Late last year I attended a fascinating session on Opening Government, pulled together by Beth Noveck with the MacArthur Foundation - and involving luminaries like Sandy Pentland, Yochai Benkler and Duncan Watts.
We learned some striking facts. For example; that more car accidents in the US are now caused by texting than alcohol, or that the number of government databases opened up has reached one million. The open data movement is as dynamic and exciting as the web was in the 1990s - and there's a palpable sense of new horizons being opened up.
Most of the people there were cheerleaders for networks and network effects. But a minority wanted to question the conventional wisdom. For several decades there have been innumerable books proclaiming that networks would break down hierarchies; that crowds would be wise; that fields like education would be revolutionised. Some of this is true (and I've written one or two myself). But much has happened that calls into question the simpler variants of the story that still pervade speeches by corporate CEOs, digital gurus and TED talks.
For example, the periodic spread of the Internet coincided with a growing not shrinking share of GDP for governments; a growing not shrinking share of GDP for the biggest firms. The recent experience in the Middle East symbolised the issue: Twitter and Facebook played a big role in getting people out into Tahrir Square but, once empowered, they used their power to elect the Muslim Brotherhood. To advance, I'm convinced that fields need to be willing to face up to their contradictions as well as their strengths. The emergence of a connected world and powerful network technologies is arguably the most important historical fact of our times, and one that is still only partly understood.
But intellectuals generally get the most coverage when they not only simplify their messages but also repeat them. There isn't much of a market for caveats and qualifications (which is why as I pointed out in an earlier blog, the most prominent predictors of the future tend to be the most wrong - victims of a feedback loop in which exaggerated views get more media coverage, which then encourages gurus to exaggerate their views). It remains to be seen whether the leading lights of network theory have the appetite to engage with the surprises and contradictions. But I suspect that's the best chance we have of genuine progress in understanding the most fascinating phenomena of our times.