network, sense8, netflix

What Sense8 teaches us about the network society

8 minutes to read
Article
Nadine Visser
02/10/2019

Sense8 is an interesting piece of art. First for the fact that the series itself was filmed in a very refreshing style, with a lot of impressive shots. Also it is about different individuals from different cities, which makes it very personal. When learning about the network society, I thought of Sense8 because the individuals in it form a network together. This paper explores the link between the series and a network society .

About Sense8

Sense8 is a Netflix original series which was launched in 2015. The series is about eight individuals from different countries who are connected to each other with their minds and senses. This connection is caused after a woman named Angelica kills herself in the opening moments of the first episode (van der Werff, 2015). Thanks to this connection, the protagonists (and the audience) can experience the reality of different cultures, languages and cities (Locatelli, 2017). This group of connections forms a cluster together. In the beginning of the series, the connection is very random and unpredictable, but later they learn how to control it and to work together. They have to work together, because a man named Whispers is haunting them for laboratory research which is in reality very violent. Later on in the series, we get to know other clusters and the history of these connections of senses.

The experience while watching the series is very exciting. When the individuals are connected, the visual images blend perfectly with the different stories of the individuals. The effect is that the audience gets caught up in the story and the personal lives of the individuals, but also shows the cohesiveness of the group.

An important part of the series is how it was produced and created. In the series we see different individuals in different cities all over the world. The production is also made in all these different cities, which made it very challenging for the creators Lana and Lily Wachowski, who are also known for The Matrix. Berlin, Chicago, Mexico City, Bombay, Nairobi, Reykjavik, San Francisco, Seoul, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Malta, Positano, São Paulo and the Redwood National Park are the locations where the series was shot. The individuals are connected through these different cities and form a network.

This paper asks what Sense8 tells about the network society as discussed by sociologist Manuel Castells. There are probably a lot of similarities and differences. Therefore, I will try to get an answer to the question:

What does Sense8 tell us about the concept of a network society in the Information Age, as introduced by Manuel Castells?

I will first explore what Castells means with a network society in the Information Age and then compare this concept with the series, exploring the similarities and differences between the two.

What is a network society?

Manuel Castells introduced the concept of a network society in 2000 and talks about the network society as a form of social structure. The network society is a specific form of social structure tentatively identified by empirical research as being characteristic of the Information Age. He calls the Information Age the period in which human societies perform their activities in a technological paradigm constituted around microelectronics-based information/communication technologies, and genetic engineering. This sounds a lot like the time we are living in now, where the Internet is an essential instrument in our everyday life.

The network society is a specific form of social structure tentatively identified by empirical research as being characteristic of the Information Age.

To understand this concept further, we have to know what a network really is. By a network we mean a set of interconnected nodes. This has advantages like flexibility and adaptability, but can be a management problem if the network is beyond a certain size. A network has no centre, it is about inclusion or exclusion. Social actors in the network decide the rules that the network will follow. In the Information Age, these networks get a chance to grow because of new technologies. Information can spread across different nations and the networks can influence each other and work together. There are no boundaries anymore, so this plays a big part in the current evolution of globalization. The internet plays an important part in the Information Age, where almost everything is shared with almost everybody. Nowadays, a message in contemporary society can only play a social role if it is sent through the media (Wansink, 1998). But it is not only about internet in a network society. Also the financial markets and business industry form a network (Wansink, 1998). Castells also mentions an international crime network.

The network society is a new way of structuring. It is based on information and/or communication technologies and networks as an organising principle. A decentralisation of society takes place, because all the different nodes are interacting and there is not one important one anymore. Also, the speed of the information technologies makes the distance between the nodes nearly zero. Locations are absorbed in the network (Wansink, 1998). Every node in the network has meaning and some nodes are more important than others.

Sense8 through Castells' glasses

A lot of similarities can be found between the network society in Sense8 and as a concept by Castells. In Sense8 the network consists of eight individuals, the nodes. These individuals can grow individually and collectively because of the sudden addition of the power to connect with each other. The collaborative nature of the network in Sense8 is introduced through personal struggles. Every one of the individuals deals with a personal struggle related to their relationships with friends, co-workers, or family members. They help one another to overcome past tragedies, embrace their true selves, and evolve and transit into their new identity—simultaneously as individuals and as members of an emerging community (Zilonka, 2017). The individuals have to work together to fight danger.

Another characteristic of the Information Age is shown in the series, namely that the nodes can influence each other by helping and giving the others information. The strengths of the individuals are bundled and accessible for everyone in the network. This is interesting to see, because the individuals have very different characters. One might be a wacky sex farce, while another is a somewhat realistic portrayal of a young Kenyan man struggling to get by while avoiding local crime bosses (van der Werff, 2015). This tells us that a network society can contain very different people form different cultures and backgrounds, but they can work together and use each other to get further in life.

They help one another to overcome past tragedies, embrace their true selves, and evolve and transit into their new identity—simultaneously as individuals and as members of an emerging community

Another similarity is that the nodes in the network do not have boundaries. Like a network in the Information Age, the information can spread across nations. The individuals in Sense8 can spread personal information through the network: their minds. The information is always accessible and shared with everyone in the network. For example, "when Nomi, a political activist who suddenly finds herself stalked by a mysterious organization bent on wiping her out because she possesses psychic powers, learns from one of the friends with whom she shares a psychic link that the bad guys are on their way. With the help of her girlfriend, Nomi escapes the house where the couple has holed up, but she's soon surrounded by cops working for the evil organization. She sends out a call for help, and several of the other people with whom she's psychically linked swap into her body to share their skills of, say, martial arts fighting, so that she can make her way to freedom" (van der Werff, 2015). As you think about Nomi situated in San Francisco and the martial arts queen Sun is in Seoul, this connection is global and therefore it is similar to a network in the Information Age. As said earlier, the locations are absorbed in the network.

There are some points in the series that differs from the concept of the network society. First, in Sense8 the individuals are all important, but different from a network society, one is not more important than another. When a certain situation takes place in the series, every individual takes part in solving the problem. Without one individual, the problem cannot be solved. Of course, there are some scenes where it is about two individuals and their connection, but when there is an important event, they all work together.

Second, the network society in Sense8 is not about anything else than fighting the enemy and the connection itself. It is not about business markets or economic structures. Sense8 is all about the network itself and not so much about the rest of the society. It reflects a little society within the bigger society and gives a good image of a network society in the Information Age, but not on a business level.

Last, the information technology is a telepathic connection between individuals, which is something different than the Internet or other connections. It is not very realistic, but can be seen as a communication technology, except that it is a fictional connection. So, the differences between the network society in Sense8 and the concept of Castells are small and can, in some ways, still say something about the concept of the network society.

A good image of a network society

My curiosity and interest in the series Sense8 has guided me through an analysis of the series and the concept of a network society, as introduced by Manuel Castells. Sense8 tells a story about different individuals in different cities all over the world who form a connection. The Wachowski’s created the series by filming in a lot of different locations around the world and thereby created a productional masterpiece.

Sense8 can tell us a lot about the network society in the Information Age as introduced by Castells. However the network in the series is not about professional matters in society, instead it tells a lot about the connection itself. It shows what we can learn from the strength of a network, how it is organised, and all the other aspects involved. Most important, it tells us that a network can consist of people from a lot of different backgrounds who can work together perfectly, and can be important to the individual nodes as well as the collective.

References

Castells, M. (2000). Materials for an Exploratory Theory of the Network Society. The British Journal of Sociology 51(1), 5-24.

Locatelli, A. (2017, February 10). Television and Globalization: Sense8 as a mirror of different cultures. 

Wachowski L., Wachowski L. & Straczynski, J. (2015). Sense8. The United States: Netflix.

Wansink, H. (1998, April 24). De netwerkmaatschappij: Uitvoerige studie van Manuel Castells over nieuwe samenleving. 

Van der Werff, T. (2015, June 10). I watched Netflix's Sense8 and don't know if it's a travesty or a whacked-out masterpiece. 

Zilonka, R., & Job, J. (2017, August 8). Curriculum of Connection: What Does Sense8 Teach us About Love, Community and Responsibility in Days of Despair? Interchange, 48(4), 387–401.