In the last few posts (here, here, and here), I have been exploring the mysterious terrains of the future and how that future can be structured. I have attempted to avoid dystopian predictions of that future, even as such a dark possibility is present. I prefer to wage that battle we wage in society and in ourselves on the side of optimism. The future can be welcoming if we structure it to be welcoming. Any dystopian soothsaying should be treated as cautionary and not constructive. But the larger question remains about how we might enact that future; what role do we have as individuals to steward these utopian daydreams into fruition? For me, I find inspiration for this future stewardship in networks.
Caveat: I am a Romantic at heart and I confess to seeing these things through utopian (or at least optimistic) prisms. I don’t apologize for that as it is hope that optimism spurs me along towards this merry little embrace of the future, but it isn’t for everyone. My work, please be reassured, is grounded firmly in reality and experience. The dream behind them, however, is where my romanticism emerges. I will be placing images of network visualizations throughout this post as these networks are the domain of the mind, our cognitive real estate.
Spoiler alert: I believe this cognitive real estate is almost limitless.
Precursor: Academic Communities of Practice in the Humanities
My doctoral work, which I have written about before, focuses on the creation of communities of practice (academic social networks) in the Humanities in East Africa through mobile technology. The work has an intensely pragmatic focus. Basically, a community of academics, currently working without a technical infrastructure and at times in complete isolation, will self-regulate, self-educate, and generate a higher quality (and quantity) of scholarship than before if given a connective environment in which to work. Hence, mobile technology. It already exists, it is already being used as an intelligence (news, sports, calculators, etc.) and communication tool (texting, SMS, etc.), and can be appropriated by the local academic community to expand their reach and scope. It can be used to network isolated communities into functioning academic networks. Better yet, it serves the needs of the Humanities where discussions and collaboration are the bedrocks of knowledge construction. Ideas flow through this community with greater alacrity (or so is my theory) than in others, knowledge is contested here more than others, and strong ties are forged through perpetual discourse. Not only can this community transform itself from isolation to interaction, it can transform that fluid community from weak to strong tied. So is my theory. The doctoral work focuses on the pragmatics. Who is the community and how can they be served.
I chose East Africa (Tanzania, specifically) because of my experience there, partly, and because I see experimentation there, mostly. It is a mostly unfettered cauldron of ideas and experiments designed to do more with less. Such fearlessness in form and structure is not often found in more ‘developed’ nations (at least not in the substrata I am working in). Also, there is potential for great impact, so I proceed with pragmatic goals. The idea is that a connected community will produce (whatever it is they produce; in this case, we are talking about research, knowledge, expertise, even creative work) greater than the sum of its parts. A collective intelligence, if you will. That collective intelligence speaks to the capacity of this community towards autonomy and proving resilient enough to meet the needs of the future.
Beyond Pragmatism: What Dreams May Come
However, those pragmatic goals are founded on conceptual curiosities about how structure emerges in society in the first place and it is here that my work begins to relate to how society ’emerges’ from need, necessity, and desire. There is network theory at work here, some stigmergic collaboration facets, and a general repudiation of zero-sumness in dealing with social networks of any sort. Beyond all that theory, however, I should note that I find networks (especially their visualizations) to be some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. But these visualizations, and I should note I am referring to social network visualizations here, fail in one important aspect: they fail to visualize the generative nature of these things. But first, a classic from Koblin, one that has everything to do with predictability predicated on need and impulse.
What that visualization illustrates, with such beauty, is the general predictability of time, of the strength of connections between points, of the relentlessness of motion. Flow (carbon footprints aside) is desired and is generative. One connection might breed another, connections might falter, networks evolve. But an air grid, however much it might expand, is finite. Presumably the number and frequency of connections reaches an upper limit. This is physical motion. My belief is that cognitive motion, the kind precipitated by large social/academic networks, can expand, if not infinitely, then exponentially. And that expansion is our headlong embrace with the future. That is the forge in which it is crafted.
Zero Sums: Kings of infinite space
This networking of cognitive capacity towards the creation of communities expands our working environment. That air traffic visualization was limited by geography. Our cognitive capacity is not. Where space ceases to exist, we will create new environments in which to interact. That is where we diverge from traditional zero sum arguments, and perhaps where we always have. Socially, a win for me is a win for you. Intellectually, we all win with discovery. Nothing is lost if someone gains (divorce economics from all of this).
In our minds, we are restlessly expansive. Linking that restlessness broadly across a network creates intellectual, emotional, social capacity. This capacity is neutral and must be filtered through ideas to be either good or bad, helpful or harmful. The ideas are the neural highways, even the fuel of intellectual expanse. I hate to use the term viral, but ideas demonstrate the speed at which these networks can adapt and thrive. They move faster than anything I have ever seen. The networks provide the connective environment for them to move with such urgency. By inking cognitive capacity, by networking inquisitive individuals, we are providing an engine for growth that we cannot fully comprehend at this stage of our collective development. This will all be born out in the future, the effects of this connectivity. The networks that thrive, that build on themselves, will have an incredible momentum not unlike the messianic passion of a convert. Networks, like countries, are most dangerous in their infancy. That momentum will continue until the network runs headlong into a stronger network, a greater idea, a more resilient meme. Momentum will be absorbed and rebound. All the while, our real estate expands and expands.
This is a pivotal time in the development of humanity. These connections have and will continue to produce unforeseen expanse and knowledge constructs. In the simplest, most humble of networks, we see a neuron flickering in the darkest recess of an undiscovered country. Some will catch and other neurons will alight; some will flickr and fade. But not many of them will be known to us now.