Twenty years ago, I mapped out the social, moral and political challenges of a much more networked world, following a recent rise in subject interest, here's what I got right
Two excellent books have come out this year on connectedness. Anne Marie Slaughter’s The Chessboard and the Web is about geopolitics, and why we should think about power less in terms of fixed structures and more in terms of relationships. Julia Hobsbawm’s Fully Connected is more personal but covers overlapping ground, including how to avoid drowning in information (this blog summarises some of her ideas).
I took part in public conversations with both authors to promote their books, and see this rising interest in network science as welcome and long overdue.
It’s fortunate that two very good authors have written books about the subject that are complex but not difficult, a rare feat
The books echo some of the issues I wrote about 20 years ago in my book Connexity, which they both quote. Its aim then, in the early years of the web, was to map out the social, moral and political challenges of a much more networked world. It covered things like the sharing economy, fake news, the risks of social media isolation and promise of digital democracy, and it identified many of the big strategic challenges of a connected age.
The book didn’t make much impact when it came out. But it has aged well and was also made the topic for a podcast conversation with Matthew Taylor, released a few weeks ago by the RSA.
In retrospect, I think I got many of the big issues right, and spotted the tensions of greater connectedness and dominant social media. But I got some wrong. I underestimated the divergences and inequalities that have come with networks. I didn’t predict the scale of the new platform monopolies. I also greatly overestimated how well the basic ideas of network science were understood at the time, having spent the previous few years immersed in telecommunications and network theory and absorbing them as a way of looking at the world. My own bubble at the time was immersed in this stuff. Most other people weren’t.
Connexity received plenty of good reviews, but it didn’t fit the dominant frames of the time. Most of the reviewers from a previous generation just didn’t get it, while my colleagues in government were generally uninterested, and remained largely immersed in a mechanical rather than a network or systems worldview. They saw their job in terms of ‘pulling levers’, ‘driving through change’ and ‘rolling programmes out’, exactly the frames of thinking I was trying to escape. They were aware of the Internet, obviously, but didn’t see its implications.
Twenty years later, in almost every field, it’s necessary to understand networks as well as hierarchies (as I showed in an earlier revisiting of the arguments)
That doesn’t mean that networks are simply replacing hierarchies, as many Silicon Valley gurus have claimed over the years. Instead, networks and hierarchies coexist in a multitude of forms, with, of course, most of the big networks run by massive corporate hierarchies. But you simply can’t understand much about the modern world, from Isis to the rise of Uber, without a grasp of network dynamics.
That’s the new reality that’s admirably described in the two new books described above. Although it comes with many new risks, on balance I prefer it to the world it replaced. But, as we discussed in the podcast, the challenge of living in a connected world is becoming, if anything, harder not easier.
To encourage you to jump straight to Amazon and buy a copy of Connexity here are a few of the reviews that greeted it when it was first published:
Connexity: how to live in a connected world (Harvard Business Press and Jonathon Cape, 1998).
‘A brilliant book….’ Prospect; ‘endlessly fascinating … a supremely adult book it will be read long after much of today’s fashionable literature on politics has been forgotten.’ Vernon Bogdanor, International Affairs. ‘Mulgan is a brilliant synthesiser.[an] energetic and impressive book.’ Guardian, 1997. ‘a rewarding meditation… his study of shifting social attachments offers rare stimulation’ Daily Telegraph ‘boldly attempts to rethink the nature of political, economic and moral structures… stimulating as well as provocative… ‘ Financial Times. ‘draws on a dazzling range of discipline in the social and natural sciences…it’s a huge, reverberating volume..that provides powerful cognitive maps for the future’ Glasgow Herald. ‘…his keen analysis, wide knowledge base, intuition for future trends and steady moral compass reveal why this youthful policy maker has already become a legend’ Professor Howard Gardner, Harvard. ‘Mulgan is an unusually perceptive and prescient rising star. Cutting across traditional categories and disciplines his insights and powerful suggestions are already heeded by CEOs, heads of state and many others. To read Mulgan is to read the future.’ Professor Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University.