Self organisation – how networks bring order out of chaos

Self organisation – how networks bring order out of chaos

My last “Network Analytics” post discussed the power of complexity and tried to prove that stuff like brains and social media are not that different when seen from the perspective of complex network science.

I”m going to develop this thought a little further by looking at “self organising networks”, a phenomena sometimes described as “the Hand of God”.

In my last post I said that the human brain *used* to be the most complex entity known to modern science. But recently something else has stolen the crown of being the universe’s number 1 complex network.

This new King of Complexity was created just 20 years ago by an Englishman working in Switzerland. In just two short decades it has grown from literally nothing to approximately 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) pages of richly interconnected data, text, images and sound.

The new king of complexity is of course the World Wide Web.

There are many things about the Web that one could choose to be amazed by. But for my money, the most incredible thing about the Web is that nobody planned it. Its growth has been spontaneous; its organisation uncontrolled. Yet somehow it works.

How did the web organise itself into the biggest and most complex network that our part of the universe has seen for at least 4.5 billion years (unless some distant aliens have beaten us to it)?

How can such miracles happen? What is the invisible hand that has guided the development of the Web?

Well, believe it or not, it is the same guiding hand that governed the development of the human brain as a massive complex network. Both the brain and the web are subject to the same natural laws of network growth and self-organising behaviour. They are both self-organising entities with a natural talent for creating order out of chaos.

How many management gurus would love to learn that trick?

In fact, many other networks are casino shaped by the very same laws. As scientists look around today, they find new examples of complex, self-organising networks in fields as diverse as society, economics and ecology.

We also see the same powerful phenomena occurring in Social Media. The blistering speed at which new social networks like Facebook and Twitter have grown has shocked everyone, including the people who initiated them, as they have taken on a self-organising life of their own. Moreover, following the role played by social media in Iran”s ongoing election crisis, we have witnessed the power of spontaneous network self-organisation in a more contentious field.

Which implies that Network Science may have an inherently political dimension. As far as I”m aware, the “hand of God” idea was first used in a rational scientific context by Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. His theories led directly to the use (and abuse) of laissez-faire economic policies from the 19th Century right up to the present day. The battle between supporters of “self-organising markets” and “command economies” has raged ever since.

By extension, the recent troubles in Iran reveal a dangerous tension between the spontaneous drive towards network self-organisation and authoritarian central control. As we learn more about the physical laws that drive network growth and give rise to spontaneous self-organisation, could we expect to see Network Science play a more prominent role in public life during the next decade?

But in the meantime, I think I”ll just stick to using Network Analytics to help brand owners plan better communications across social networks…

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