I was planning on reviewing Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s latest book, “Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do“. However, I think it is probably better to begin with the author’s first popular book, “Linked“.
Barabasi is a Romanian-born Hungarian scientist. He is the former Emil T Hofmann professor at the University of Notre Dame and currently Distinguished Professor and Director of Northeastern University’s Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR) and an associate member of the Center of Cancer Systems Biology (CCSB) at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard University. In 1999, he introduced the concept of scale-free networks and proposed the Barabasi-Albert model to explain their widespread emergence in natural, technological and social systems, from the cellular telephone to the World Wide Web or online communities.
These days everyone is talking about networks. Yet, what networks really are and how they function, often remains rather vague in conversations. In Linked, Barabasi gives some insights into the evolution, the structure and the relevance of networks. The author, is not a journalist, but a physicist who has played a substantial role in understanding the theory of network science and making the field comprehensible to lay people.
Our world is full of complex networks, webs of highly connected nodes. Not all nodes are equal, though. In many real-world complex networks, there is a hierarchy of the nodes (which follow a ‘power-law’ distribution). This means there are a few extremely well connected nodes (known as ‘hubs’), there are quite a few moderately connected nodes, and there are large numbers of very tiny nodes (which have very few connections to other nodes).
If you think of LinkedIn or Facebook, as examples, it soon becomes obvious that some people have extensive networks while others have much smaller ones. Similarly, some websites have extensive connections, such as Amazon and Yahoo, while others have much smaller ones (though I’d love to think it wasn’t the case)!
The structure of networks with a power-law distribution is called a “scale free topology”. Scale free topologies are found in networks that are;
- Growing – in other words, extra nodes and links are emerging, and
- Characterised by ‘preferential attachment’, which means that some links are far more likely to get linked than others.
Preferential attachment, is driven by two factors:
- The number of links the node already has – this is the most important determinant: a node that has been there since the early development of the network gets the biggest chance of being connected, and
- the node’s ‘fitness’ (for instance a new website offering a really unique service has an excellent chance of getting many links.
All this might seem a bit theoretical, but bear with it – not only does it explain WHY business networking is so effective, yet so frustrating, but it also gives insights into many marketing activities.
One very significant characteristic of scale-free networks is a paradox that has profound impact on the stability of our society…
The density of the interconnectivity creates two paradoxical properties at the same time:
- Robustness – removing nodes will not easily lead to the breakdown of the network, precisely because of the fact that all nodes are connected. Only simultaneous removal of the largest hubs will break down the network.
- Vulnerability to attack – because all nodes are indirectly connected to each other, failures (such as viruses) can easily spread through the whole network. This phenomenon is called ‘cascading failures’.
Some years ago, I gave a short presentation at a fairly obscure conference in which I illustrated the phenomenon of social networks organised in a cellular form, their robustness and how they might be disrupted. The examples I drew on were those of the Communist Party and the Irish Republican Army (the IRA). The same phenomenon applies to the resilience of al-Qaeda and the behind-the-scenes efforts to disrupt them. By the end of 2004, the US government had proclaimed that two-thirds of the most senior al-Qaeda figures from 2001 had been captured and interrogated by the CIA, and yet, their structure appears to have resilience beyond the leadership. Essentially, it is a scale free network that can ‘self-heal’. The only likely form of attack that will undermine it is going to be a simultaneous one on its largest ‘hubs’ that is planned to create a cascading failure among the smaller hubs. Forget military action; think social change.
Now, imagine that pullover in your wardrobe that has been attacked by a moth. The ‘network’ of a knitted garment is remarkably well structured. But think for a moment about making the ‘web’ far less regular – not random, but linked according to the rules of preferential attachment. Then reduce the size of the fabric threads from visible to microscopic. And, then, replace the inert material (cotton, wool, recycled plastics or whatever) with something that is living – algae or better still filamentous microorganisms. You have the ability to develop a self-healing garment. And, finally, genetically engineer those microorganisms so that they have high physical strength – you have self-healing body armour. Far fetched? No – it’s already in development.
If you would like a taster of Barabasi’s latest work, check out this Google video:
PS My previous Business Book of the Week was “The Art of Woo – Using Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas” by Richard Shell (11/09/10)
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