Two Ways of Looking at a Network

by rthieme on February 27, 1999

Islands in the Clickstream There are more than two, of course, but let’s start with two.

A computer network can look like a collection of stand-alone machines, just as a community of humans can look like a collection of individuals. It depends on the point of view from which you describe the system, whether you see individuals or the network, the parts or the whole. Without individuals, nothing gets done, but without networks, nothing endures. Networks organize and store information so it lasts longer than individual lives.

All high-level systems, from business systems to religious systems, store and transmit symbols. Some are preserved through rituals, some through narratives or records, some through one-on-one teaching. We preserve symbolic knowledge so it can be there like ripening fruit, so when we’re hungry, we can eat it. Even symbols that have become stale or flat through habitual use can surprise us with visions of possibility beyond anything we imagined when we are hungry for what they disclose.

As individuals, we are always motivated by self-interest, but we can be gathered into systems that factor in that self-interest and go beyond it. Religious systems, for example, do not collect people who are “good;” they collect ordinary individuals who need a training program to become more fully human beings. They turn self-interest into mutual self-interest, transforming our possibilities for meaningful action in the process.

I was talking recently with Steve Straus, a personal performance coach, about “the new economy” and “giving it away” instead of selling it, but we weren’t just talking about turning a commodity into a loss leader. We were talking about how things fundamentally work.

“It reminds me of the saying,” I said, “give and it will be given to you. The more you contribute, the more you experience a feedback loop of amplified value.”

My statement presupposed that there is “something” to give, that I can “own” whatever it is that is given away. As if what we give when we contribute to others in a dynamic system is a “thing” to possess. That’s the way things look when we think “we” are individuals, bounded by parameters, when what we see when we look into a mirror is an edge, a boundary, a separateness.

“It’s deeper than that,” Strauss said.

I don’t remember his exact words, but I think he said something like this:

When we participate in something larger than ourselves, we experience a more complex truth … that the network really is the computer, that humans really are like cells in a single body. That, as Marvin Minsky said, a person alone (like a desktop computer unplugged from the network) is nearly useless, a brain in a bottle. A person who isn’t connected to the information and power flowing in a network is like an abandoned infant raised by wolves in a cave, unable to speak the dialect of the tribe. The network is where humanity thinks.

So this is about more than managers morphing into coaches or organizational structures flattening into branches on taller fractal trees. It’s as if we are staring at ourselves in that mirror, when suddenly, instead of seeing a hard-edge shape (created by minds designed to discern a foreground against a background), we see that we are part of a larger system of energy and information, one that’s self-similar at all levels. Our edges blur, we see that the center is everywhere, the local focus of everything that exists. We see that the monitors on which we read these words are stems of the leaves that we are on a single tree.

Power in a network is not exercised by dominating or controlling, as it is in a hierarchical structure. Power in a network is exercised by contributing and participating.

Coding in a context of open source software is one sign of this larger truth. When we experience ourselves as part of the flow of energy in a larger system, we want to work like that all the time. We want the satisfaction of participating in something meaningful that’s bigger than we are. We want life always to be what we discover it to be in those moments of real knowing.

When we lose ourselves, we find ourselves. That sounds religious, but this is not really about religion. Religion, in fact, is not about religion. It’s about what’s so. Religious symbol systems, emerging in digital media as they once emerged in speech, then writing, then print, are seeking suitable forms for storing digital symbols so that, when we are ready for their meaning, they will be available to us in ways that fit how electronic networks are teaching us to think and perceive.

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