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Sometimes things that seem quite different are, when looked at more closely, related. 

 

Six degrees

 

From time to time in each of us experiences the 'Kevin Bacon' phenomenon  in which total strangers we meet for the first time turn out to be friends of friends. In popular lore we are told that everyone is connected to everyone else on the planet within six degrees of separation.   That is: A who knows B who knows C etc…  to  E who  knows  F.  In the Kevin Bacon game, Kevin is related to every film actor by some chain or relationships and the goal is to find the shortest path.

This is a simple demonstration of the importance of networking within society.  We find networks everywhere and they are have increasing importance as society becomes more complex and the communications revolution takes hold.  The most obvious example to you when reading this is the Internet.  But if you travel internationally you are very familiar with the idea of transport hubs and airline networks.   

Your brain is another such a network.  Each neurone his connected to other neurones and thoughts, memories and abilities are encoded in these relationships.

 

Conspiracy

 

According to Julian Assange of Wikileaks these networks within human society lead to subgroups that protect information that they choose to share exclusively amongst themselves. [Conspiracy essays; ABC discussion]

Thus journalists or bureaucrats may know more about a story or political event than they choose to share with the public; business people may know more factors affecting a share price than the general market; drug companies or tobacco companies may know more about side-effects than they care to make public; public officials who quarantine information from FOI mechanisms; and so on.  Assange describes this style of exclusive information sharing relationship as a conspiracy.

While it is not a grand conspiracy like some secretive group deciding to protect the British Crown by eliminating a foolish and promiscuous future Queen Mother; or another to remove a US President who has become a liability to their interests; this style of conspiracy is very much more ubiquitous. 

We are all familiar with gossip and passing on 'secrets'.  Sometimes true and sometimes false, gossip is under the Assange definition often a conspiracy in itself.  It is not surprising that gossip so often concerns alleged grand conspiracies.

Conspiracy may be an emergent characteristic of human relationships.  Assange has set himself the task of cutting the secretive information ties within certain of these networks but this may be a Canute like task; attempting to turn the tide on human nature. 

 

Wealth

 

As early as the dawn of civilisation it was observed that the wealthiest get richer while the poor get poorer.  This too may be an outcome of human information sharing and relationship networks.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.   
Mat 13:10-12   

Thus the proverb:  ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ has been restated in many forms since the beginning of civilisation… or as the Kahn and Egan lyrics say:  'There's nothing surer: The rich get rich and the poor get—children; Ain't We Got Fun…'  Jesus was of course not referring to financial wealth but to what Assange would call a conspiracy; information exclusive to an elite.

 


 


Ain't We Got Fun - 1921 [Lyrics]

 

The principle of wealth accumulation was given the status of a law by Karl Marx in the late nineteenth century; and at the start of the twentieth Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto enunciated the 80/20 principle in which 80% of almost any collection is resident in 20% of the holders. 

Thus globally in 1989 the richest 20% controlled 82.70% of world GDP; 20% of dairy farms produce 80% of the milk; 20% of software bugs cause 80% of the problems and so on.  The only requirement is that the system needs to involve a large number of individuals or elements. 

When it comes to wealth many have pondered this and identified a plethora of explanations ranging from graft and corruption to the law of diminishing returns.  Thus the wealthy are able to accumulate increasing surplus income, beyond that required for survival and to use this surplus to generate even more income while the poor have none; or negative generating surplus (debts). Others point to the conspiracy of class or influence - 'you rub my back I'll rub yours'.

But now network theory is beginning to show how such influences evolve in any collection within a network and why as soon as one social elite is overthrown, another steps up to acquire control over the wealth and power in society.

 

Networks

 

Network theory is quite complex and this is not intended to be a dissertation or even a primer.  I recommend this link if you want to know more.  Suffice it to say that all the above are examples of a limiting case in network theory called a scale-free-network.  This is one in which there is a small number of the total nodes (or individual elements) in a network that have a high interconnectedness or degree.  These become hubs that mediate the majority of inter-connections so that overall interconnectedness is optimised.   There are plenty of examples.  We all know that if you want to visit a smaller city in the USA you need to fly to a hub like LA, Chicago or NY first.  In order to receive a letter it needs to pass through a succession of sorting offices; to get an email it has to pass through at least one ISP.  Almost everything we consume comes to us via a network.

Theory suggests that under the pressure of fitness selection, that attempts to optimise the links between nodes, any collection of nodes (individuals, places, devices and so on) in a network will structure links that create hubs and the network will evolve into something approximating a scale-free-network. 

Optimisation depends on the nature of the network, in particular the relationships between the nodes (called the edges of each node).  In the Internet it could be to minimise communications links; in an economy to maximise profit or control; or in a physical system to achieve the lowest possible net energy. This may even explain why there are stars in the sky…

But which 20% of the pods have 80% of the peas?  How does an unknown boson cause all those fermions to become a star?

In human society how do some businesses or individuals get selected as hubs; the biggest producer or the wealthiest or the most famous?  What can Karl Marx say to prevent capital accumulation; what can ‘evil capitalists’ do to exploit it further?

The answers are almost certainly: ‘circumstances’; and ‘very little’. But it the process is not entirely random.

Circumstantially, some people have the right abilities, in the right place, at the right time.  Princes have a head start, paupers a serious handicap.  But in times of political upheaval and technological change a peasant can become Premier of the Soviet Union, a cook the leader of Vietnam or a middle class computer nerd, the richest man on the planet.

I spent a good deal of my career in government promoting economic development.  Given the above observations a rational expectation would be that Government would spend its limited resources (after education; law and order; health; public infrastructure and resource management) working with the 20% of businesses that generate 80% of the wealth; the 20% that employ 80% of the workers; the 20% that contribute 80% of the capital investment; or perhaps the 20% that produce 80% of the innovations.    But this is not so.

Government instead attempts to address the 20% that attract the most interest; make the most noise; or might be regarded as having the greatest electoral impact.  Thus a few, largely-self selected prospective investors; and small or regional enterprises; become hubs for repeated government communications and interaction.  These sop-up 80% of the limited economic development resources government can afford.

This is not intended to be a criticism of NSW or Australian practice.  The same applies in every department of economic development or commerce at every level of democratic government worldwide.  All are responding to the same imperatives.  It’s an outcome of the rules of the game.  Sometimes there is a temporary break-out, for example in favour of committing all the resources to leading innovators, but the political realities of immediate exposure (media or political worthiness) quickly restore the norm.

Similar observations can be made about almost every enterprise.  For example, sales teams that expend most of their time on small or profitless customers.

 

Revolution

 

Has anybody ever thought of winning the Communists over to our way of life?

To some, the solution to finding themselves overshadowed by those who, as Jesus said, ‘hath…  and shall be given, and… have more abundance’  is overthrow or revolution.  But as those who ‘hath not’ are in more abundance than those who ‘hath’ this is a poor strategy.  This is particularly so when one loses what one ‘hath’ then someone else steps-up to become a new network hub and to enjoy the, now inevitably depleted, spoils.  Egyptian revolutionaries are discovering this as I speak.

An alternative is the Assange approach.  Destroy the close holding of information that supports dysfunctional networks of closely held information.  Assange is a supporter of greater interaction and holds that these conspiratorial networks are counter to the development of a pure scale-free-network.  This goal is like the goal of a pure open or free marketplace.  He is more of a free market capitalist than a social revolutionary.  In his world conspiracies might be likened to cancers that need to be cut out.

 

Freedom

 

Thus under free information flows the network would be allowed to develop appropriate hubs according to technical or economic circumstance, rather than through the exploitation of special knowledge or proprietary information.

We are invited to believe that given pure scale-free-network and perfect information in a free market, those who rise to wealth and power can only do so as a result of merit; and not from some underhand contrivance, inside information or pre-existing socio-political position. 

But is this so?  And if it is so, will it be me or mine who will be elevated to new wealth and power?   If it is not me or mine, do I care how the wealthy or powerful became so; due to merit or due to accident of birth or position?

On principle, I would like to think that everyone has an equal start in the race of life. I'm also persuaded that it is better to be ruled by whose who rose through merit; rather than by those who's fortune is based on inherited position, inside information or underhand dealing; but then a ruler is a ruler.  If they generally perform satisfactorily I don't think it's worth 'dying in a ditch' over.

That option should be reserved for tyranny by any hand; meritorious or not.

 

Paradigm shifts§

 

The recent development of computer internetworking into the World Wide Web, and in particular the social networking phenomenon, is generating new interest in both network theory and information theory. These seem to shed new light on issues that are as old as civilisation. 

For example the spontaneous tendency of humans to join a mob has always existed.  The English (later Australian) Riot Act dated from 1715 but riots are recorded from the earliest times in Egypt, China and Rome; and more recently vast riots were associated with partition in India when tens of thousands were killed. 

But now the new social media and personal communications are adding a new dimension to this old phenomenon.

During the recent London riots social networking enabled a spontaneous 'conspiracy' to develop among young Englishmen and women to rob, destroy property and ignite racist vendetta.  Sydney experienced smaller riots in 2006, triggered by surfing access to Cronulla Beach.  Youths from competing ethnic groups organised violence, on both sides of the dispute, using social media and mobile phones.

Like gravity and other 'givens', social relationship networks have always existed; but we have not looked at them before as we are beginning to today.

Thus Galileo and Kepler saw gravity, and as a result the Universe, in a new light; Newton saw the same evidence from a different perspective and Einstein differently again.  This perception is still changing. During the last few months there have been increasing rumours that the Large Hadron Collider has found the first evidence of the Higgs boson, the still hypothetical entity responsible for mass in the Universe.  If it is either found or debunked, our conceptual model of the universe behind our perceptual experiences will change yet again. 

In the same way, as the world becomes more interconnected, we can expect further paradigm shifts in the ways we view society, based on the new insights that come out of the present 'communications revolution'.

Excitingly, each time our perspective has changed we have gained new insights to the world that generates our experiences; and the ways we interpret our perceptions of it.

I welcome your perspective, insights and opinion...

 

 

 

§ paradigm shift: a complete change of the framework within which an idea is expounded, a situation viewed, etc. - Macquarie Dictionary

 

Comments  

# Neil D 2011-08-24 12:05
An interesting article putting recent events into context.

I'd also be interested in seeing an article on crowd sourcing (e.g.99designs.com).

I find these trends interesting to observe, but do wonder how or if they can be regulated to ensure maximum benefit and minimum detriment.
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