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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Network Power
From concentrated skill to distributed ignorance?

No doubt about it, we seem to be moving from a world of concentrated skill and expertise to a world of distributed ignorance. Only 200 years ago it was possible to be a leading engineer and zoologist at the same time. Even 50 years ago it was possible to understand the fine grain detail of the telephone or television network but today no one knows everything about almost anything. No one human mind understands and contains the full design and operational detail of even the simplest of aircraft. The knowledge required to create materials, turn them into the component parts and mould them into a complete system is way beyond the capacity of any one human.

Should we be shaking our heads in despair at the demise of the polymath? Perhaps but, then again, perhaps not! The upside to the technology that saw their demise has, in part, allowed us all to become more powerful. We may have created a sea of ignorance but we have also opened up windows of capability that we could not have imaged even 20 years ago.

The power of networking is something that most do not contemplate and few understand. If we take, for example, a broadcast network as in radio and TV, we see a single transmitter with a number of receivers. If these receivers number 'N' then the information flow is at best proportional to N/2. But in practice not all of the receivers are on all of the time and not all listeners/viewers are paying attention. So the information flow is always <= N/2.

In the telephone network we see a phenomenal increase in the information flow and connectivity. The growth in the connections of the telephone with the number of nodes 'N' now goes up as N*(N-1)/2 and so as N becomes very large the information flow goes up as N^2. And while this is just a modest change in network architecture, it led to changes in society that no one imagined.

An even bigger change in network power, and society, has occurred with the arrival of the internet. Here the connectivity is far more powerful than the broadcast and telephone networks that preceded it. Now we have to think of a web of hyperlinks or the concatenation of address books.

Probably the easiest way to visualise the increase in network power is to consider a sneeze and the spread of an airborne virus. One person in a public place sneezes and five people are infected. A day later, they sneeze and in turn they infect 5 more each - and now 31 people are infected. So day on day, you have an exponential increase in infection that goes at 5^N where N is the number of days. And so the internet expands in an exponential form N^n - much faster than any previous networks we have created.

Another way of looking at this is in the spread of computer viruses, which accelerate across our planet at an even greater rate than a biological virus. Suppose you have 30 people in your address book and you get a virus. In just six clicks you have inflicted copies of that virus on the entire computer population of the planet (30^6 = 0.73Bn). If on the other hand you have 300 hundred people in your address book, then you require just 4 clicks will do the trick (300^4 = 8.1Bn).

Like the human population, the degree of separation between computers is very small. If all computers can connect to just 30, then the degree of separation is only 5. For 300 it is 4. This of course assumes that as a virus is passed on from one computer to another exactly the same numbers are available in each address book, which is a gross simplification but I'm sure you get the idea.

Of course we should worry about viruses of all kinds, the spread of physical diseases and the software capable of crippling our networks but we should also focus on the fact that we are looking at a means of communication, information access and knowledge sharing on a scale that we have never been able to achieve before.

The reason a world of distributed ignorance wins over a world of concentrated skill and capability is that a generic education allows us to take knowledge, advice and capability from anywhere on the planet and turn it to our advantage. This model is far more powerful than being a specialist in the topic of Lithuanian pottery or the crafting of wood.

I am not decrying here the skill and the ability of people to process raw material and do things that are useful and powerful in their own right. Each of us will no doubt profess to be an expert in something and will attempt to hold on to some basic skill that we value and indeed may be valued by society at large. But we also need to be able to turn our hand to things where we have no natural ability or knowledge and in that sense the internet and this new mode of networking allow us to do just that.

All of this raises the spectre of a new paradigm for all organisations. Throughout my life I have watched and have been subject to people who have sought to be powerful by controlling and limiting the flow of information that they alone posses. I tend to label such people as control freaks as they very often seem to have only that skill and ability.

In this new millennium each of us have to adopt a different mode of operation: to give away, broadcast, make available all our knowledge and information in order to contribute to the broader objectives of our organisations. We should not seek to be powerful and to control; we should seek to be influential and to contribute.

This column was dictated onto an Olympus recorder. It was collected by my secretary and typed on an Apple iBook. It appeared on my screen 20 minutes later via a cable modem, was revised on my laptop and despatched to from the Ipswich to London train months later after a further edit.