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Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

I’m one of those inept bloggers, unable to properly post for this class. I’m including an early comment I had to the presentation that Jerome gave. To me, posting it now helps bring all my readings and the class presentations on CC Theory into a clean perspective.

This comment is about Jerome’s very good explanation of his extremely complex book. During class I asked a question about how the author handles people using their common sense or intuition in regards to the author’s theories, which completely discount the value of common sense and intuition. This struck me as an example of Dr. Shupe’s statement that some ideas come out of the mouth and circle around to hit you in the back of the head. To rephrase my original question, Casti uses his theory to discuss social systems like economies (with the beer distribution) and collapsing governments. As social systems, they must include people who act, often using their common sense and intuition. Yet the over all theory discounts this activity. Does Casti’s theory take these types of actors into account? Or does he completely ignore them? Either way, I think the concept comes back and hits him in the back of the head.

The second book I read for class is Duncan J. Watts’ Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. The title comes from the iconic idea of everyone on earth being connected by 6 people. Indeed, Watts thinks it is possible that today humans are connected by much fewer than 6 connections. Watts is a sociology professor. Six Degrees examines the study of networks found in the real world of people; friendships, rumors, fads, diseases, firms and finances. In the book Watts uses terms like percolation theory instead of tipping point, and flexible specialization to describe interdisciplinary work. He effectively applies Barabarsi’s power laws to social networks. To Watts, understanding networks is vital in understanding this current generation of connectedness. The main theme of the book is that some problems can only be solved collectively, that one individual or even a single study discipline are not enough to resolve some issues. This book is a strong proponent of multi-discipline works, and fits in well with the MLS program. Watts’ goal is to change the way people look at the world. This is what CC Theory has done for my perspective on the world.

Watts asks a great question in the book that sticks with me. Instead of asking, “How small is the world?? he asks, “What does it take to make the world small??. He uses some great analogies like the fact that the chirping of crickets becomes synchronized without there being a conductor present to guide them. This particular example harkens back to the earlier book I read about how guppies can also make synchronized motions, learn and react to each other. Again, complex organization is found in surprising places. Watts believes that network connections work due to the clustering (overlapping) of connections as well as the average path length of the link. Hubs are not needed for small world networks to succeed; overlapping is enough. This clustering and deep connection makes the network a “small world?.

Watts believes that functioning as a small world is the best way to operate in the current world. This period of growing complexity and ambiguity calls for the use of collaboration strategies across traditional boundaries. Individuals and teams that used to work in isolation need to be connected, sharing information, crossing skills and knowledge. He also believes that to be successful a network has to be both robust and contain some weaknesses. Otherwise the network is too vulnerable to catastrophe. I think this statement rings true with the lattice graphing we’ve seen in class as being particularly strong.

Another thing Watts says also struck me about the whole idea of CC Theory. He states there is no generic “small world? model that will work everywhere in every situation. The way to solve problems, he posits, must be modified and tailored to each organization, each system, each person. Just like CC Theory is not THE answer to the workings of the world (or is it?), his “small world? theory is not a solid fit either.

Watts believes that everyone in the world is part of the same family involved in one enormous and complex network system. His “small world? notion really resonated with me and I could apply it to current topics in the news. For example: Science News magazine recently reported that geneticists have determined that North, Central and South America were all populated by people who crossed over the Bering Strait from Russia. They traveled down the coast all the way from Alaska to Chile and then spread in-land from there. These are the Native Americans, Bolivians, Ticos of the New World. Then the Europeans came across the Atlantic Ocean and the populations re-connected. We are all from the same family.

Another item I applied the “small world? theory to is the new report on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The previous report was drafted using traditional investigation from limited intelligence community sources. The new report was produced with a new lead investigator applying many of the inter-disciplinary techniques that Watts advocates. Small groups were used, dissent was encouraged and those questions were then also studied, information was gathered from traditional and non-traditional sources, across governmental agencies. The final report was more factual than the first, with less supposition. The group looked at old information in a brand new way. To me this represents everything that CC Theory hopes to explain.