Despite running an institute focused on politics & technology, I don’t actually spend much time thinking about politics or technology. Instead, I spend most of my time thinking about how to optimise the way that information travels through networks of people. Tackling this task, I think, is what it really means to attempt education at scale. (It’s perhaps just coincidence that this activity is also both political and technological!)
This image is a favourite of network coordinators everywhere. You’ll see it in every presentation about the benefits of decentralisation, and people find it very intuitive that the situation described by the diagram on the right (distributed) is somehow better than the one on the left (centralised). No evil oligarch sitting in the middle controlling everyone’s access to information. No critical nodes that, if destroyed, would break the network.
(It’s a little ironic that most network coordinators then proceed to do something that looks a lot like trying to be the central node in the diagram on the left. If your first instinct is to try and make a map, then spend a minute thinking about what a map is.)
I want to talk about what it feels like to be a node in the diagram on the right. You’re connected to four, maybe five other nodes. Most nodes in the network are several steps away from you. Lots of your connections mostly know the same people. Fundamentally, you don’t really feel like you have a very good idea of what’s going on.
This doesn’t sound so great? But it hints at what the true value of a distributed network is; in most environments where humans are trying to work together to process a lot of knowledge, the overriding problem is not a lack of input, but of effective filters. A librarian exists not because books are precious, but because there are just too many books. We don’t like our central node on the left not because it isn’t efficient – in fact, it’s super efficient – but because we’re afraid the filter they use isn’t the one we want.
So if you’re a network coordinator and you want your network to work effectively so everyone can find the information they’re looking for, what should you tell the people in your network to do? Here are my current best suggestions:
- don’t worry too much about connecting to lots of people, and strive for diversity over quantity
- worry primarily about what kind of information you care about – be discerning & review frequently
- regularly collect that information from the people you’re connected to, and pass it on quickly & clearly
- connect people that you see are using similar filters
- spread these principles
Corollary: the most important thing you do in a social network is decide when to press the share button.
In particular, this advice suggests: don’t try and share stuff you think people will like. Focus on your specialisation, hobbies or whatever makes you unusual. Likely for the people you’re connected to, it’s the only way they could ever discover this information. Scrolling past irrelevant things is cheap; finding out quickly about something obscure can be invaluable.
Edward Saperia is Dean of Newspeak House, the London College of Political Technologists. Through a busy programme of events and residential fellowships, it convenes and supports practitioners working on the applications of communications technology throughout the public sector and civil society. Find out more at www.nwspk.com.