The Science of Networks: Studying Interconnectedness for the Better of Mankind
Milgram’s Six Degrees experiment presented a unique and provocative insight into the world as a whole. The idea that six billion people might all be more closely connected than we originally believed is fascinating – it has the possibility to change both the ways we think about information, approach organizational infrastructures, and our relations to each other.
Watts approaches Milgram’s experiment as a way into what he calls the “science of networks,” the study of the interconnectedness in our world. To help elucidate matters, he first refers to the massive West Coast power outage from the 90’s. The massive failure of this particular system was caused as a result of the safety precautions taken. These supposed precautions led to a series of interactions that were entirely unpredicted and unexpected, and that brought down power to a massive area of the nation. The idea that a system can contain within it characteristics that lead to unexpected results on a massive scale is the key to the science of networks.
To understand how these connections might exist, Watts, with Strogatz, created a model based around a clustering coefficient, which represents the tendency of people to cluster around each other. The graph has two unique distributions, one which displays a high likelihood that people will meet their friends’ friends quickly (a low clustering coefficient), while the other shows people meeting people less quickly because they make friends randomly and don’t cluster (as the clustering coefficient approaches infinity). The reality is that neither model is correct – the real world functions somewhere in between the two curves. This means that people do cluster around their own friends, but also meet new people “randomly” (I use the term to indicate that they make friends without any middleman to introduce them).
The model for clustering, then, is only one part of the whole. To model the concept of “random” encounters that lead to new friends, Watts speaks of the concept of contexts. A context can be any characteristic that brings people together: jobs, extracurricular activities, geography, interests, etc. Because people pursue their interests, they are likely to meet new people within their contexts. The idea that contexts inform the social “distance” between people creates multiple dimensions.
Accepting the presence of the multiple dimensions can help us better to understand the nature of a connected world – in order to understand a network, you must also understand the way in which each node is connected to every other node. Watts uses the Toyota-Aisin crisis to show how such a knowledge of one’s own “networkedness” can turn potentially fatal situations into mere scratches. The Toyota-Aisin crisis occurred when the Aisin company factory (which manufacture a unique, critical piece for Toyota car brakes) burned to the ground. Without this critical piece, Toyota shut down. Toyota, however, was organized as a group of networked companies working together to produce parts for the cars. Soon, the think tank at Toyota was able to organize a solution involving all the other member companies coming together to produce this critical piece. Within days, Toyota was up and running, producing its standard amount of cars.
The message behind this study is about the need to further study the science of networks. Watts has provided examples of how the world is far more connected than anyone might have realized, and now urges us to continue examining this networkedness. Perhaps through the study of networks and the relationship between each node, major, positive transformations in political, commercial, and social arenas become possible. Without such awareness, we leave ourselves as vulnerable as the power structure that lead to the West Coast outage in the 90’s.