Network Resiliency — Good or Bad?

Stephen DeAngelis

June 08, 2006

The always interesting Mark Safranski (ZenPundit) posted an interesting discussion yesterday on the resiliency of networks. Safranski pointed to MSNBC’s ScienceDaily site, which reported on research conducted by University of Michigan physics associate professor Mark Newman, who developed a new computer analysis technique, and his management consultant friend Valdis Krebs. The two researchers analyzed 105 political titles found on Amazon.com and who bought them (data found on the Amazon site) and, using Newman’s method, found that the titles divided into four different groups: liberal books, conservative books, and two groups of books described as centrist. According to the ScienceDaily article:

“It is particularly interesting to note that the centrist books belong to their own communities and are not, in most cases, merely lumped in with the liberals or conservatives,” the paper stated. “This may indicate that political moderates form their own purchasing community.

It should come as no surprise that people seek out books that support their political viewpoint. The same phenomenon has been happening in the news media for some time, with liberals preferring CNN and conservatives preferring Fox News (Pew Poll Results). The ScienceDaily article points out the same thing is true for blogs:

In another example, Newman used the algorithm to sort a set of 1225 conservative and liberal political blogs based on the network of web links between them. When the network was fed through the algorithm, it divided cleanly into conservative and liberal camps. One community had 97 percent conservative blogs, and the other had 93 percent liberal blogs, indicating that conservative and liberal blogs rarely link to one another. In a further twist, the computer analysis was unable to find any subdivision at all within the liberal and conservative blog communities. “This behavior is unique in our experience among networks of this size and is perhaps a testament not only to the widely noted polarization of the current political landscape in the United States, but also to the strong cohesion of the two factions,” the paper stated. The network of blogs was compiled by another U-M professor, Prof. Lada Adamic of the U-M School of Information.

It is the “strong cohesion” of the various groups that interests Safranski the most. He sees both good and bad news in the development of such links. First the bad news:

Of immediate concern, it would seem that in terms of its political partisans, America is on a trajectory for the kind of mutually hostile, mutually self-isolating, societal dynamic that is so often seen preceeding civil wars. Or for that matter, our own Civil War, where intense sectional feelings destroyed the Whig and Democratic Parties and nearly the United States along with them. It would also seem that the alienation of moderates and independents from the two major political parties is “condensing.” Meaning that no matter who wins elections, it is conceivable that a majority of the population, if not the voters, would regard the winner as illegitimate. This utter resistance to communication, engagement or dialogue with the “other” is actually a form of resilience taken to an unhealthy extreme. Sort of an ideological immune response to prevent ” invaders” – links – from connecting to ” the network.” Socially, one example of this behavior can be seen in the comments sections of many blogs where some “regulars” act as enforcers of the party line, parroting pet phrases (whether or not they actually make sense in terms of relevance) and using ad hominem abuse to attempt to smother dissenting views.

It is a sad fact that people are becoming less and less interested in dialogue and more and more interested in simply having previously held opinions reinforced. The day was when you could actually hold a “public debate” about important topics; but I fear those days are long past. Today it is all about choosing sides, not looking for compromise, or even about gaining knowledge. On the “good” side, Safranski writes:

[Fourth Generation Warfare] thinkers and Global Guerilla theorist John Robb have been acutely attentive to fragmentation and reversion to primary loyalties – or going toward an even greater breakdown that John has described as “granular.” I agree with Robb that this phenomenon is happening and it is a powerful, entropic force, but how might it be prevented or reversed? In light of the research by Newman and Krebs, the answer would seem to be to create networks that horizontally cross the primary loyalties existing within a society, the more links the better. Historically, Americans had a particular genius for doing this kind of social linking across class, ethnic, regional and sectarian lines, foundering only upon race, an aspect noted way back by Alexis De Tocqueville in Democracy in America. While totalitarian societies were specifically designed to atomize demographic groups into isolated, disconnected, individuals vis-a-vis an all-powerful state, America’s individualistic ethos allowed its people to freely aggregate themselves into a powerful and dynamic civil society.

Safranski ends by referencing Tom Barnett’s mantra, “Disconnectedness Defines Danger.” I wish I could be as sanguine as Safranski. I agree with his prescription – dialogue and honest debate are good things. But in a world where people are deliberately avoiding such dialogue and prefer retrenchment to rapprochement, making connections is difficult. Does that make me a pessimist? Not exactly. I’m by nature an optimist and by training a problem solver. So what is to be done? The ScienceDaily article points to an answer from nature:

Newman’s methods have also been adapted by researchers working in molecular biology to study metabolic networks, the chemical networks that power cells in human and animal bodies. In a recent paper in the journal Nature, researchers Roger Guimerà and Luis Amaral from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., found that metabolites that straddle boundaries between groups in metabolic networks show persistence across species. Commenting on the work of Guimerà and Amaral, Newman says that this could be a sign that the division of the network into modules corresponds to different roles that metabolites play within the cell, and could suggest new directions for interpreting data on biochemical networks.

What jumped out for me in that paragraph were the “metabolites that straddle boundaries between groups.” I was also interested in the fact that these metabolites were shown to be persistent across species. In any given situation, we must ask, “Who or what are the metabolites that straddle groups?” Those individuals or groups are the keys to success because they represent the connectedness about which Safranski writes.

    In many post-conflict situations, the “metabolites” are business people or women’s groups. NGOs are often such metabolites because they seek to relieve suffering not take sides. Finding existing “metabolites” and supporting their efforts are key factors in stopping (even reversing) the fracturing process. Strategies that try to fracture tightly grouped networks are doomed to failure. It is the connections between them (not within them) that is the key to a better future.