All 2 entries tagged Network Effect

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October 20, 2005

Book Review: small world networks and other amazing coincidences

Book front cover
Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks
Mark Buchanan
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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March 12, 2005

Noise against visual imagination, and the refrain (or how Leibniz would like cinema)

Against noise

Faced with white noise, a void, extreme intensity or excessive speed of modulation, a refrain offers some relief. It is an expression, but one that operates in a tightly closed loop. In the case of a typical human refrain, a song, the singer sings the refrain back to themself. Its content is the human organic form, deterritorialized into the simple, familiar and predictable form of the song. It may continue at great length with little effect on either the singer or the song, until exhaustion sends them to sleep. It is in this way a closing-down, a retreat into simplicity and predictability, away from the world (into the baroque house, for which the harmony and melody of the song build the impenetrable facade): an expression yes, but only just. Almost zero.

The refrain is a desperate defence, a second-level immune response to the failure of the visual imagination. A defence against the penetrating incursion of the sonorous plane, passing through the blockade of the visual imagination. To understand this, first consider how that sonorous plane penetrates and defeats visual defences, how it passes through the image (Bacon's screaming pope).

The defensive imagination

The image, which can be re-presented instantly and switched at will, provides an effective and impenetrable barrier to the exterior, as with the portrait, the image of the ascending head, or the church steeple in Kafka. Deleuze and Guattari argue that these images act not as simple memories, reactivating the past, but rather as means for handling the encounter with uncertainty or the future, finding strength in a certain relation to at least ine object that may be assimilated (the end of the desire):

…it acts as a childhood block, and not as a childhood memory, strengthening desire instead of cramping it, displacing it in time, deterritorializing it, proliferating its connections, linking it to other intensities.

The image acts as a block in both senses: a block as an element or screen that can be placed upon a new territory and onto which connections can be territorialized or projected, carrying away desire into a concentratory dispositif; a block to the chaotic and disruptive effects of that proliferation of connections, a delay, a spacing-out. Its power as such lies in four aspects:

  1. the speed with which the image can be conjured, with all of its points present almost imediately – how all that is needed is a few suggestive points, lines and colours;
  2. how it is constantly rescanned and reconfirmed in perception;
  3. how an image can appear solid and enclosing, blocking out and constituting an exterior;
  4. how the image creates an expansive but delimited territory of co-ordinates, in which expression or a procedure of desire (deterritorialization and reterritorialization) may play (the baroque house).
The scream cuts across and penetrates the image

In Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari say of the image (portrait or figuration):

But that's not important. What's important is the light music, or, more precisely, the pure and intense sound emanating from the steeple and the castle tower: "a bell began to ring merilly up there, a bell that for at least a second made his heart palpitate for its tone was menacing, too, as if it threatened him with the fulfillment of his vague desire. This great bell soon died away, however, and its place was taken by a feeble, monotonous little twinkle." Kafka D&G p.4

Whereas the image acts to concentrate, focus and strengthen the desire within a delimited space, sound is said to interfere with order, connecting with 'vague' or minor expressions that are not oriented towards the reconstitution of the territory of the image. Unlike vision, sound leaks through spatial structures, resonates throughout the body, and concentrates into the ears. Its passage through the meat and chambers of the bodily organs overrides their functions: the stomach now is equivalent to a double bass in terms of resonation – suddenly the voice, the location of human sound, is displaced by a more animal sonic body (think whales):

It's curios how the intrusion of sound often occurs in Kafka…Music always seems caught up in an indivisible becoming-child or becoming-animal, a sonorous block that opposes the visual memory. Kafka D&G p.4–5

The cinema is the place for experiencing this effect. (It is the baroque house of The Fold.) The cinema is constructed as a radical interplay of the sonorous and visual planes. Visual imagination is territorialized upon the screen or perceptual block, both cutting out the exterior, offering a concentration of light and colour, whilst spatializing and slowing down (into the narrative of the film, which is spatial not temporal). But at the same time, sound penetrates the body in deep surround-sound rumbles and piercing dolby screams.


Of course any sensible movie director knows not to leave the audience immersed for too long at the point of this schizophrenic collision of visual and audio fields. As the scream fades away into the night, a more familiar pattern of notes rises from low down in the auditorium, as if from the galloping hooves that carry us safely from the scene of brutality. Sing the refrain back to the world, which doesn't expect it, doesn't ask for it. But the refrain sure makes us feel more easy sleeping at night. Sing yourself to sleep.