There's no escaping the power of networks

Networks are everywhere - from face-to-face to social networks, transport, study and business networks. And the digital network has become our new overlord. Authors Chris Brinton and Mung Chiang tell us how it works.

Burundi Mädchen surft im Internet (picture alliance/blickwinkel)

DW: What is the power of networks?

Mung Chiang: The power of networks is that there are familiar and unexpected effects of being connected. Not only the way social networks work today, but also the underlying technological networks. And there are some big ideas that everybody can understand without going through all of the math. And that's the intent of our book.

Chris Brinton: To me the power is the ubiquity of networks - the fact that they are literally everywhere and that our lives revolve so much around them, whether it's technological networks, social networks, or an economic network. And to Mung's point [it's also] that there are these underlying themes and principles that guide the formation and management and evolution of all these different types of networks.

Why is it important that we understand the relationships between networks and people?

Brinton: I think it's about understanding how people affect networks and how networks affect people. You need tons and tons of people to have the internet be the way it is. And the way the internet is and the amount of content that we have on the internet also influences the way we manage our lives - the fact that we can all work remotely today, as I do almost every day, that wouldn't be possible without digital networks. But we also run all of our social networks on top of these networks …

Christopher G. Brionton, Zoomi Inc NEU (Privat)

Chris Brinton says networks influence us and we influence them

There are social networks, but usually when we say "social network" we're often referring to the online social network or at least some combination of the online and the face-to-face social network. And those have been transformed by the internet and the way it works.

In your book you talk about the internet as a "limited resource." That's interesting because we tend to think of the internet as being like the universe - ever-expanding - in a way. How are we going to deal with the increasing demands on the internet, with more and more of us streaming video or using cloud services, especially in view of net neutrality?

Chiang: There are so many meanings to net neutrality. In my mind the key is that there is competition and there are choices for end-users. Most people are confused and we have much to do to educate the public and the government.


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The Power of Algorithms

And how can positive and negative feedback on the network help moderate our usage?

Brinton: You can think of positive feedback as the thing that brings the internet to the size that it actually is, and all the demand that's running on the internet - certain YouTube videos going viral, certain services that everyone wants to use because other people are using it. That's all driven by this idea of positive feedback on the network.

Negative feedback is what you need to make sure the internet doesn't end up collapsing because of all the demand we're placing on it. So with negative feedback it's relying on the idea that each of the devices in the network - whether it's our cellphones and the power we're transmitting at or the bit rate we're transmitting at over a WiFi network - that we all have to be able to receive signals from within the network to get an idea of what the demand currently is on the network and what the congestion is, so that we can all come to some equilibrium state that works for everyone and where nobody is asking for too much.

So if I want to stream or download lots of video, the negative feedback I get from my service provider is, ultimately, that that is going to cost me more - and that cost issue is supposed to regulate my behavior. But I would counter that by asking, "Why don't we just have more internet, more bandwidth?"

Chiang: Well, there's always going to be limited capacity. Most things in life are not free. We can wonder why there isn't infinite supply so that it can be free, but human need and greed is more than the finite supply can support in many cases.

The pricing thing, which you mention, is the oldest form of negative feedback. Imagine: you go to a restaurant where they say, "The more you eat, the less you pay." Or even, "You eat more and you get paid!" That is not going to stabilize or sustain the system. Negative feedback is essential to stabilize the system.

Princeton University, Mung Chiang (privat)

Professor Mung Chiang says there's no need to want to free ourselves from modern technolgies

So what is the negative feedback on the network itself? Isn't there a danger that the network will have its own "network effect" - this idea where phenomena snowball either through the "wisdom" or "fallacy" of the crowd, as you put it - where the network gets so big it overrides us, a time when there's no escape from the network, and we'll have to live within the network always?

Chiang: I am not so concerned about that. In terms of technological developments the network is only one of the many steps we've seen, and it's one of the smaller ones. But think about electricity. Modern society is heavily dependent on electricity and that raises concerns from energy consumption to security of the smart grid. However the benefits outweigh those concerns. So I don't see a need for us to say let's stop using electricity. We should be careful, but I wouldn't suggest we try to become independent of modern technologies.

Brinton: If you talk to a Buddhist, they'll tell you that dependence on anything is a bad thing - you want to be totally independent and self-fulfilling in the sense that you do not rely on anything, so that when anything collapses it's not going to affect you. But I agree with Mung … if you think about all the advantages we get, all the connectivity. It's just something we're going to continue to live with.

Mung Chiang is Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of the Keller Center at Princeton University. Christopher G. Brinton is Head of Advanced Research at Zoomi Inc. He received his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University. Together they wrote "The Power of Networks - Six Principles That Connect Our Lives" (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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