applications and media and cultural histories of neighborhoods with regards to today’s social network discourses. With neighborhood technologies, we want to offer and experiment with an updated passe-partout of concepts and notions of neighborhood and its transformation from a mere local coexistence to multiple and complex relations and behavior which exceeds the realms of local neighborhoods – alluding to a broader theory of social networks which at the same time initiates new neighborhoods between scientific disciplines.

Scheduled Panels:
1) Neighborhood Relations
2) Neighborhood Architectures
3) Between Micro and Macro
4) Neighborhood Realities
5) Neighborhood Media
6) Between Local and Global

Date: 30.08.-01.09.2012

Location: Berlin-Mitte

Conference languages: English and German

About the Blankensee-Colloquia
The aim of the program is to promote and delineate the importance of the humanities and social sciences for scholarly research in Berlin and Brandenburg. To this purpose, every year in general an ›idea contest‹ is held with the title Cultural and Social Change. The contest is for scholars of the region who possess doctorates, are university lecturers, or have been newly appointed to university chairs. They are provided with monies from a Cooperation Fund so as to organize an international conference – a so-called Blankensee-Colloquium – at which they introduce participants to their particular field of research and engage in discussions with leading scholars from not only Berlin and the surrounding region but with those from other parts of Germany and the world.  Along with supporting the work of scholars, the program also promotes the development of innovative research fields and new approaches.