Why networks are ‘complex’ rather than ‘complicated’

Why networks are ‘complex’ rather than ‘complicated’

I’ve been asked by several people to write an introduction to the emerging science of network analysis that any ‘interested rookie’ could understand. In this post I’ll try to explain the scientific laws that govern all networks that anyone working to harness the marketing power of social media will find useful.

There are several key areas of network science that need careful explanation, but I’ll limit this post to a short discussion about complexity and follow it up at a later date with thoughts about network self-organisation (sometimes referred to as ‘the hand of God’).

Until recently, the most complex single entity that modern science had discovered in our vast universe was the human brain. This is surprising when we know that the sky above our heads is filled with solar systems, galaxies and black holes etc.

But in reality, each of these ‘big’ things is relatively easy to understand; they tend to be ‘complicated’, but not necessarily ‘complex’. Here’s an illustration of what I mean. The wiring loom of a jumbo jet is complicated – it consists of miles and miles of convoluted wiring strands. But a patient person could unravel it all and lay it neatly on the floor of a big hangar. Most people know at least one person who’d enjoy doing that…

Mayonnaise, on the other hand, is complex. It has only two main ingredients – egg yolks and olive oil – but once you mix them together they create a complex substance that can never be ‘unravelled’ back into its constituent elements. Consider a three year old trying to unravel a small tub of mayo to see what I mean. Another odd thing about networks is that they don’t necessarily need many parts for something amazing to emerge.

The human brain is complex in a similar way. Each of us has roughly 3 billion cells (or neurons) in our skulls. If this was all that made the brain special it would merely be complicated, but the brain is much more than the simple sum of its parts.

Here’s why. Every neuron in our grey matter can have up to 5,000 separate connections with other cells throughout the brain. This is what makes the human brain unimaginably complex – vast numbers of cells and even greater numbers of connections linking them together in a dance of bewildering interactivity.

The brain is nothing less than a massive complex network with incredible capabilities. The rich connectivity and interaction between neurons in our brains is what gives rise to the emergence of miraculous phenomena like perception, memory and consciousness.

In summary, the magic of the brain emerges from its dense network of neurons that exchange countless signals and responses. It’s this blizzard of interactivity that lends the brain incredible powers and which cannot be simply unravelled and atomised like the parts of a jumbo jet.

When considered as networks, social communities on the Web are not very different from the brain. They too are massive networks of individuals engaged in a complex process of rich interaction. Is it therefore any wonder that amazing changes have occurred since the emergence of the Internet and Social Media that conventional narratives have failed to predict and cannot explain?

Few people today would deny that the Internet and Social Media represent powerful forces for change in our society and economy. But why this should be so and understanding how to harness these forces for the good of all is less clear to us. In a world of increasing complexity, Network Science will be one of our most powerful resources for grasping the opportunities of the new Social Network era.

Author: Jason Brownlee

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