A part of my research in graduate school included modeling a small,
but influential, network of individuals – the US Supreme Court. I used
the mathematical models tools available. I even represented the court’s
decisions in a Markov chain and computed characteristics like its
You can be excused if you’ve never heard about any of
this or even about Markov chains. Nobody at the time was much
interested either. But I suppose I should have stayed with it, with
books now being published on the impact of the Internet and network
Consider the new book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks.
It was written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, who is Vice Chairman and Co-CEO
of Kissinger Associates, and a member of the board of directors of
Starbucks and FedEx.
It emphasizes the importance of networks and
declaring that there is still a wide-open gap in the tools most of us
have for understanding these networks.
In an interview about the book, he set out his goal:
live in an age where almost everything changes because of
connectivity… The seventh sense is the idea that some people have an
instinct for how this works that’s better, sharper than the rest of us.
The book is designed to teach people how to think about connected
systems so that they can have the same kind of edge. The people who see
what’s coming in financial markets or in politics have that edge. It’s
important that the rest of us develop it, too.”
However, the book
is worth reading for what it is, not what he wants it to be. It is
unusual in probing the subtleties — both positive and negative — of our
network age, not the usual breathless or self-promoting material.
of the book describes the various ways that being connected can change
the characteristics and behavior of businesses, organizations,
governments – everything that we’ve inherited from the industrial era.
has been made in various other reviews and discussions of this book
about its the scary descriptions of security issues and other dangers in
networks. That wasn’t news to me and shouldn’t be news to most network
users who have been paying any attention.
Some people have
complained that the book is so wide ranging and repetitive it can be
frustrating to read. Parts go into related space, where he worries
that it’s not just the network, but artificial intelligence that is
surpassing us in ways we don’t understand. But this isn’t a blog of
literary criticism, so I’ll skip over that and go to the substance.
his day job at Kissinger Associates, I thought the most interesting
themes had to do with the interaction between the new global technology
network and the traditional institutions of government, business and
Two themes, in particular, stand out:
notes that the transition from agricultural to industrial eras was
accompanied by major wars, revolutions and destruction, along with
rising wealth. He asks what similar events are likely to happen in the
transition to a networked age. Perhaps ISIS and this year’s disruptions
in the American Presidential elections are only early warning signs of
what’s to come.
- He ends the book recalling Plato on the
need for wisdom in rulers, after he has presented a picture of two
inadequate sets of rulers – the engineers who control the network, but
do not understand governance and human interactions and the traditional
government leaders who don’t understand then network.
we all seem to be connected, Ramo writes that the Internet is really
divided into various gated communities. He states that “gatedness is
the corollary to connectedness” and this gatedness is a potential
At one point, he worries that you will have to be among
the rulers — presumably those with the seventh sense or at least those
controlling the gates — or the ruled. He says the network gives people
more power against the gatekeepers than in traditional institutions, but
also notes that the average person may nevertheless need to be inside
the gate to lead a satisfactory life and make a living – so there’s
really no choice after all.
Aside from the problem he mentions, why is this important?
no matter their ideology and internal practices, in the past few
centuries, all governments are fundamentally in the business of
controlling a specific bordered territory — maintaining the physical
gates. He posits that the Internet’s gatekeepers — Facebook, or Apple
iOS, etc. —are taking over that role in the cyberworld. He says that
they are the powerful ones to watch out for in future wars between
networks and the state and between networks and other networks.
others have considered the potential of a conflict between governments
and the Internet. Last summer, for example, the Wilson Quarterly had an
article responding to this concern, “The Nation-State: Not Dead Yet”.
biggest weakness in the book and others of this kind is that the lack
of nuance in the discussion of networks. The fact that there can be a
distribution of power and gates in networks doesn’t end the story.
Partly the problem with these books is that the question of what nodes
(and entry points) of a network are most influential isn’t one that
can’t be answered merely in words.
Pictures help convey a bit more, and – going back to my graduate school research – mathematics helps even more.
as you read Ramo’s book and his concerns, you get the sense that his
view of the network is similar to this picture of Indiana University’s
Big Red network:
But perhaps the world outside of such tightly
controlled campuses is more like the collaborative network of Oak Ridge
Or something different.
And although a node’s
place in a network can show its potential influence, these graphs merely
show connections, not actual influence or power. Unfortunately, the
publicly available analysis of influence over the billions of nodes and
endpoints of the Internet is still primitive. Moreover, to his point,
it is also changing.
This book is a bit like Jefferson’s view of
the Louisiana Purchase before the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson
had a sense it was worth buying, but needed to send out scouts to find
out the details. While they didn’t learn everything there was to learn
about the territory, much of what they did learn was changed over time
That too will characterize our understanding of the network we explore each day.
© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved