Individualism in the networked world

Evolving thought:

One of the large challenges of the 21st century is going to be reconciling our increasingly networked world with traditional notions of individualism.

The more I look at a networked world – not in some geopolitical sense but on a day to day experience for everyone – the more it appears that many of the core to elements of liberal individualism are going to be challenged. Authorship is a great example of this dynamic playing out – yes Wikipedia makes it impossible to identify who an author is – but even tweets, and blogs and all forms of digital medium confuse who is the original author of a work. More over, we may no longer live in a world of unique individual thought. As Kevin Kelly so remarkably documents in What Technology Wants by looking at patent submissions and scientific papers, it is increasingly apparent that technologies are being simultaneously discovered everywhere, the notion of attributing something to an individual may be at best difficult, at worst impossibly random.

And of course networked systems disproportionately reward hubs. Hubs in a network attract more traffic (ideas/money/anything) and therefor may appear to many others in the network as the source of these ideas as they are shared out. I for example get to hear more about open data, or technology and government, then many other people, as a result my thinking gets to be pushed further and faster allowing me to in turn share more ideas that are of interest and attract still more connections. I benefit not simply from inherent individual abilities, but from the structure of, and my location in, a network.

Of course, socialist collectivism is going to be challenged as well in some different way but I think that may be less traumatic for our political systems the a direct challenge to individualism – something many centrist and right leaning parties may struggle with.

This is all still half formed but mental note for myself. More thinking/research on this needed. Open to ideas, articles, etc…

5 thoughts on “Individualism in the networked world

  1. Stephen Downes

    > And of course networked systems disproportionately reward hubs.

    This is not a given. It happens to be the case in most of the networks we create, but the reward we give to hubs is a variable, not a constant. And it’s precisely one of the key variables that determines how reliable and stable the network is.

    In general, there is a sweet point between zero reward and infinite reward. In nature, this sweet spot is fixed by physical constraints. The hub of a tree cannot be a million times greater than its branches, or the tree collapses, for example. A ‘hub cricket’ can only listen to and repeat so many chirps in an hour. An epidemic vector cannot physically touch a million people in a day.

    The scale-free networks we set up — like links on the internet, like financial rewards in economic systems — have no such constraints. Hence, processes that lead to the formation of hubs lead to the formation of infinitely powerful hubs. Left unregulated, a free market economic system would, over time, result in all the money accruing to a small number of people.

    But networks are designed, not found. We can create constraints on the accrual of power into a hub. We can revoke the disproportionality we see today, and create network structure that looks less like a hub and spokes system and more like a mesh. That’s what we see in the most impressive, most interesting, networks in nature, not the least of them being the human brain.

  2. vjobson

    And how will networks deal with periods of power shutdown? The changing physical world is apt to impinge itself on our consciousness.  What if we end up having to ration power, only having power during specific hours?

  3. Jeremie Averous

    Hi David. Thanks for the post. Really gives food for thought.
    Your point is one I have been researching as part of my general research about the Fourth Revolution. The previous Age was marked by Broadcasting. Individuals were identified through their broadcasting contribution (someone creating a broadcasting product). Because communication was one-way that was it, you could just swamp the market.
    Tomorrow in the Collaborative Age, communication is two ways and as such, the individual’s brand and reputation as a well-connected resource center will replace the lone broadcasting individual. I believe individual will still be important but more as personal brands recognized by how they transmit, filter, and add insights to information, rather than creating information themselves.
    The value of your own creation will be dwarfed by the value of connecting ideas. I think that’s the power of the Fourth Revolution. What do you think?

  4. Jason Orendorff

    In what sense is our world increasingly networked? The importance of networks and the explicit acknowledgement of that importance seem old to me.

    In what sense do cell phones and the Internet (assuming that is more or less what you really mean) undermine liberal individualism? By making it harder to attribute contributions correctly to the individual contributors? Has that ever been easier to do accurately? Does anyone care?

    Capitalism (some might say) works by rewarding people for creating value; to establish the basic incentives that underpin the whole system, we need to be able to attribute contributions accurately enough to their contributors—but not too accurately (some might say), because then inequality skyrockets and civil society starts to come apart at the seams. Which danger do you think is more pressing now? Has technology moved the needle, and if so, in which direction?

    Networks reward hubs, OK. But were we less defined by our friends, neighbors, and connections 50 years ago?


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