Six Degrees

six-degrees-the-science-of-a-connected-ageIn “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age,” Associate Professor Duncan J. Watts from Columbia University explores the idea that everyone is on average approximately six steps away from any other person on earth.

In other words, we can easily reach a prime minister, an employer or a famous singer in six easy steps. In the last century, this concept became popular, along with other network theories. Even if everybody knows that the right people in our networks can solve every kind of problem, people have difficulty in reaching the right people in their lives. Watts, in his book, tries to uncover the rules by which networks grow, the patterns they form, and the way in which they drive collective behaviour.There are lessons for a connected age, Watts explains. First, the science of networks has shown that distance can be deceiving; two individuals on the opposite sides of the world, even with little in common, can be connected through a network in six steps.

The explanation derives from the existence of social connections that span long distances, and from the fact that only a few such ties can have a big impact on the connectedness of the world. How viable are those “six degrees”? From the point of view of getting a job, information on location, or getting yourself invited to a party, anyone more distant than a friend of a friend is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. We may be connected, but that doesn’t make us any less foreign to each other. And this might be

There are lessons for a connected age, Watts explains. First, the science of networks has shown that distance can be deceiving; two individuals on the opposite sides of the world, even with little in common, can be connected through a network in six steps. The explanation derives from the existence of social connections that span long distances, and from the fact that only a few such ties can have a big impact on the connectedness of the world. How viable are those “six degrees”? From the point of view of getting a job, information on location, or getting yourself invited to a party, anyone more distant than a friend of a friend is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. We may be connected, but that doesn’t make us any less foreign to each other. And this might be good, because we all have our own burdens to bear, and to deal with the burdens of distant others would be terrible. On the other hand, according to Duncan, we may all have our own burdens, but like it or not, we must bear each other’s burdens as well because as it is almost inevitable that we do, at some point. An economic crisis or epidemic starts in one part of the network and proceeds through other parts and finally spreads throughout and affects the entire network. So the problem of a distant foreigner becomes our problem.

The second major lesson is that in connected systems, cause and effect are related in a complicated and often quite misleading way. Sometimes small shocks can have major implications and on other occasions even major shocks can be observed with remarkably little disruption. Duncan gives the example of the first Harry Potter book. Several publishers rejected J.K. Rowling’s original manuscript. This is a simple cause and effect analysis. History, therefore, is an unreliable guide for predicting the future. We rely on it anyway because it seems like we have no other option. Duncan, on the other hand, says we might have another option — not in predicting specific outcomes but for understanding the structure and mechanisms of these connected systems.
Today’s social networks help people share resources and distribute loads, but they also transmit failure. They are, in short, both good and bad. Finally, Duncan claims the science of networks is really a new science, not one that belongs to a subset of any traditional scientific endeavour but one that crosses intellectual boundaries and draws on many disciplines at once.

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