You Are The Network

First there was the Stone Age. Then we learned how to manipulate and smelt metals, develop tools for hunting and farming implements, which led to an Agrarian age. From there, machines helped bring about the Industrial age, then the Space Age. So where are we now?
Shall we call it the Network Age?
Robert Metcalf co-invented Ethernet, the idea of a packet based, distributed network, and formulated Metcalf’s law, which states (paraphrased): “the value of a network, is proportional to the square of the number of connected users.” Or stated more simply, the utility of a connected ‘thing’ increases as more and more ‘things’ are connected. The telephone acts as an easy example. One phone by itself is a paperweight, but one million connected to the same network is immeasurably powerful.
We live in a day of increasing connectivity, and increasing expectations we have as a result. Think back to just a few years before the ubiquitousness of the internet. How did we look up information? A phone book for a phone number? An encyclopedia for random information? How did we we find more targeted information? How well did a movie perform on its opening weekend? Who won the academy award for best actress in 1980? What was the high temperature in Nagasaki yesterday? These questions required real research. Today, they require only a smart phone, tablet or any web connected device. Even a smart watch will provide you with answers in milliseconds. We expect this, therefore we ARE changed by this new reality.
In short, the very nature of a thing changes with connectivity. This applies to us as well. As people, we are changed as a result of our ready access to a near limitless supply of information, facts, anecdotes and even dumb cat memes on social media. It’s not just the availability of this information, it’s how we live our lives knowing we have this access.
I remember years ago, likely in the late 80’s, working with a customer and arguing for the utility of networking their office PCs. At the time, each person had their own printer and files were moved from desk to desk via floppy. I failed in making my case and, I’ll note, they were out of business a few short years later. I am not implying causality, but a company today that doesn’t see the change in the world around them will likely see a similar fate in their future.
No one of us can pretend to live, work, or play in isolation any longer. Whether we are a fisherman in southern China or an executive on wall street, we are connected to each other by virtue of our connections to technology.
By extension, the isolationist aims of some politicians simply fail to recognize our world today. Some foreign governments have tried to shut down some internet sites or censor access entirely. Some succeed, while many fail, while still others have been overthrown. Remember the Arab Spring? No, the Egyptian situation wasn’t the fault of internet censorship, but the power of a network community of people gave voice to a populace in a way not previously seen. In addition, this connectivity has brought about a profound change in many third world countries. To stop jobs from moving overseas one would have to shut down the Internet to prevent companies from using overseas labor.
As a result of this increased connection, this ease by which we can communicate across vast distances instantaneously, we have seen a gradual leveling of the playing field. In many of these lands, education levels are improving, as are employment opportunities, even while standards of living improve. With a good network connection, one can live anywhere, and work for anyone that doesn’t require onsite employees. This connectivity has fundamentally shifted the balance of power in the world, by increasing opportunities for everyone.
We can no more become isolationist than we can revert to a stone age society. Not one of us would stand for it. Life and history only move in one direction.
To fully grasp our connectivity, we must look at the speed of life today. How long did it take someone to research an article, paper, or book 50 years ago? How long did it take to travel to Europe 100 years ago and at what cost? How much did a long distance call cost only a generation ago? Today, anyone can make a video call with someone anywhere on the globe instantly, and at an effective cost of zero. How has this changed us?
Speed has a profound effect on our lives. From expectations of traffic when traveling or commuting, to responsiveness of websites when shopping, to knowing our bank balance in real time, at any time of day. Speed is an extension of convenience. Would you rather go to a mall to purchase a book today, or order one online from Amazon? Better yet, log on with your kindle and have it instantly. Retail bookstores, and ultimately retailers in general, began to close their doors with a few years of each expansion of Amazon’s offerings.
Similarly, in years past, we chose to live based on schools for our children and where we worked. Today, a growing number of people work remotely, while still more take advantage of online schooling. Speed, and our expectations of it, has changed everything.
At the same time, we always demand more speed. We are hardwired to be more efficient, even to be lazy. To do more, in less time, with less effort. Build a bigger, wider, highway and more traffic will find it. Increase the speed of a network, more people will use it. Unsure about this? Try driving through traffic in LA or Toronto.
These changes have negative consequences as well as positive ones. Napoleon realized the value of the third dimension when mounting his armies. He recognized that air superiority could win the day, and so he introduced artillery and other air-born weapons not yet seen by his rivals. Similarly, the United States leveraged the air to save the day in World War I. In the 20th century, nations battled nations, and the winner, while both carrying superior resources, numbers and power, was ultimately the victor by recognizing a strategic advantage before their enemies.
Today, the nature of power has shifted, and world leaders face an ugly future if they fail to see it. So too must business leaders recognize this paradigm shift in the world and, by extension, in their customers, partners, and even employees. Amazon killed far larger retailers with their business model. Apple’s iTunes fundamentally changed the music industry, while Netflix forced the shuttering of Blockbuster stores. The common theme is seeing a different future brought about by connection. A world simply not possible prior to a widespread, universally accessed network. The power is in the network, and those who understand and leverage this, will rule the future.
Sadly, the ugly side of this is that many terrorist networks have figured out how to leverage networks and connectivity before our traditional world leaders. Just as military strength ruled the day in the previous century, network power and understanding it, will rule tomorrow’s world.
At the same time, we must also recognize we are the sum of our connections. As the network grows, so grows our value. The tide is rising and so to are all the ships. Each additional point or connection to us, no matter how remote or small, increases the overall value of us and our collective networks.
As we look to the future, we must understand this is more than another ‘paradigm shift’ in our society. This amounts to a redistribution of power in ways heretofore unknown in human experience.
In days gone by, power was concentrated among the few. Military leaders, the clergy, and wealthy merchants controlled most of the worlds power up until the 17th century. The industrial age saw power slowly redistributing as capitalism took hold, and led to the rise of the middle class.
Today however, networks both concentrate power among those who control networks, while also distributing it to users. More power has been placed in the hands of ‘everyman’ than ever before.
Networks are also made up of many complicated pieces. Routers, servers and switches make up the technical backbone. These are complicated items, but predictable and understandable. Together, they make up a complex system. Complex things are randomized, and unpredictable. A car is complicated, but predictable (at least to some extent). Traffic is complex. Both have complicated pieces, but complex things are more unpredictable. Like the weather, ocean currents, or storms.
In addition, complex systems lead to the creation of things previously unfathomable. Think about LinkedIn, Facebook or Snapchat as contemporary examples. Without their network of users, they are single web pages. They are nothing. Similarly, Uber, Airbnb, and other examples have led to the creation of new systems previously unimaginable. These businesses have also arisen with remarkable speed, and created immense riches for their founders.
Sadly, terrorist groups have also formed upon these network backbones. Isis emerged from this complexity. This process of creation of the unimaginable, is only just accelerating.
Networks contain enormous power at their core. To control such a system is arguably to control anyone connected to it, or at least to dramatically influence those users or connections. When we do a Google search, do we trust the results implicitly or second guess them?
Today’s networks are increasingly led by a young, technically savvy group of Technorati with limited experience with our world history, its politics or philosophy. Yet our world is led by a group of leaders with no experience with these new networks. We cannot go back, we can only look forward.
To quote Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of ‘The Seventh Sense’, who does a wonderful job of summarizing this new world order, “One thing is clear. If we are going to play a role in shaping our world. We don’t have much time.”
And remember, you are the network.