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Debating the Iron Law of Bureaucracy and the Power Law: Knowing Networks as an alternative to scale-free networks

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
18th February 2011


These are further elements to the debate (between Zeynep Tufekci and others) as to whether and how the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which affects initially egalitarian distributed networks, can be countered.

1. Clay Shirky: inequality is not always unfair

Classic discusion of how the power law operates in blogs, and why it is inevitable, by one of the most influential commentators, by Clay Shirky.

“A persistent theme among people writing about the social aspects of weblogging is to note (and usually lament) the rise of an A-list, a small set of webloggers who account for a majority of the traffic in the weblog world. This complaint follows a common pattern we’ve seen with MUDs, BBSes, and online communities like Echo and the WELL. A new social system starts, and seems delightfully free of the elitism and cliquishness of the existing systems. Then, as the new system grows, problems of scale set in. Not everyone can participate in every conversation. Not everyone gets to be heard. Some core group seems more connected than the rest of us, and so on.

Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.”

2. Is the Power Law as it affect blogging unfair?

“Given the ubiquity of power law distributions, asking whether there is inequality in the weblog world (or indeed almost any social system) is the wrong question, since the answer will always be yes. The question to ask is “Is the inequality fair?” Four things suggest that the current inequality is mostly fair.

The first, of course, is the freedom in the weblog world in general. It costs nothing to launch a weblog, and there is no vetting process, so the threshold for having a weblog is only infinitesimally larger than the threshold for getting online in the first place.

The second is that blogging is a daily activity. As beloved as Josh Marshall (TalkingPointsMemo.com) or Mark Pilgrim (DiveIntoMark.org) are, they would disappear if they stopped writing, or even cut back significantly. Blogs are not a good place to rest on your laurels.

Third, the stars exist not because of some cliquish preference for one another, but because of the preference of hundreds of others pointing to them. Their popularity is a result of the kind of distributed approval it would be hard to fake.

Finally, there is no real A-list, because there is no discontinuity. Though explanations of power laws (including the ones here) often focus on numbers like “12% of blogs account for 50% of the links”, these are arbitrary markers. The largest step function in a power law is between the #1 and #2 positions, by definition. There is no A-list that is qualitatively different from their nearest neighbors, so any line separating more and less trafficked blogs is arbitrary….”

3. Stephen Downes: a critique of the ‘naturalism’ of the concept

On Power Laws and Inequalities

“Much of the work in networks has been on what are called ‘scale-free’ networks. A scale-free network is (as people like Barabasi have shown) distinct from a random network in that some entities in the network have a much higher degree of connectedness than others. True, in a random network, there will be a certain variance in distribution, but in a scale free network this variance is extreme. Consider, for example, a network like the internet, where some sites, such as Google, have millions of visitors, while other sites have only one or even none.

A scale-free network of this sort forms through a dynamic process where the presence of one entity leads others to connect to it. For example, consider the act of creating links on a web page. In order to create a useful link, it is necessary to connect to a site that already exists. This means that, all other things being equal, a site that was created first will obtain the most links, because it will have been a candidate for linkage for all subsequent websites, while a site that was created last will have the fewest links, because it has never been a candidate for links.

This effect can be magnified when preferential attraction is considered. For when creating a link on a web page, a designer wants not merely to link to a random page, but to a good page. But how does one judge what counts as a good page? One way is to look at what other people are linking to. The probability that the first page created will be found is greater than that for any other page, which means that the first page will obtain even more links that it would receive through random chance. With this and similar drivers, some websites obtain millions more links than others.

What’s interesting is that though a similar process leads to the formation of scale-free networks in other areas, not in all cases is such an extreme inequality reached. What happens is that in some cases a structural upper limit is reached. Consider, as Barabasi does, the cases of airports and the power grid. Both are developed according to similar principles (airlines want to land flights, for example, where other airlines land flights). And, not unexpectedly, a power-law distribution occurs. But there is an upper limit to the number of aircraft that can land in a single airport, and consequently, a limit to the size of the inequality that can occur.

Various writers (for example Shirkey) write and speak as though the power law were an artifact of nature, something that develops of its own accord. And because it is natural, and because such systems produce knowledge (we will return to this point), it is argued that it would be a mistake to interfere with the network structure. This argument is remarkably similar to the argument posed by the beneficiaries of a similar inequality in financial markets. The rich get richer, benefiting from an inequal allocation of resources, but efforts to change this constitute ‘intereference’ in a ‘natural phenomenon’, the invisible hand of the marketplace, intelligently allocating resources and determining priorities.

This may be true, if we think of networks as natural systems. But the absence of limits to the growth in the connectivity of some nodes should alert us that there is something else going on as well. And it is this: the networks we describe, and in some cases build (or through legislation, protect), are interpretations of the multifarious connections that exist in an environment or in a society. They depend, essentially, on a point of view. And, arguably, the inequalities of links on the web or money in society represent the prevalance of one point of view, or some points of view, over others. But to understand how this could be so, we need to look at networks, not as physical systems, but as semantical constructs, where the organization of links is determined as much by similarity and salience than by raw, epistemologically neutral, forces of nature.” (http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=33034)

4. Stephen Downes on Alternatives to the Power Law

* Balancing out the power law through connective diversity

“In order therefore to successfully counterbalance the tendency toward a cascade phenomenon in the realm of public knowledge, the excesses made possible by an unrefrained scale-free network need to be counterbalanced through either one of two mechanisms: either a reduction in the number of connections afforded by the very few, or an increase in the denisity of the local network for individual entities. Either of these approaches may be characterized under the same heading: the fostering of diversity.

For, indeed, the mechansism for attaining the reliability of connective knowledge is fundamentally the same as that of attaining reliability in other areas; the promotion of diversity, through the empowering of individual entities, and the reduction in the influence of well-connected entities, is essentially a way of creating extra sets of eyes within the network.”

* Knowing Networks as an alternative to scale-free networks

“First, diversity. Did the process involve the widest possible spectrum of points of view? Did people who interpret the matter one way, and from one set of background assumptions, interact with with people who approach the matter from a different perspective?

Second, and related, autonomy. Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?

Third, interactivity. Is the knowledge being producted the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives? A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other. Just as the human mind does not determine what is seen in front of it by merely counting pixels, nor either does a process intended to create public knowledge.

Fourth, and again related, openness. Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?

It is based on these criteria that we arrive at an account of a knowing network. The scale-free networks contemplated above constitute instances in which these criteria are violated: by concentrating the flow of knowledge through central and highly connected nodes, they reduce diversity and reduce interactivity. Even where such networks are open and allow autonomy (and they are often not), the members of such networks are constrained: only certain perspectives are presented to them for consideration, and only certain perspectives will be passed to the remainder of the network (namely, in both cases, the perspectives of those occupying the highly connected nodes).

Even where such networks are open and allow autonomy (and they are often not), the members of such networks are constrained: only certain perspectives are presented to them for consideration, and only certain perspectives will be passed to the remainder of the network (namely, in both cases, the perspectives of those occupying the highly connected nodes).”

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