Our Tightly Networked World: Blessing and Curse

David Shaywitz

Technology has been hailed for its ability to connect us; we’ve tended to view this is a positive development, but as rare, high-impact events like the coronavirus epidemic reminds us, a densely-networked world may also be more fragile.

The mixed blessing of interconnectivity was acknowledged back in 2005 by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who observed:

“…we are now in the process of connecting all the knowledge pools in the world together. We’ve tasted some of the downsides of that in the way that Osama bin Laden has connected terrorist knowledge pools together through his Qaeda network, not to mention the work of teenage hackers spinning off more and more lethal computer viruses that affect us all. But the upside is that by connecting all these knowledge pools we are on the cusp of an incredible new era of innovation, an era that will be driven from left field and right field, from West and East and from North and South.” 

For techno-optimists like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, improved interconnectivity catalyzes what they call “recombinant innovation.” This is the idea that “the global digital network” enables us to “mix and remix ideas, both old and recent, in ways we never could before.” 

They continue:

“Digitization makes available massive bodies of data relevant to almost any situation, and this information can be infinitely reproduced and reused because it is non-rival.  As a result of these two forces, the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying as never before.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee add, “as the number of building blocks explode, the main difficulty is knowing which combinations of them will be valuable.”

Enabling promising ideas to be shared certainly sounds like a promising premise if the global community is collectively seeking cures for cancer or approaches to sustainability. But what about when the agenda is less benevolent? Increased connectivity enables members of hate groups to find each other and mobilize. It also helps autocrats gain and maintain power (see this New York Magazine article, “Facebook Used the Philippines to Test Free Internet. Then a Dictator Was Elected”).

While many technologists see a fundamental strength of technology as its ability to quickly reach global scale – Facebook, as I recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal book review, now connects about a third of the humans on our planet – huge scale is not an unalloyed good.  While 10 distinct communities may not benefit from the efficiencies that might be possible from a single large community, they would also not be as susceptible to rare but harmful events, so-called “black swans.”

As Nassim Taleb (who popularized this term and concept in his 2007 book, The Black Swan [my Wall Street Journal review here]) writes in his 2012 treatise, Antifragile:

“Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called ‘efficiency’ that makes people now sail too close to the wind….One problem somewhere can halt the entire project… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.  

And the information economy is the culprit.”

The risks of such rare, concerning events are of course especially on our minds today in the context of Covid-19. Taleb anticipated this in a supplemental essay he wrote for the paperback edition of The Black Swan when it appeared in 2010: “As we travel more on this planet, epidemics will be more acute—we will have a germ population dominated by a few numbers, and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively.”

Niall Ferguson (author The Square and the Tower, about the historical impact of networks) argues in a recent Wall Street Journal essay that you can’t understand epidemics without a sophisticated understanding of networks. “Standard epidemiological models,” he writes, “tend to understate the threat posed by a virus such as 2019-nCoV, because they don’t take account of the topology of the social networks that transmit it.” 

In particular, says Ferguson, traditional theories tend not to incorporate “the social-network hubs known as ‘superspreaders.’”

This is exactly the concern Taleb had originally articulated in The Black Swan. A fundamental property of networks, Taleb writes, is that:

“there is a concentration among a few nodes that serve as central connections.  Networks have a natural tendency to organize themselves around an extremely concentrated architecture: a few nodes are extremely connected [analogous to the superspreaders]; others barely so…. Concentration of this kind is not limited to the Internet; it appears in social life (a small number of people are connected to others), in electricity grids, in communications networks. This seems to make networks more robust: random insults to most parts of the network will not be consequential since they are likely to hit a poorly connected spot. But it also makes networks more vulnerable to Black Swans.”

It’s difficult to imagine that we are likely to return (willingly) to a less-networked world. But this also doesn’t mean we need to reflexively embrace every effort to expand and intensify our networks.

I suspect Taleb’s instincts may be right: large, taut networks promising efficiency in the short run may endanger us down the line, and we might do well to deliberately trade a measure of immediate convenience for more durable stability. Our challenge – both individually and collectively — is to figure out how best to achieve this trade-off, and learn how we can most effectively leverage the power and promise of networks without succumbing to their pronounced vulnerabilities.