Putting the net back into the internet: the materiality of networks from a premodern perspective

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This essay engages head on with this special issue’s central question—what do medieval things have to tell us about connectivity and object-mediated communication?—by comparing the depiction of nets in medieval sources with our contemporary imaginations of the Internet. The Internet is popularly thought of as immaterial—as wireless and ethereal lines of communication—rather than as pipelines and server villages. While the terms network, Internet, and World Wide Web are modern, nets are among the oldest human technologies. Medieval sources portray them as composed of both material and immaterial elements; as both strings and the gaps between. The elements of a net that are seen as immaterial—the spaces between the strings—are essential to its function. Whether a net is used for carrying, hunting, or decorating, those spaces ensure that prey cannot see it from the outside, that it is stretchable, and that it allows a glimpse into what is within. The material strings are equally essential: they are the elements that capture and hold. Medieval texts and images (for instance, various depictions of Vulcan’s net and Arachne’s net and weft, the German Arthurian romance Daniel of the Blossoming Valley, and the Arabic story collection Kalila and Dimna) emphasize the tension between material and immaterial components by exaggerating the inescapability of the nets from the inside and the invisibility of the nets from the outside. They also stress the nature of nets as traps rather than connectives and use them as metaphors for narratives, much as network analysis uses nets as metaphors for a variety of structures and areas of knowledge. In this essay I suggest returning to a notion of nets, including the Internet, as material, as a corrective to current perceptions. I also argue that the fear of nets as traps might persist in modern imaginations of the Internet.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)95-110
Number of pages15
JournalDigital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2021


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