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"two macro-trends...characterize the Information Age: The globalization of economy, technology, and communication; and the parallel affirmation of identity as the source of meaning" - Manuel Castells (2)

The proliferation of networked technologies and the increased intersection of the local and global that this phenomenon creates, enables the expansion of self-organizing workgroups and specialized communities through networked social systems. Within the expansive interconnectivity of network space, boundaries and their obscuration are of concern in defining the identity and unity of a self-organizing networked social system. Because self-organizing systems spontaneously increase without this increase being controlled by the environment or an external system, it's within the structure of the system itself that the boundary must be determined. Identity and boundaries, inextricably linked in networked social systems, emerge in the interplay between local and global domains and situated and distributed knowledge production.

Self-organizing networked social systems

Self-organizing networked social systems generate a social intelligence or knowledge that is shared, not individualized. Knowledge as a process: a constructive activity that is attained collectively and emerges through a network interaction. Based on an autopoietic model this knowledge generation is constructed through languaging that takes place between structurally coupled individuals within the consensual domain of a self-organizing networked social system: the ongoing "conversation". Maturana (4) has developed a description of languaging modeled on the idea of a conversation, which is defined as an ongoing coordination of actions of a group of structurally coupled individuals or observers. For the individuals, the conversation is a meshing of language and mood, or emotion. The intermeshing of language and emotion is a result of their both being embodied in the body of the observer. For Maturana a conversation is an inextricable intertwining of language, emotion, and body, with the nervous system being the medium where all intersect. In a self-organizing networked social system, the network acts as an extension of the nervous system - enabling the intersection of observers without proximity.

Autopoietic organizations and social systems

The use of the term "autopoietic model" in discussing self-organizing social networks is important in that social autopoiesis is a possibility that is very much under debate. Minger's (5) describes Luhmann's work in the areas of Law and Family Therapy as some of the most developed in autopoietic social theory. Luhmann defines societies and their component subsystems as networks of communicative events, but one criticism of his theory revolves around the problem of boundaries. The boundaries of an autopoietic unity must be produced by the components of that unity. In Luhmann's theory, systems distinguish themselves by defining their own communications, which points to boundary, but not a boundary of particular boundary components.

Maturana and Varela hold differing views on social autopoiesis, but neither contends that social institutions are autopoietic. In addition to the issue of boundary, production is the other primary question regarding the theory of social autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is primarily concerned with processes of production, that is the self-production of the components that make up an autopoietic unity. The question becomes what are the components of a social system and are they self-produced? In response to this question of production, Varela has developed a less specific version of autopoiesis, which he calls organizational closure. Organizational closure contains the same general concept of a closed network of interdependent processes, but without the requirement of physical processes of self-producing component production. Maturana's concept concerns what he calls "natural social systems", such as families or political organizations. He sees social systems as a media that allows autopoietic systems to interact and become structurally coupled. The system forms a closed domain, but allows participants to enter or leave.

Constructivist and Phenomenological Orientations

The constructivist and phenomenological orientation of the autopoietic model is pertinent to self-organizing networked social systems. The constructivist orientation in the creation of consensual domains through languaging is primary to the emergence of social knowledge and production. These constructions are not wholly individual; they reflect the intersubjective nature of language and action.

Action is at the crux of Maturana's concept of "operational coherances". Maturana's approach is knowledge as effective action and cognition as action that continues and maintains self-production. Social unities exist in language and through language bring forth distinctions that constitute a consensual domain, based on subject-dependent experience in language, not an objective description of something external to the unity. The members of a social unity define the operational coherences of particular entities or processes as they expect that they would experience them based on a shared domain of experience. Distinctions and descriptions form a closed set undetermined by the external and appear to be effective within the unity's domain due to structural coupling based on operative action. If they weren't effective they would not continue to self-produce. Domains of reality are multiple, as multiplicitous as there are entities and social unities, but each domain is made of three interconnected dimensions: the criteria for defining explanations, the operational coherences that structure the explanations, and recognized effective actions. These three dimensions define a cognitive domain: a domain of possible workable existence. As entities we experience multiple domains, dynamically switching amongst many depending on our preference, including emotional preference. Maturana emphasizes that emotional mood is a constant condition in experiencing the world and that the physical domain is different from other domains in that it is the domain in which we, as living systems, realize our existence. It is in the physical domain that all others come together through the functions of the body and nervous system.

Maturana's emphasis on mood and the physical domain, as pointed out by Winograd and Flores (7), presents many similarities to the phenomenology of Heidegger. These relations can be seen in Heidegger's focus on action in the physical world and state of mind or mood, as defined in his concept of "Being-in-the-world" - the everyday consciousness of existing and acting in the world which resides in the physical domain. And in the process of Being-in-the-World in which consciousness is characterized by its state of mind or mood. There is also some similarity in Maturana's concepts of languaging and consensual domain and Heidegger's concepts of discourse as a process of creating shared states of mind. Both Maturana and Heidegger emphasize that cognition is not detached reflection but situated effective action. Varela's (6) theory of embodied cognition, informed by the work of phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, also continues the Heideggerian track away from disembodied consciousness. Varela's concept of embodiment views cognition as occurring through our bodily structures, which are structurally coupled to biological and social contexts.

Emergence and scale

The phenomenological emphasis on physicality and context is aligned with situated knowledge production, but a networked social system creates the capacity and resource rich power of distributed knowledge production. It's the interaction and intertwining of the contextuality of the situated and the expanded field of the distributed, which enables emergent resonance between the local and global. A dialectical relationship exists between the localized interactions of the components of a networked social system and the global, emergent properties of the whole. A coordinated causality exists between the two. The interaction of system components, in an embodiment of the self-organizing network system, gives rise to a whole, or unity, which continuously maintains it's identifying boundaries. The global feature, in turn, constrains the components to maintain a specific operational coherance, otherwise the unity will not be sustained. The organizational closure of the self-organizing networked social system does not indicate interactional closure. For continued knowledge production, the system depends on new input, but the system specifies what it is in the global networked environment that is consequential for itself. A networked social system demarcates possible network interactions of applicability for maintaining self-production, embodying a particular perspective and identity.


Self-organizing networked social systems because of their network location are positioned to utilize both situated and distributed knowledge production models. The situated contextual provides a visceral experience and knowledge that can only be gained through physicality and the distributed expansive allows for the extension of shared networked knowledge or memory that enhances both local and global production. Self-organizing networked social systems are organizationally closed, but interactively open, they interact with outside networks through their structure. A networked social system whose structure is changed through recurrent perturbations from an outside network is structurally coupled with that network. A self-organizing networked social system can be composed of both individuals in close proximity, individuals from widely dispersed locations, or a combination of the two. Individuals within a networked social system who are in close proximity, provide the network with that cluster's situated knowledge production that is a product of their physical proximity and embodied cognition. Clusters of proximate individuals structurally coupled with both additional clusters of proximate individuals and singular individuals from a variety of locations form a distributed knowledge base that emerges through network interaction. Both situated and distributed knowledge production exists within the same self-organizing networked social system, enabling emergent resonance. If the operational coherance constructed through operative action enhanced by situated knowledge production and consensual domains constructed through languaging in both situated and distributed knowledge bases, are maintained in the self-organizing networked social system, the identity of the network will be sustained.



1. Brown, John Seely and Duguid, Paul. The Social Life of Information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

2. Castells, Manuel. The End of the Millennium, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. III. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

3. Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc., 1987.

4. Maturana, Humberto. Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. Irish J. Psych. 9:25-82.

5. Mingers, John. Self-Producing Systems: Implications and Applications of Autopoiesis. New York: Plenum Press, 1995.

6. Varela, Francisco. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

7. Winnograd, Terry and Flores, Fernando. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1987.


Geri Wittig is a research-theorist and artist at C5 (www.c5corp.com). In addition, she is a Research Fellow at the CADRE Laboratory for New Media and a Senior Web producer at Adobe Systems Inc., headquartered in San Jose, California.