How the Science of Networks Pervades Everything we Do


Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási wrote about the new science of networks prior to the founding of Facebook. His account of how everything is connected to everything else is remarkably accurate 13 years later, when the science of networks has taken on a greater role in explaining what the world looks like.

In Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life Barabási helps us see and understand how networks emerge, what they look like, and how they evolve —in nature as on the Web— so we can gain an appreciation of their importance in our lives.

His analogy of how we've taken apart the universe in the same manner of a child who can never put his favorite toy back together after disassembling it is perhaps the most compelling explanation of the complexity of the task at hand:

Have you ever seen a child take apart a favorite toy? Did you then see the little one cry after realizing he could not put all the pieces back together again? Well, here is the secret that never makes the headlines: We have taken apart the universe and have no idea how to put t back together. After spending trillion of research dollars to disassemble nature in the last century, we are just now acknowledging that we have no clue how to continue except to take it apart further.

Reductionism was the driving force behind much of the twentieth century's scientific research. To comprehend nature, it tells us, we first must decipher its components. The assumption is that once we understand the parts, it will be easy to grasp the whole. Divide and conquer; the devil is in the details. Therefore, for decades we have been forced to see the world through its constituents. We have been trained to study atoms and superstrings to understand the universe; molecules to comprehend life; individual genes to understand complex human behavior; prophets to see the origins of fads and religions.

Now we are close to knowing just about everything there is to know about the pieces. But we are far from understanding nature as a whole. Indeed, the reassembly turned out to be much harder than scientists anticipated. The reason is simple: Riding reductionism, we run into the hard wall of complexity. We have learned that nature is not a well-designed puzzle with only one way to put it back together. In complex systems the components can fit in so many different ways that it would take billions of years for us to try them all. Yet nature assembles the pieces with grace and precision hones over millions of years. It does so by exploiting and all-encompassing laws of self-organization, whose roots are still largely a mystery to us.

It reminds us of the challenge in putting back together many established networks when we tear them apart because they stopped functioning properly due to change in the surrounding context the organization being a prominent example.

“Today we increasingly recognize that nothing happens in isolation. Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a large number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle,” he says.

The linked nature of everything to everything else is what causes both intended —that we see and anticipate— and unintended consequences, which blindside us and in some cases worsen the situation we were trying to fix.