Power of Networks

March 7, 2011

Essay by Paddy Harrington, creative director for Bruce Mau Design.


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Visualizing Friendships. © Paul Butler.

I was lying in bed one cold Toronto morning a few weeks ago trying to muster the motivation to go up the street for a run on a treadmill at the local gym that I’d just joined. I’d been in this situation before. Walking the thin line between yes and no and, more often than not, just staying in my warm bed. But this time was different. As I hazily mulled the decision, a thin sharp thought cut through the grogginess and moved me to action: “You have to run! You started sharing your runs on facebook!”

There has been exciting research to suggest that the power of networks to influence us is very real. In one Wired article, Jonah Lehrer writes about the power of social networks to influence individual behavior in the context of obesity. It turns out that your friends’ nutritional behavior has a clear impact on your own. And, even more amazingly, the network’s influence can travel great distances. “Your friends who live far away have just as big an impact on your behavior as friends who live next door,” says James Fowler, a political scientist interviewed in the story. Lehrer goes on to summarize that “The individual is a romantic myth; indeed, no man is an island.”1

Why is it that this romantic myth of the individual holds such power in our culture when we strongly recognize the power of communities, and of networks?

How do we rationalize our need for heroes with our strong sense that all of us is greater than one of us?

One clue might lie in the work of George Miller, the psychologist who founded the Center for Cognitive Science at Harvard in 1960 and who wrote the famous essay “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” In that essay, Miller argues that the number of items an average human can hold in working memory is 7, plus or minus 2. Further research since Miller suggests that, depending on the content, that number is even shorter. So, the most important tool we have for understanding and interpreting our world, our brain, has an almost comically limited capacity; at least when it comes to working memory. And in an environment where each one of us endures a daily carpet bombing of information, we need a short hand to sort through the chaos. We need to package complicated ideas into smaller tidy parcels. Heroes help us to do that.2

Heroes help us to make sense of our world. They compress complex ideas into compact packages.

Take Superman. As a cultural phenomenon, he became an icon for much of the 20th century. Over time, Superman became a symbol of the new, of progress, of integrity. In fact, if we were to unpack all the symbolism of Superman, we see that his greatest power may well be the efficiency with which he came to symbolize such a complex set of cultural ideas. You could love Superman as a savior of the American immigrant, or you could just love him because he could save your cat from a tree.

But something happened. The collective psyche began to shift throughout the course of the twentieth century and it was reflected in culture. In 1962, Mel Ramos painted a Superman who had lived through two world wars, and seen the beginning of the cold war. Things had become a little too complex for the solitary crusader to handle all on his own. Interestingly, comic books evolved to respond to the new complexity. Marvel Comics created the Avengers in 1963. In response to the shifting context, “the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand! Through the years, their roster has prospered, changing many times, but their glory has never been denied! Heed the call, then—for now, the Avengers Assemble!”3

What the Avengers managed to do was distill the concept of network into a singular super cool entity. We knew that there was something in the strength of the network, and now we had a simple idea that a mass audience could easily take up and carry forward. And if we look closely at the Avengers prologue, we see a couple insights that, whether consciously or unconsciously understood by the creators, outline key characteristics of the power of networks. First is the idea that there are certain kinds of challenges that a group can overcome where the individual cannot. And second, that the network need not depend on a specific set of individuals, but that the greater power lies somewhere between them all.

Today, 50 years later, the Avengers idea persists, and has been further substantiated. Kevin Kelly tells us that “a million individual minds applied to a problem are better than one. It’s more likely someone will find a solution.” He goes on to describe science itself as ”a collective action, and the emergent intelligence of shared knowledge is often superior to even a million individuals.” And finally, so that there may be no doubt, he declares that “the solitary scientific genius is a myth. Science is both the way we personally know things and the way we collectively know.”4

There is no shortage of ideas about the power of networks. Clay Shirky tells us that it only took 1% of the time that American’s spend watching television every year to create all of Wikipedia.5

What seems to have changed since the Avengers is the scope of the network. The Avengers concept helps us understand multiplicity as a singular idea. But what happens when membership explodes?

Paul Hawken talks about the power of a network that has expanded past our ability to comprehend its scale. The network he describes includes everything from “billion-dollar nonprofits to single-person dot.causes.” He argues that “these groups collectively comprise the largest movement on earth, a movement that has no name, leader, or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide.”6

His idea is compelling because it inverts the organizational methodology of the human mind that typically starts with the top of a pyramid and builds downward. He starts from the bottom, and the base is incomprehensibly gigantic.

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“E Pluribus Unum” 2010. © Chris Jordan.

The artist Chris Jordan’s work “E Pluribus Unum” attempts to visualize this complexity. It’s a large artwork, 24×24 feet. And it “depicts the names of one million organizations around the world that are devoted to peace, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the preservation of diverse and indigenous culture.” We know that the number of such organizations floats somewhere in the range of one and two million. And that number is growing.7

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“E Pluribus Unum” 2010. © Chris Jordan.

What strikes you when you look at the work online is that our eyes simply can’t discern the intricacy and detail in the work. When you zoom way in you can make out the names, but at a certain point when zooming out, it dissolves into an abstract graphic pattern. And that’s only one million names. Our world population is more than six billion.

Douglas Adams, the science fiction author, wrote, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about a race of alien beings who build the universe to house a great machine to find the answer to everything. That machine is the earth. But when they build the universe they make it slightly smaller than infinity so that the human beings on earth could begin to comprehend it. With Hawken and Jordan, you begin to get a sense of the wisdom of that decision.

In the face of all this complexity we have to ask: what’s the value? The network is huge, but how does that help me if I can’t comprehend it? Well, for one, we know that things at that kind of scale have a complexity that can’t be controlled by any single individual. And that’s a good thing. In his article, “A Physicist Solves the City,” Lehrer writes that “cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners… Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.” And cities innovate their way out of crises. When confronted with a shortage of resources, the sheer intensity of ideas produces solutions that solve the collective issues facing the city. The power of the network is far greater than the power of the individual.8

That doesn’t mean you don’t need talented individual effort. But it does mean that we have to get past the idea of the solitary genius. Brian Eno has a concept called “Scenius.” It’s that which “stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”9

Every movement has its figurehead, but the risk comes when we do not recognize the individuals that make up the rest of the scene and the movement.

When we encourage a culture of the hero, we defer individual responsibility. When we come up against the limits of a challenge, it’s easy to defer to the hero figure and expect that they will resolve the conflict. But to live that way is to live a shadow life, when really, for the force of the network to find its full potential, each member must take part in the assembly against the ‘common threat’ and deploy the full extent of one’s capacity to solve the task at hand. When we can shift our thinking from passive waiting to active and vibrant participation then the network feeds itself and becomes more powerful. The individual is empowered and the collective can produce staggering transformation, innovation, excitement, vitality, life, love, change, strength, heart, intelligence, beauty, and ten million other ideas that we can only begin to comprehend.

But this isn’t a rejection of Superman (or Superwoman). The hero is indispensable. The hero helps give direction in darkness. The hero inspires. The hero teaches through experience. But the hero is ubiquitous, in varying stages of emergence, in each member of the network.

We still gravitate towards individual icons. We still take comfort in the relative ease with which we can comprehend the basic unit of human existence, the individual. In an increasingly chaotic era, we need this simplicity more than ever. We have to embrace our human need to make things simple, but we also have to find non-reductive ways of understanding our world. As Einstein (a true hero) said, we need to make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. It takes a perception shift. We have to get to a simple concept that comes to signify the incomprehensibly deep and vast power of networks. We shouldn’t let our need for the comfort of the singular hero to deny us the potential of the network.

I’d argue that there’s great comfort in the idea of the incomprehensible network. Essentially it’s the idea of family. And there’s beauty in that. What if we were to build a table around the equator with a seat for every person on earth for one big family dinner? Imagine what such an act of singular focus might accomplish! The seal of the United States says: “E Pluribus Unum.” Out of many, one. That’s not as relevant anymore. We live in an era of “E Pluribus Magis.” Out of many, more.

The potential of networks is beyond exciting. The 500 million facebook users spend 700 billion minutes a month on the social networking site. That equals 36,000 years of time, every month. That means that facebook users spend a total of 15,981,735 years on facebook… every year. Think about what we could do if we diverted a fraction of that time to improving our world. Imagine the opportunity that exists for those who figure out how to make it easy to do. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it should be easy and fun. It’s about designing the experience to leverage the special characteristics and properties of the network.10

Who knows, maybe I’ll regret that gym membership. Maybe I’ll end up quitting after a few guilt ridden months. But maybe the power of networks will keep me at it. Hopefully my friends will keep pushing me along. I know that I’ll be better off if that happens. And I’m pretty sure that the network will be better for it too.