Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and his team managed to publish some impressing findings about network sciences in the millenium years. If you hear them today, you sometimes subconsciously conclude, that this all doesn’t sound to new. But only because of the reason, the results of the group were picked up so fast and answered so many pressing questions about links in society, biology or economics. The book „Linked“ is a summary of their findings and a setup for new researches.
„After September 11, witnessing the deadly power of terrorist networks, we had to get used to yet another meaning of the term [network]. Very few people realize, however, that the rapidly unfolding science of networks is uncovering phenomena that are far more exciting and revealing than the casual use of the word network could ever convey.“
In his book „Linked“ Barabasi offers an overview of the creation of theoretical observations („Erdos number“ / „Six Degress of Seperation“) about networks – „the concealing“ of networks, which makes it possible to ignore the content of the message in order to view the infrastructure of information transport. After this is done, we can take a further look on how the different agents in the network and the message itself develop energy potential to steer the communication. In practice, science first had to understand the biological framework of the human cell, before making sense of the operations in it.
One of the most significant contributions is the discovery and definition of hubs in networks and adding value to them, meaning that they obey the so-called „power laws“. Barabasi’s group termed networks that consist of these hubs „scale-free“. „With the realization that most complex networks in nature have a power-law degree distribution, the term scale-free networks rapidly infiltrated most disciplines faced with complex webs.“
These hubs determine „the structural ability, dynamic behaviour, robustness, and error and attack tolerance of real networks“. And they follow certain rules, „growth alone cannot explain the emergence of power laws“ – it also needs „preferential attachment“. Today Google is the biggest search engine, although it wasn’t the first one, but it was the better one. So people link to Google. This also means, that the network is always shaping and Google doesn’t have to stay there forever:
„As long as we thought of networks as random, we modeled them as static graphs. The scale-free model reflects our awakening to the reality that networks are dynamic systems that change constantly through the addition of new nodes and links. The fitness model allows us to describe networks as competitive systems in which nodes fight fiercely for links.“
Barabasi and his team also show the consequences that derive from the dynamics, such as „vulnerability due to interconnectivity“ or the potential for „cascading failures“ or the diffusion and longetivity of viruses and bugs: „Innovation and biological or computer viruses spread across inhomogenous networks where hubs run the show.“
Finally, Barabasi also highlights that the Internet is evolving its own skin „of similar sensitivity“: „Millions of measuring devices, including cameras, microphones, thermostats and temperature gauges, light and traffic sensors, and pollution detectors […] feeding information into increasingly fast and sophisticated computers.“ The question is, who is in charge in the end? Is it still companies, such as Google or institutions, such as the NSA, or are the informations starting to build a organism on their own.
Conclusion: Using the Web, using Facebook is such a daily routine to us, we just got used to feeding the Internet. But in recent years it came to us, that the Internet starts to develop a mind of its own. There are changes below the surface, that are completely man-made, but we can’t see the consequences: the reasons are network and scale-effects driven by power laws. Cultural techniques developed in the 20th and 21st century – that are based on networks – are our brainchilds, but they seem to overgrow us. „Linked“ is the first comprehensive collection of studies about what is happening around us.
Bonus: Reading „Linked“ I learned that the almighty Vilfredo Pareto worked for two decades as an railway engineer before turning to economics.
„Linked – The new Science of Networks“ from Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. Published in 2001 by Perseus Publishing. $19,95.