The Nuances of Today's Multi-Network-based Society

By June 18, 2008

“Networks are everywhere. Yet how much do we really understand about them? This session will link the research of networks and other complex systems with business and cultural impacts,” read one of Supernova 2008’s mission statements. More than a 100 professionals from the world’s technology and information industries congregated at the first session of day two at the conference in order to explore decentralization in the fields of communications and how best to approach the question.

Four speakers took their turns defining society’s networks, our reliance on them, how they interact with one another (or not) and how best to improve the way in which they operate in their current form.

UC Davis’ Raissa d’Souza (photo) defined networks as a group of nodes and edges. She also explored the issue of connectivity. She clarified that within connectivity—and networks in general—context is key. She explained that connectivity was good when concerning the internet, for example, but that it was terrible when involving epidemiology.

So d’Souza’s advice for those seeking to modify networks was to keep situation in mind.

She said that everything related to networks and cited email as an example. The composition of an email would tap into a social network, an electrical system and a cooling, environmental water system.

A fellow speaker took his view in another direction.

“Just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean it works,” said Icosystem founder and Chief-scientist Eric Bonabeau.

He expressed what he described as the pessimist view that networks as they exist are nothing short of useless, finding their potential for improvement grounded in the deceptively simple plan to focus on function rather than on form.

For Bonabeau, networks (e.g. social networks) look charming, but they bring the world no closer.

U-Penn Wharton Business School Professor Shawdra Hill found nodes the actions performed by people, saying that networks could only improve if human behavioral patterns did. Her cohort and fellow-speaker HP Senior Fellow Bernardo Huberman, however, found novelty, attention and the initial grabbing of that attention crucial to the survival of a network.

The professional-packed session sat with rapt attention as these authority figures filled the room with power-point presentations and communication theories.

Supernova has taken place every year for six and began as technology analyst Kevin Werbach’s reaction to a world he saw as changing in an explosive way akin to that of a supernova.

Will these professionals catalyze a sea change in communication as we know it now?

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