It’s a Small World After All

On election night 2008 I was at the Obama victory party in Albany, NY, to follow and celebrate the results. While it was a great evening, one moment in particular stood out. As we approached 11 PM, CNN showed a countdown clock for when the polls would close in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. As the last seconds elapsed, we all started counting down with the clock, as if it was New Year’s Eve. We all cheered when the clock hit zero, and then cheered much louder as CNN announced that Barack Obama had indeed just been elected President. It was a wonderful moment.

Only later did I find out that crowds of people around the world were doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment. It was yet another example of how much we are all interconnected these days – in our awareness of what’s going on and in our awareness that events on the other side of the world can affect our lives.

While young people today may think nothing of this state of affairs, it’s something I still view with a degree of amazement. I was 11 years old and living in Panama when President Kennedy was assassinated. Communications-wise, it was a very different era. While people in the US watched on TV events like Oswald’s arrest and subsequent murder, the American (Canal Zone) TV station just provided a static graphic with Kennedy’s name and dates of birth and death – a sort of video gravestone. The audio consisted of radio transmissions and reports; I didn’t see Oswald get shot, I heard it reported – kind of like play-by-play coverage of a baseball game.

For better or worse, with today’s technology we are now much more tightly linked together. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “…we are all caught up in a delicate network of interdependence, unable to celebrate fully our own heritage and place in the world, unable to realize our full potential as human beings, unless everyone else, everywhere else, can do the same.”

This is something we are still trying to understand and come to terms with. If the world is a network of links, how do we deal with it? The traditional way of dealing with things draws from a mechanical perspective of command and control that is pyramidal in form, with many down below and very few on top. In such a world, those with the most power control what happens. They are “the deciders.” But in a linked world, power is not pyramidal; it is networked, with everyone on basically the same plane. Clearly, this means the rules have changed. (An example of this change for military strategy is presented in the article “Command and (Out of) Control.”)

So what are the rules for a networked world? A useful resource for this is Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s book “Linked – How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means For Business, Science and Everyday Life.” One of his main points is that, while all nodes in a network may be equal in some respects, they are not equal in one key way. The difference between nodes is a question of how many links there are to a particular node. While there are many websites on the Internet, some receive a LOT more traffic and links than others. These popular nodes, which Barabasi calls hubs, are the power centers in any kind of network.

A key difference between traditional power centers and network hubs is defined by the source of their power. Traditional power comes from the hoarding of resources like money, weapons and control. Once one has the power, he or she can then dictate behavior to others. However, network power is more democratic: a hub gains or loses power based on the willingness of others to link to it. If something new and better comes along, a hub is likely to lose both links and influence. An example of this can be found with internet search engines: at one point AltaVista was one of the top search engines around; now Google rules the roost and AltaVista struggles to keep up.

In the traditional world, influence is something to be wielded: if you have enough power, you can influence the behavior of those you deal with. In a networked world, influence is something to be cultivated: the more connections you establish with others, the more influence you have. A great example of this from the music world is provided by songwriter Darrell Brown in “The Get-Out-the-Song Effort.”

Some may have wondered why so many people around the world were so excited by the election of Barack Obama. Surely, there are many contributing factors. But one of those factors may relate to the perception of how Obama will use power compared to his predecessor.

The Bush-Cheney administration had a very traditional view of power: they felt America had the biggest military and economy in the world, so they could tell everyone else what to do. Judging by Obama’s campaign, it appears he has a better understanding of power from a network perspective. If he deals with the world and its problems from that perspective, America’s policies are likely to be very different.

At least, that’s the hope!

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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