Monkey See, Monkey Do
Atlas of Contemporary Networks

The network may be our only contemporary fetish, in the traditional sense of “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.” To the network, we ascribe uncanny capabilities, from sentience and omniscience to shape-shifting resilience. As a symbol, it codifies our aesthetic fascination with organic complexity, celebrating both the intelligence of natural systems and our cognitive abilities to recognise their complexity.

Perhaps the network subconsciously confronts the failure of manmade hierarchies, which reached their apogee in the postcolonial implosions, genocides, and climate catastrophes of the 20th century, spurred by the greed of man. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is one of the richest territories in terms of minerals and biodiversity, inhabited since 80,000 B.C., but also the site of some of the most egregious transgressions against human and animal rights in the modern era under King Leopold II and Mobutu Sese Seko. (We will return to this place shortly.)

Curiously, the networks that we love the most tend to transcend ethical questions. As a superorganism, the ant colony surpasses the wisdom of any one member: these tiny insects build complex tunnels of astonishing intricacy while blithely oblivious to the existential questions of purpose, love, and the afterlife. Alternately, the Internet is a realm so vast that it is beyond the control of mere humans, a forcefield with its own sense of gravity and weather patterns.

In these cases, we are drawn to the fait accompli of the network’s excellence as proven by the documentation of its actions, because it flattens the technical and ethical problems of the actions themselves into a net sum. We take the intricacy of the anthill architecture and its eusocial system as evidence of its advancement, because it spares us the task of considering behaviours like slavery, invasion, self-sacrifice, infanticide and class hierarchy within the impressive cooperation between ants. In the case of the Internet, meanwhile, the sheer technological complexity of the sequence of actions discourages any meaningful understanding of the interactions involved when we use search engines, comment, share, and edit content. We dispense with that tedium, lest we miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

Let us consider the implications of that convenience. If we describe a network through its verifiable evidence, then we are dealing with its dimensions, material supports, and the distribution and stable qualities of its participants. This distinguishes the network from its constituent actions and draws a correlation between the two: the former signifies the latter. Yet that assumption bears some obvious logical flaws. The first is that individual actions are subordinate to their totality, when by nature the network cannot effect top-down self-regulation. The second is that individual actions are inferable from the totality; however, one can imagine that two networks might strongly resemble one another at a given moment for completely different reasons—that is, as the outcomes of different operating principles.

In fact, if we return to the aforementioned Congo, we find a case that confounds our expectations. The Congo River loops from the Atlantic Ocean to the Boyoma Falls through lowland rain forests. To the north of the river lives the eastern chimpanzee; to the south the bonobo. These two species are our closest genetic relatives: each share 98.7% of their genome with Homo sapiens. All three share a common ancestor; humans diverged between 4 and 7 million years ago, while bonobos and chimpanzees diverged between 1 and 2 million years ago.

From a distance, we might conclude that bonobos and chimpanzees are more similar to each other than either of them are to humans. They are hairy and nude, have opposable toes, walk on two or four legs, use simple tools, and live in multi-male, multi-female fission-fusion communities of up to 150 members. Unlike ants or humans, neither chimpanzees nor bonobos leave much physical evidence for their interactions: they do not alter their habitat significantly in order to render it more productive, and their architectural traces are limited to nests, built daily within the trees by bending branches and twigs into a circular shape.

This superficial similarity disguises the fact that bonobos and chimpanzees behave in diametrically opposed ways. In chimpanzee societies, one or several males will attempt to dominate the rest using violence and sexual coercion, including killing of lone males and guarding females in order to control genetic descent. Bonobos, on the other hand, engage in frequent sexual activity—often same-sex—for a variety of reasons, including greeting, bonding, and relieving social friction (and, rarely, reproduction). Females are socially dominant, in part because paternal descent is difficult to establish. Bonobos have never been observed to kill or rape, either in captivity or in the wild.

That these networks operate in completely different ways despite their physical similarity, is obvious. But we must also consider the interpretation of this duality. One of our closest relatives epitomises a bellicose natural state, used by Thomas Hobbes to justify the social contract between individuals and a common ruler; the other exemplifies the virtue of natural man in the absence of the corrupting force of civil society. Though our own network is vastly different from theirs, there is a significant overlap in some of our interactions, on a spectrum of coercion and violation to devotion and altruism. It is not the totality but the individual action that offers the greatest insight into how their networks operate—and that may tell us more about our own.