Networks and the Information Glut

Everyone knows that we’re living in a time of unprecedented access to information, right? Personally, I’m always a bit skeptical of these grand narratives. To see why, watch this short video showing the social networks of correspondence among 18th Century scientists:

It’s great research that illustrates some important points:

  • When we talk about ‘social networks’ we don’t just mean facebook and twitter. People have always functioned within networks, and these have always been important in the development and spread of ideas. James Fowler makes this same point in his interview with Stephen Colbert.
  • Ideas diffuse through networks. The structure of the networks through which we are trying to get our ideas to spread has a significant influence on the diffusion of our innovations. Our connections within the network can enhance or hinder our ability to get our ideas to spread. One of the reasons that Darwin gets credited with the idea of evolution through natural selection instead of Alfred Russell Wallace is that Darwin’s connections within the scientific community at the time were more numerous, more widespread, and better.
  • Even though we often feel like we’re overwhelmed with information and data to be absorbed, the information glut is nothing new. Think about the volume of connections shown in the video. Or think about Charles Darwin – over the course of scientific career he sent over 15,000 letters. It’s safe to assume that he received just as many. Think about how much time he would have spent reading & writing letters, and how much new information and ideas would have been included in that – it’s probably more than we’re spending writing our blogs, updating our statuses and twittering. In fact, if you just look at the networks, you might argue that Darwin was the Chris Brogan of the 19th Century.

The fundamentals of innovative thought haven’t changed since the 18th Century – it’s always been aggregate, filter and connect. The great thinkers of earlier times corresponded extensively because it helped them aggregate information from a wide variety of disciplines and sources. Once they did this, they had to be skilled at filtering the data to figure out what was useful, and then they had to connect up the filtered data to create innovative ideas.

And, of course, once they had the great ideas, they had to execute them, and then get them to spread. Even though the media that transmits the data to us are different now, aside from that, not much has changed.

(hat tip to Mitch Joel for the video link)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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22 thoughts on “Networks and the Information Glut

  1. Good points, Tim. Something I always keep in the forefront of my memory: the last two chapters of a famous book from the 50’s chronicling the heyday of Taylorism-driven hierarchy (The Organization Man, by William F. Whyte) was all abut the structure and functioning of social networks, in company towns or in (regional) industries. True, virtually all of the networking was defined by what ‘level’ of the corporate / social hierarchy one inhabited.

    But still ..

  2. Thanks Jon! I still haven’t read Whyte yet though I’ve wanted to for a while. I wonder how that might link up with Sean Safford’s network study of Allentown & Youngstown over the second half of the 20th century? Sounds like there is some common ground there…

  3. I wonder how that might link up with Sean Safford’s network study of Allentown & Youngstown over the second half of the 20th century? Sounds like there is some common ground there…

    Don’t know, but somehow I sense that neither of us would be surprised to not be surprised 😉

  4. Thanks for this, but isn’t onemain difference now that it isn’t just the intellectuals (middle class, already well connected males in the main) that are networking, but also the masses who have generally missed out on unearned talent and are making their own cultural capital.

  5. That’s an excellent point Alison. I would agree that that is the probably the main difference, and it is a substantial one. Thanks for the feedback!

  6. So if networking is changing – if the bricoleurs are constructing new knowledge and sharing it, what keeps folk in their place? Educational reproduction (Bourdieu), and the power of the text to classify and frame (Bernstein) are interesting metaphors to throw at this topic. Strong framing within a strong classification of knowledge is divisive, and seeks to maintain a hierarchical educational journey, the marginalised (or sometimes even the masses) have no access to the knowledge within a strongly framed structure except and via the teacher/patron. Change derives from the pressures for symbolic violence and control.
    Where does this take us? (Its late in the UK and still snowing!)

  7. Educational framing is certainly a plausible explanation, I think. I’m not so sure that ‘networking’ is changing. As you point out, the participants are different, but in many ways I think the process is similar…

  8. It’s pretty nice, isn’t it? Every time I watch the video I try to figure out what software they’re using. It’s from Stanford so maybe Linus can help us out…

  9. Pingback: Correspondence
  10. Yeah I am sure he’d know. If that doesn’t work, could just email the dude in the video I guess. Would be a great way of visualising that data we have from the online network!

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