Only Connect

The blackout last Thursday has produced some hyperbolic hysteria about the perils and vulnerability that come with being so interconnected. But decentralized interconnection is also a source of stability and growth, both physically and economically. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist and author of Linked FINISH, had an oped in Saturday’s New York Times about the pros and cons of interconnectedness.

The effect of power blackouts, economic crises and terrorism can easily be limited or even eliminated if we are willing to cut the links. Strictly local energy production would guarantee that each blackout would also be strictly local.

But severing the ties would also cripple the network. Shutting down international trade would surely eliminate the impact of the Japanese central bank on the American economy, but it would also guarantee a global economic meltdown. Closing our borders would reduce the chance of terrorist attacks, but it would also risk the American dream of diversity and openness.

The events of the past few days ó unwanted side effects of our network society ó are just one of the periodic reminders that we live in a globalized world. While celebrating that everybody on earth is only six handshakes from us, we need to accept that so are their problems and vulnerabilities.

Yesterday Slashdot had a link to a 1999 Wired article on the myth of order in software. The article is about how software is essentially a bottom-up-effort whose relevance to the problems at hand changes over time, and that few people realized that until they had to confront Y2K.

But I think the most insightful, useful and inspiring commentary comes from Paul Phlip at Long Harvest:

This is how networks operate. Networks are feedback. Feedback modulates and exaggerates the effects of small, unexpected events. They are all flow and flux. A network as complex as the power grid is never the same network twice. New connections are made every moment. Information technology changes the shape of society daily. The grid must not only supply our power, it also must follow us around as we work at home, create new businesses, launch new web sites, connect more partners, and share more music. Too keep up with us, our networks become smarter. …

… life exists at the frontier between order and chaos. Life seeks out turbulence and flux and creates itís own opportunity for living. Life is an entrepreneur.

Chaos won yesterday. The lesson of this loss is that networks arenít machines. We cannot control networks the way we control machines. We must decentralize our control, distribute intelligence and allow the network to learn and adapt. We will find someone to blame and throw some bums out of office. We will serve ourselves well if, at the same time, we add to our ability to trust innovation.

Allow the network to learn and adapt. That is a set of capabilities that regulation has done very poorly at enabling.