The event horizon of human networks

telephone horizon


Like rooms that are electrified or air that is conditioned, we take networks for granted today. But little more than 100 years ago networks, or net-works, or iron net-works as they were then called, were unusual sightings, scary drapes of wire being overlaid upon the world, a nightmare vision as if Pink Floyd had awoken screaming about black spaghetti. Imagine being a child in the 1890s, one with nature, perhaps poor with only bread to eat, but seeing the sun and leaves and suddenly wiry shit strung up in the air around you. You’d freak out, indeed. As telegraphs and electricity were invented, so too were the long trails of metal rope, slung at first over rooftops and then on poles until the word net-work was collapsed like electronic mail became e-mail then email and we forgot how unusual these strands of iron were between us and the sky.

Networks of course evolved into more meaning, the lines between wooden polls becoming theoretical connections between nodes, and a guy named Robert Metcalfe conceived that interconnections must grow exponentially in value as 3 dots have 3 lines between them but 4 dots have 6 lines and 5 dots have 10 lines and 6 thus 15 until when every human being on the planet is connected the value of the intermediary connections, the net-work, becomes infinitely valuable. Silicon Valley loved Metcalfe’s idea, and this was what drove the Internet Bubble Part 1 in the late 1990s when companies tried to sell dog food over the Internet with sock puppets and the current Internet Social Media Bubble Redux Part 2 which seems about to burst, except it was saved by Facebook, which resorted to giving up on organic social reach and selling plain old advertising.

The problem with net-works, of course, is friction. Not all nodes are connected equally to each other node. Your business plan cannot scale to the masses because at some point, people in the networked chain don’t give a crap about passing you along. Put another way, you, the individual node in a human social network, may have 300 friends on Facebook, but your lover is more important to you than your best friend, who is before your boss who is before your neighbor or that old college girlfriend from 20 years ago. Each subsequent node has a diminishing value, a fading return, like telephone poles receding in the distance. This diminishment of node value puts huge friction between you and the message that, like electricity, marketers or business plans hope you’ll pass along.

Networks don’t scale because of this friction. People aren’t really connected to everyone else in the chain, because like watching TV commercials, with most other people we’re tempted to tune out. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar noted that humans have an upper limit of about 150 relationships before we, like all primates, begin to yawn. Linguist George Zipf had another, similar idea, that in any series of things, the next tends to fall in value … the word “the” is used more often than the next word “be” and the next words “to,” “of,” “and” and “a,” until the words in the English language are used less frequently ending with the least-most-used word of all, “floccinaucinihilipilification” … and human relationships are no different.

Networks don’t scale.

Yes, what was once an iron net-work has been digitized to connect all of us, but people limit their passalong communications because at some level we cannot spread or share or digest more information than is humanly possible. We have limits, so networks cannot grow in value infinitely. Marketers or politicians or scammers who try to push us in sharing anger us, frighten us, or disgust us, because we rebel at connecting too much. Global wires are not part of our nature. Each node has meaning, but most of the connections will always be lost. Like the concept in physics of the “event horizon,” the boundary of black holes beyond which any action cannot affect outside observers, at some point the cascading loop of connections stalls, falling inward to our personal ambivalence. Networks reach forever outward, but they cannot overcome the gravity of our self-control.

Posted by Ben Kunz 

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