Monday, June 30, 2008

Network Centrality: Making Us Stupid, Says Atlantic Monthly

"Is Google Making Us Stupid?" asks Nicholas Carr on the cover of this month's Atlantic Monthly. In a nutshell, Carr laments the decline of "deep reading" and suspects that we are losing "deep thinking" as well. I would not argue the "deep reading" point, but the connection to "deep thinking" is debatable and surely this excellent rebuttal is not the last blog post that will take Carr to task.

Here I will argue Carr on a different point. About two-thirds into his essay, he says:
"Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the men who founded Google, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence. 'The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,' Page said in a speech a few years back. 'For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.' In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, 'Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.' ....

[Carr continues] "Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ.... Still, their easy assumption that we’d all 'be better off' if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized."
Two counterarguments immediately come to mind in response to the above:
  1. For many of us, it is quite natural to believe that intelligence can be the output of a mechanical process. I suspect I am in a minority on this point, so for those who are curious to consider intelligence outside the stuff of brains, I simply recommend the book, The Mind's Eye, a collection of essays around this topic edited by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.
  2. In the passage above, there is a belief espoused explicitly by Brin and implicitly by Carr that is even more unsettling (at least to me) than the notion of mechanized intelligence: That we'd be "better off" if we were smarter. Read Carr's entire essay and you'll see that, just like his essay title suggests, he is very pro-smart and anti-dumb. I'll grant that with more intelligence, we have a way to boast of being "better than..."; but being "better off" is another question altogether.
In short, Carr's passion for intelligence combined with his strict accounting of its boundaries are a recipe for fundamentalism.


My regular readers may be wondering what happened to the "celebration of competitiveness" that I promised last time. Or maybe, what does any of this have to do with networks? Good questions. I beg your patience, dear reader-- I just could not resist this tangent, and I promise to celebrate centrality, measurement, and competitiveness soon. Meanwhile, I close with this chapter from the Tao Te Ching, which comments on the consequences of increasing intelligence:

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Network Centrality: More Current Events

Last week we kicked off our "Separation of Network Power" series in honor of the June 12 Supreme Court ruling on hearings for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

This week we'll continue the series, inspired by Congressional action of June 19 to let the White House and phone companies off the hook for warrantless tapping of domestic US communications since 2001.

Showing how far one branch of government can implicitly subjugate itself to another, Congressional Democrats claimed victory for including a special clause in the law that prohibits the White House from breaking it. In the words of the NY Times:
The most important [White House] concession that Democratic leaders claimed was an affirmation that the intelligence restrictions were the “exclusive” means for the executive branch to conduct wiretapping operations in terrorism and espionage cases. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had insisted on that element, and Democratic staff members asserted that the language would prevent Mr. Bush, or any future president, from circumventing the law. The proposal asserts “that the law is the exclusive authority and not the whim of the president of the United States,” Ms. Pelosi said.

In the wiretapping program approved by Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House asserted that the president had the constitutional authority to act outside the courts in allowing the National Security Agency to focus on the international communications of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists and that Congress had implicitly authorized that power when it voted to use military force against Al Qaeda.

Network centrality and the executive branch make for tough competitors in the struggle not only to separate but also to balance the powers of the collective. Last time I lamented the dark side of centrality and competition. Next time I'll celebrate the good side.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Network Centrality: Size Does Matter

Today, the summer solstice, ranks with sunrises and full moons as one of the original inspirations to human time-telling and measurement. Here is a a classic New Yorker cartoon showing what that moment might have looked like.

We have come a long way since then. As recounted by author Dava Sobel, our ability to measure time with precision turned out to be the final critical breakthrough that enabled us to navigate across oceans, rather than simply drift and hope for a safe harbor to appear on the horizon. As the cartoon attests, however, we paid a high psychological price for this ticket to global connectedness. We measure time not just to travel over the horizon but also to worry about getting there soon enough.

So it is with network centrality. No matter what kind of network centrality catches your fancy, it can both empower you to navigate farther and more accurately across great "distances," and it can nag you with the question of how well you measure up.

One big difference between time and centrality is that unlike time, which rests on rhythms of nature (earth, moon, sun, cesium atoms, etc), centrality is a mathematical abstraction with a maddeningly circular non-grounding in reality. In other words, when it comes to centrality, "perception is reality." Martin Kilduff and David Krackhardt argue this much more rigorously in their Analysis of the Internal Market for Reputation in Organizations, which states: "We found that being perceived to have a prominent friend boosted reputation, but that actually having such a friend had no effect." The implications of this result for the practice of ONA consulting could not be more profound.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Network Centrality: All Your Links Are Belong to Us

Yesterday was a full moon. Tomorrow is the longest day of the year. What better day to celebrate the brightest metric known to network science: centrality.

Connectedness celebrates centrality by putting Google, the world's most popular centrality-based tool, to work. For any set of keywords you can imagine, Google points you to the center of that universe. Each link below does exactly that, using the highlighted text as the keywords. Results are real-time and may change after this post goes to press.
No celebration of centrality would be complete without asking, "What universe am I the center of?" For Connectedness, the answer is: sears refrigerator customer service repairman. To all my readers, let me say: Welcome to the inner sanctum.

While you're celebrating having "arrived," let me add that this weekend is the fourth birthday of Connectedness. All the more reason for jubilation.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2007 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Holy Trinity of Network Power

Last Thursday the US Supreme Court ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have a right to hear and to challenge the reasons for their detention.

Eric M. Freedman, a habeas corpus expert at Hofstra University Law School, called the decision "a structural reaffirmation of what the rule of law means," and said it was as important a ruling on the separation of powers as the Supreme Court has ever issued, according to the NY Times.

Dating back at least to ancient Greeks, the separation of powers traditionally splits state power into three parts: executive, legislative, and judicial.

Over the next few posts, Connectedness will celebrate the separation of powers by comparing each of its three components to three notable pillars of the network perspective: centrality, clustering, and structural equivalence.

Stay tuned for something like this:



Easy-to-Remember Stereotype



Tyrannical Dictator



Mob of Special Interests


Structural Equivalence

Politically Unaccountable Intelligentsia

Hopefully by July 4th, we'll have celebrated all three.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fathers of Connectedness

This Sunday is Father's Day. Here's a great picture of my dad growing up in St. Louis (far right, age 9):
My dad is first on the list of Fathers of Connectedness, naturally, because he's my dad. But he's also first on the list because his gift for letters and sense of humor inspired my own love of writing, which is the main reason Connectedness continues to exist.

My grandfather (wearing the tie) is next after my dad. He was a shoe salesman, but in that seemingly common role he had the singular opportunity to tour the country with Robert Wadlow, the tallest human being who ever lived. (Presumably Mr. Wadlow also wore the biggest pair of shoes ever cobbled.) Kudos to Grandpa for his marketing savvy, a quality I strive for with each post to this blog.

On my mother's side of the family, two more fathers have clear ties to Connectedness. My mother's father, Alan Foust, is the source of my inner engineer. He co-founded the Department of Chemical Engineering at Lehigh University, later served the College as Dean, and is the one grandparent I knew best. I was too young to appreciate his academic stature at the time, but I certainly understood his inexhaustible energy for explaining things. Whenever people wonder how I can go on and on about the same thing --long after the original question is answered-- that's me and my Grandpop doing our thing.

My mother's mother's father (aka my great-grandfather) was also a professor: Ralph W. Aigler. I never knew him at all, but he is certainly my most famous relative. Someone on Wikipedia really thinks he is famous, anyway. My favorite parts from the Wikipedia article include:
Ralph W. Aigler, law professor at the University of Michigan from 1910–1954, was a renowned expert on real property law and one of the advisors to the American Law Institute in the drafting of the Restatement of the Law of Property.

He is best known, however, for his contributions to the athletics programs at the University of Michigan. Aigler's contributions included leading Michigan back into the Big Ten Conference, leading the effort to construct Michigan Stadium, and negotiating the Big Ten's exclusive contract with the Rose Bowl starting in 1946. He was inducted into the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1982.

Aigler was the voice of the University, and at times of the Big Ten, on athletics eligibility and rules issues. In 1925, Aigler defended intercollegiate athletics against charges that they had a negative effect on institutions of higher learning. Aigler said that the harm done by athletics was almost nothing when compared to the evils caused by "common loafing." "The greatest vice in American college life today is loafing," said Aigler. "There is no doubt that this far overshadows the harm created by intercollegiate athletics. No one would be more pleased than I to see a Phi Beta Kappa (honorary scholarship society) man receive as much recognition by the public as do our leading athletes. But such a condition would be contrary to human nature. Intellectual attainments do not make such an appeal, and that is why athletics are so prominent in colleges and universities today."
It's great to hear voices from the intellectual mountaintop offering humble encouragement to regular human nature.

Speaking of regular human nature... The Wikipedia article on Great-Grandfather Aigler omits the part of his life story I know best. When he was 58, his wife died of breast cancer. When he remarried at the age of 60, his new wife was 27 (5 years younger than her new step-daughter, aka my grandmother). Here are the newlyweds, enjoying the beginning of their 19-year happy affair that lasted until his death at 79.

Thanks, Dad! And thanks, all my other fathers!
Love, Bruce

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Cell phone spying, physics, and ethics

Laszlo Barabasi, network maven and author of Linked, has moved to Boston, where he now directs the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University (CCNR). Yesterday, the Center made headlines around the world after announcing that they had tracked the whereabouts of 100,000 cell phone users. The subjects of this experiment did not know they were being followed non-stop for 6 months.

The BBC headline was "Mobile phones expose human habits," which generated this post from Raph Koster, noting that the main technical result of the study (related to the "power law") is hardly as surprising as the researchers claim. (See Shirky for more on power laws; and if you really want to know, see Mark Neuman's scholarly explanation of why they pop up everywhere.)

American news coverage slanted away from the technical findings of the study and focused more on its dubious ethics. The passages below are from this this Reuters story published by the New York Times, and from yesterday's Boston Globe:
"Researchers who spied on 100,000 people using their cell phone signals confirmed on Wednesday that most human beings are indeed creatures of habit."

"The first-of-its-kind study by Northeastern University raises privacy and ethical questions for its monitoring methods, which would be illegal in the United States."

"'This is a new step for science,' said study co-author Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, director of Northeastern's Center for Complex Network Research. 'For the first time we have a chance to really objectively follow certain aspects of human behavior.'"

"Barabasi said he spent nearly half his time on the study worrying about privacy issues.... Barabasi said he did not check with any ethics panel. [Barabasi's co-author] Hidalgo said they were not required to do so because the experiment involved physics, not biology. However, had they done so, they might have gotten an earful, suggested bioethicist Arthur Caplan at the University of Pennsylvania."
I am confused about a couple things here. Is "physics" the most appropriate name we have for the science of observing human habits and movement? And even more importantly, what does it mean that physics experiments do not need oversight by an ethics panel?

I am also sad to see that the URL for the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University is

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Ownership and the Power of Networks

An invitation to learn about "The Power of Human Networks®" crossed my desk recently. There's still time for you to join the webinar hosted by and featuring Myra Norton of Community Analytics among others.

I was fascinated to learn that Community Analytics now owns a registered trademark for "The Power of Human Networks®". Thank goodness they don't have a patent on human networks, or I'd be out of business.

Networks by nature tend to blur ownership for the benefit of collective power, and registering a trademark is among the clearest ways to claim ownership and thereby increase individual power. Wow! Fascinated by the interplay of these three concepts, I searched the US Patent and Trademark Office database to see who else owns a stake in "power" and "networks". The owners of these trademarks are surprisingly few. One is, whose CEO owns "The Power of Your Network. Squared®". Hardly a threat to Community Analytics. The only real competition I see in the trademark archives is "Strategic Power Networks®", which is owned by strategic futurist Mary O’Hara-Devereaux, whose firm Global Foresight helps clients "Get to the future... Fast."

No review of "network" trademarks ("power"-ful or otherwise) would be complete without a bow to Sun Microsystems, which registered "The Network Is the Computer®" back in 1996. The slogan is only more powerful 12 years later. Sometimes I wonder if Sun got to the future a bit too fast with its slogan. Network power, just like a good joke, requires a talent for timing.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.