On our way to a networked society.

In an earlier generation all computer networks were for business or the military. That is, they were point-to-point connections between large organisations and were vastly expensive to setup and run. But the invention of TCP/IP and the modern internet changed all that. Now networks are between ordinary people using simple and easy to operate equipment (like their mobile phones or netbooks).

And now as we move from the society of the book into a networked society there are some important influences working to shape the future.

Amplification is important in that it enables ordinary people’s opinions to have reach via social networks (like Twitter or Facebook). In the past I could stand in Sydney amongst my friends at the pub and complain about a bookstore moving certain kinds of books to a dark corner in the back of the store. And nobody but the people at the pub, or perhaps a few of their friends, heard about it. But when Amazon recently did the same thing with gay and lesbian books, social networks around the world went crazy with the news. Suddenly an ordinary person can have the same kind of reach which was previously possible only through mass media.

Amplification is working together with each of the other items under discussion here. Each item amplifies and is amplified by the others. This is systems theory in action, with feedback loops driving change. Thus, with the recent Amazon problem, mainstream broadcast media picked up the issue from the social networks, amplified it, and fed it back into the social networks.

Many people misunderstand the nature of communities that are developing now. Simply because the communities that are growing are mediated by technology does mean that are not genuine communities. I am fascinated by the number of groups of people who’ve met online via Twitter and have subsequently formed real life relationships, such as attending trivia nights together, attending music festivals, or various kinds of tweetups. For example: STUB, MTUB, PTUB, BTUB, CTUB demonstrate this kind of crossover of online relationships into daily life (here’s some pictures of a recent tweetup in Sydney).

There are also some ‘laws’ that are useful in thinking about the development of a networked society. That is not to take these as legislative imperatives but rather as heuristics to inform our thinking.

Metcalfe’s Law is helpful, not because it is necessarily directly applicable as originally proposed back in 1980. It is helpful because it gets us thinking about how networks create new relationships, and how those relationships can amplify the power of the network. Metcalfe was considering small hardware networks and posited that “the value of a network increases proportionately with the square of the number of its devices”. The principle that a network (even a social one) can grow exponentially depends upon a number of variables. These variables would include things like actions taken or affinities developed or destroyed by members of the network, since unlike devices, people can act of their own volition. These social networks create feedback loops and amplify both positive and negative effects across the primary network, and even reach out into other loosely connected networks.

Gilmore’s Law is also very useful in thinking about the growth of a networked society. The funny thing is that people often mistake modern networks as being only about the technology. But this is not the sum total of our modern networks. Instead a network’s value is in the real human beings with substantive relationships. The technology merely mediates the relationship. Since it is about relationships between people, blockages in the network that impact upon those relationships are perceived as an organic threat. People don’t like to have their relationships interrupted. And when there is some kind of blockage in the technology that mediates those relationships then the people will find ways to route around it. Thus even political interference in the network will merely be interpreted as damage to relationship management channels.

The degree of connectedness available to us in a networked society is far higher than at any time since most of us lived in small villages. And, more than anything else, the networked society seems to be like a village. But more on that another time.