Seven years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the railroad and telegraph in British India and in that I analyzed the effects of those early networks on cultural, political, and economic developments. I’ve always been interested in networks and connectivity amongst humans. If I used to think more about what networks mean, I now think more about making them.
A network formed is beauty at its highest. The fruits of the networks that constitute our deeply interwoven humanity are so bare as to obfuscate the extraordinary complexity and contingencies underlying them. Our society is like a ball of string that can’t be unraveled. But it can be traced, like any ancestry or lineage.
Take the international phone numbering system. Americans take pride in being number one in every way including our phone prefix. It’s no accident that we’re +1; we made it this way because the network of international phone calls traces it’s lineage back to us.
To be fair, Canada and others are included in +1, which is called the North American Number Plan and was created by AT&T. After stitching together regional telephone networks, AT&T defined a schema of connectivity for the world and soon everyone was using our system. We’d call this a standard. The international time system is no different. It was invented by British mariners, so relishes in the prestige of +0? The British, of course. It was a privilege earned by being the first to popularize a standard system of time across the globe.
Those who create networks can’t necessarily maintain control over them. A network can be taken over. Ownership over a railway can be transferred, and a body of the United Nations can take over the administration of an international numbering system. But the standards and paths of connectivity can be very hard to change, whether physical, like a railway, or digital, like the internet.
Once you’ve connected everyone, it becomes hard to justify connecting them in a new way. Take, for example, the development of a railway. This is easy to evaluate as a theoretical. Say you want to connect two places. If a third point between your places is already connected to one, you will most likely connect through that third point rather than directly to the other. The result may be less efficient, but is likely sufficiently cheaper and less complex to implement that you will in most cases decide to follow that path. This is an example of path dependence, of lineage is an artifact. Digital and physical networks are similar in this regard.
Though somewhat more transmutable and less apparent by the nature of bits, digital networks exist the way they do today because all of the previous versions of those networks that preceded them. Protocol wars are never fun but once the “internet” emerged from the general acceptance of the TCP/IP protocol, there has been no going back. Blockchain based networks, ever-hyped with justified potency, still run on these seemingly ancient digital rails. There is no need to go into the detail of complex the routing of internet traffic is, but suffice to say companies and Cloudflare and Akamai wouldn’t exist if the efficient routing of bits were a simple problem. Social networks, a level abstracted, have a similar character.
Facebook connected the world, but the world could have been connected in so many others ways. It’s not necessarily obvious why the paths taken by railways really matter. They may be a bit roundabout in some cases, and spur economic development in slightly different areas, but what’s the matter if everyone is connected? How significant is it really that we anchor our time with Britain and that entirety of the world can save one or two keypresses when dialing North America? How different different would the world be if the internet protocol were developed predominantly by, say, the Soviets?
In truth, it’s hard to know. Butterfly effect arguments are easy to make but rarely provide counterfactuals. Soviets would have probably made a less open, and more easily government controllable network. Packets, for example, could tell us more about their intent.
In the case of Facebook, it’s clear that the impact is large, as evidenced by the vigorous debates on the subject today. What is clear is that every connection made today will impact all connections made in the future, that is, until those networks are entirely deprecated by the better, newer. Certainly rail networks in the US don’t matter too much for passenger transit in the jet era. Blockchain-based mesh networks may entirely replace the internet in sooner than anyone could think. Nothing lasts forever. But as ill-equipped as we may be to plan forever, we can at least see a few steps ahead.
When building a network, it’s worth considering not only where you’re going, but where others will go from it. Beyond the poetic, if selfish, pride taken in defining the standards and terms, a reward for physicists who manifest new particles or for those who name the streets in a new town, there’s a functional element to these affairs.
I discuss at length the upcoming digital networks, particularly those related to blockchain and the unstoppable, but what are more important to me now are the upcoming human networks.
Humans used to connect in networks roughly by regional proximity, with the protocols being language, culture, and religion. The digital world has us connected ad hoc across the globe (and potentially beyond, as we venture out to space). Some of these connections are deeply troubling, such as the global jihadist terror movement which inspired or directed the recently Islamist terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, but the optimist in me believes that we will begin to form similar networks for good.
The world is ripe for new networks of human connection by interests and value instead of proximity and familiarity. That’s an extraordinarily idealistic statement coming from me, but note my word choice. I said ripe. It’s not inevitable. Only through our agency can we actualize such networks. There is has yet to be a great protocol for human, and certainly none from which to choose a standard. Some of the major world religions have done an extraordinary job of connecting people across the world, but they are at the same time losing influence in most developed nations. If that trend continues as the rest of the world develops, there will be a huge void to fill.
In that void will lie an opportunity. Let’s think about how to better connect people for the world of our near future. If we succeed, the norms we set could carry forward for generations to come. We may be gone, but could forever be a part of that network lineage.