October 1, 2012

The Rule of Network Change


                 “U.S. Preparing for a Long Siege of Arab Unrest,” the front page of the New York Times proclaimed. The tragic killings of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya and the spreading of unrest throughout the Muslim world “may presage a period of sustained instability,” the article warned.

                Welcome to the new networked world. Strong regimes once controlled the streets by controlling the flow of information. Now, the anarchy of openness that is the Web replicates itself in the streets.

                The open Internet which helped the Arab Spring blossom has this time delivered death and destruction. An incendiary video that normally would have had the effect of a tree falling in an empty forest now races around the world masquerading as if it were relevant.

                New communications technology has done it again. For 600 years new network technology has challenged social stability by reshaping the nature of human interaction. At one time the inability of ideas to travel was a source of stability. That all changed when printing technology created the original information revolution. The network of 15th and 16th century printers churned out books, pamphlets, and broadsides that took ideas and opinion on the road. In the mid-19th century the railroad accelerated that road-trip by introducing speed to the distribution of information. Then the networks of the 20th and 21st centuries turned on the electronic afterburners to make the flow of information widespread and instantaneous.

The current upheaval over a stupid video is the latest manifestation of the Rule of Network Change:  that new technology replaces old structures before it is sufficiently mature to provide the requisite stability. It is no wonder that throughout history new networks have produced new wars as society struggled to find new bearings. Europe was plunged into 150 years of war after the printing press propagated ideas challenging the Holy Roman Empire. The American Civil War was the bloody consequence of the railroad and telegraph dismantling the geographic isolation that had allowed one section of the country to maintain its “peculiar institution.”

The physical insulation provided by geography has always been the first victim of a new network. The ideas of Martin Luther were not new, for instance; but previous innovative thinkers lacked the ability to meaningfully distribute their ideas beyond a local area. Just as the printing press propagated Luther’s ideas across the geography to literally set Europe ablaze, so is the Internet providing scope and scale to ideas and information that were formerly physically constrained. The distribution of a video was once limited by how many copies of the physical product the producer could afford to make and mail in the hope someone would notice. Today worldwide distribution for stupid cat videos or stupid religious videos requires only network access.

The openness of the new network overcomes the structural controls developed over time to oversee the flow of information. While this is positive when it ends the information control of repressive regimes, the same technology also means bypassing the controls once exercised in a free expression environment as well. The New York Times’ famous motto, “All the news that’s fit to print,” assumed an editorial role in determining fitness. To make the front page of the paper, or the radio or television newscast, required passing through the eye of not one, but two needles. The first was a decision about credibility and relevance, the second was the limited physical space available in the newspaper or newscast. The new network has made these tests quaint artifacts of a bygone era.

The new network is one without any needle eyes. Content vetting has been delegated to the consumer, and physical scarcity no longer exists. Google, Facebook, YouTube, or any of the Internet’s information sources are collectors of information, not curators of information. “Fit to print” has been removed from the information equation. And when YouTube reportedly receives 72 hours of uploaded video every minute (!) not only is there no space limitation, but also the concept of information curation is simply overwhelmed.

The history of new networks is the story of how prevailing practices ultimately were forced to yield to the new realities of increased interconnection. In retrospect the changes imposed by history’s networks appear evolutionary and logical. In reality, they were chaotic periods of upheaval, pain and displacement. Amidst this chaos, however, these periods were eras of such great opportunity creation that historians end up giving them special appellations: the Reformation and Renaissance (printing), and the Industrial Age (railroad and telegraph). We have named our era the Information Age as though it is already in the history books. The violence in the Arab world, however, reminds us that we are living in the chaos and confusion of an historical period that is far from concluded. 

In every previous network revolution new practices have developed to balance never-imagined technology with ever-required stability. Certainly, that will be the ultimate outcome with our new network as well. History makes it clear, however, that the path to such a solution is neither swift nor painless. We are moving from an ordered and hierarchical world controlled by hierarchical networks to a world in which distributed networks disperse power in a disorderly manner. With that change comes the need for judgment and acceptance, as well as flexibility and respect – whether the recipient is ready for them or not. 

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