All entries for Thursday 20 October 2005

October 20, 2005

Book Review: small world networks and other amazing coincidences

Book front cover
Title:
Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks
Author:
Mark Buchanan
ISBN:
075381689X
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

A quick detour into the theory of small world networks (six-degrees of separation, friend-of-a-friend, etc) has just provided me with some ideas that I suspect will resurface in both my philosophy research and my e-learning work. It also gave me a remarkable coincidence of the kind described in the book itself.

After spending a few weeks away from my research project, I usually restart my thinking by quickly reading a popular-science/history/art-theory book of some kind. My means of choosing such a book is usually quite aleatoric: the criteria being "something that sounds good, is easy and fast to read, and which may provide some unforeseen empirical data for my conceptual activities".

Mark Buchanan's book, selected from the popular-science section of Waterstone's in an instant, without much consideration, met these criteria well. The aim of the book is to convey and contextualize what is a fairly simple idea. But what makes that simplicity into something more significant is that it is an idea that seems to have been overlooked, and which once brought into consideration, gives explanatory sense to lots of seemingly unrelated phenomena. For me as a philosopher, that is interesting: what thoughts were impossible before the arrival of this concept? what errors were made?

The concept is, superficially, that of the "small world network": that is to say, how networks seem to naturally form from highly chaotic and random situations, into simplified but still random organisations, connected together by specially priveliged nodes that do much of the work of maintaining order and flow in the system. As a result of this priveliged position, and the dynamics of its connectivity, all kinds of sophisticated behaviours (economic, social, cognitive, ecological) can be seen to emerge: results of what has been called the network effect (although there is much more to this than the business model). It plausibly demonstrates how it is quite feasible for one random person to be only six degrees of separation from another random person. And then it extends this model to many further domains (physical, ecological, computational etc).

I'm thinking: Kant, sensus communis – what if he new about small world networks? Or conversely: Nietzsche – what did he know? And of course it is there in Deleuze and Guattari (concepts such as transversality), but rarely with the very definite examples that we now know of. A fascinating question to consider would be: when exactly did the concept of "network" arise? – and at what point did people start realising that the conditions for the establishment and operation of a network may cause certain behaviours, patterns and organisations to emerge (the network effect)?

Connect it to Andy Clark's extended cognition theses (with its tightly coupled systems). And throw in our experiences with the small world system known as Warwick Blogs. Interesting. Very.

Even more so because it turned out that, as I discovered on page 16 as the author described the kind of surprising coincidence that a small-world network can cause, I am in fact only two degrees of separation from Mark Buchanan! He is a friend of a friend As I read…

I moved a few years ago from the United States to London to take up an editorial position with Nature

…I dropped the book when I realised that he may well share an office with my friend Karl, who is also an editor with Nature, also working in the physical sciences. Karl is a Moosehead, with whom I occassionaly drink, eat chillis, and bellow loudly. On Friday night (whilst in the Bilash in Botley) I explained this to Travis (also a Moosehead, if not the head Moosehead). Travis was actually planning, that night, to write an email to Mark Buchanan. It may even be that I have met the author at some Moosing event at some time (although I may have been drunk and therefore incapable of remembering the names of any new acquintance). Spooky. Or just the result of a small world network.

Buchanan's book does well to rapidly explain the work of Watts and Strogatz, Granovetter, and other pioneers. It is entertaining and full of fascinating examples throughout – especially when dealing with the ingenious experiments of the sociologist Stanley Milgram. The connecting-up of cases from such a wide range of domains begs many questions (important philosophical questions that I think Deleuze and Guattari address effectively in What is Philosophy?). But it is very much worthwhile because of that.

I'll give the book 4 stars (not 5, as it could do with a bit more detail on the mathematics and mechanics of the networks).

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