Developing The Seventh Sense

I’ve been think­ing about net­works late­ly, inspired by recent­ly read­ing Joshua Coop­er Ramo’s The Sev­enth Sense. The dri­ving take­away is that devel­op­ing a sense for under­stand­ing the net­works in any giv­en sit­u­a­tion gives an advan­tage over an under­stand­ing based on old­er frame­works.

This is not “net­work­ing” in the sense of try­ing to meet as many new peo­ple as pos­si­ble in 30 min­utes, or a net­work in the sense of the peo­ple you know. Nei­ther of those ideas will allow you to gain the per­spec­tive on how mul­ti­ple net­works inter­act, which is what Ramo’s Sev­enth Sense gives you a feel­ing for.

This sev­enth sense is not gen­er­al­ly a nat­u­ral­ly acquired sense. Much like fly­ing, which Ramo has also done at a high lev­el, devel­op­ing a sense for net­works requires lots of prac­tice in tun­ing in to non-nor­mal feed­back.

Per­haps learn­ing how to fly a paraglid­er recent­ly has attuned me to this odd­i­ty. In most oth­er sports, from run­ning to lacrosse to wrestling, your “nor­mal” sens­es are what give you the advan­tage. Speed, bal­ance, agili­ty, or strength. None of those are par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in fly­ing sports, where the essen­tial sens­es are an under­stand­ing of where you are and where you’re going in three dimen­sion­al space.

While you might argue those are impor­tant in oth­er sports, like wrestling, you’d be off by a few orders of mag­ni­tude. The dif­fer­ence between a wrestling take­down and going through mas­sive sink­ing air in a paraglid­er are more like the dif­fer­ence between know­ing Eng­lish gram­mar at a doc­tor­ate lev­el and flu­ent­ly speak­ing Hun­gar­i­an. They are dif­fer­ent worlds.

Now, this isn’t a com­par­i­son in dif­fi­cul­ty lev­els. The sense and agency to exe­cute or react to either one take years of prac­tice to devel­op. It’s just that our six sens­es (the five phys­i­cal sens­es plus a sense for his­to­ry) is rel­a­tive­ly nat­ur­al to devel­op in the mod­ern world and the sense for net­works isn’t.

Fun­ni­ly enough, if you go back to indige­nous cul­tures they also devel­oped their sens­es for net­works, which is why you could walk through the woods with a Native Amer­i­can in the 1700s and mar­vel at their abil­i­ty to know where an ani­mal was with­out see­ing it.

It wasn’t just that their sens­es were sharp­er, it’s that they under­stood how their net­work react­ed. They had a feel­ing for the rip­pling mes­sages pass­ing back and forth through­out the net­work.

The dif­fer­ence between their net­work sense and ours is that they had only a few net­works to pay atten­tion to and all those moved at an organ­ic speed. Their fam­i­ly, the ani­mals and envi­ron­ment around them, their ene­mies.

Today we are sur­round­ed by net­works mov­ing at light speed. Many of them have grown far faster than our abil­i­ty to co-evolve our sens­es to keep pace.

We tend to make the mis­take of think­ing about net­works in just 2 or 3 dimen­sions; as if they were fish­ing nets laid out on rolling ground, with us as a knot (or node) con­nect­ed to oth­ers with thin fil­a­ments. This is the “topol­o­gy”, or struc­ture of the net­work, but it doesn’t account for at least one impor­tant fac­tor, which is time.

With a more or less ubiq­ui­tous con­nec­tion avail­able to any­one read­ing this, the time between each node is lim­it­ed by light speed; far faster than the “lim­it­ing min­i­mum”. This com­press­ing of time has the effect of tak­ing that “fish­ing net” idea and balling up a foot­ball field’s worth of net into some­thing the size of your fist, then mak­ing it con­stant­ly in writhing motion as nodes con­nect, dis­con­nect, or rearrange them­selves.

Now, that’s just one net­work. Imag­ine a few dozen of those all enmeshed togeth­er, con­nect­ed but sep­a­rate, and you begin to get an idea of the world we live in.

Why is devel­op­ing a sense for net­works impor­tant? Sim­ply put: They gov­ern our world. With­out a sense for net­works, you are as inef­fec­tive as a one-legged blind man strand­ed in the high moun­tains. Per­haps you sur­vive in your lit­tle area, but knowl­edge of what lies beyond, or the abil­i­ty to see it, or the abil­i­ty to effect changes in your life are out­side of your abil­i­ty.

Rather than focus­ing on the com­pli­ca­tions of under­stand­ing each piece of a net­work (beyond our capac­i­ty) or becom­ing over­whelmed by the incred­i­ble inter­con­nec­tions of large net­works (your loca­tion, friend­ships, modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and buy­ing habits all rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent net­works enmesh­ing), devel­op­ing a sense for net­works requires two habits we all have but use less and less: The habit of lis­ten­ing, and the habit of deep thought.

Lis­ten­ing is com­mon­ly thought to relate only to sound, but in devel­op­ing a sense for net­works we must lis­ten not just with our ears, but our eyes, our heart, and our very mind.

This habit of lis­ten­ing ties direct­ly into the habit of deep thought. Lis­ten­ing is just the gath­er­ing of infor­ma­tion. For lis­ten­ing to be use­ful, we must con­scious­ly attempt to col­lect, orga­nize, and grad­u­al­ly syn­the­size the var­i­ous piece of infor­ma­tion we gath­er.

This takes time and effort. Just as any oth­er skill or sense we care to devel­op, the net­work sense can be sharp­ened through atten­tive prac­tice. Here are ways you can devel­op this sense.

  • Become aware of and curi­ous about where net­works are around you.
  • Con­scious­ly assess the net­works around you. Any­thing from the move­ment of cars through traf­fic to the hum and throb of ideas mov­ing through your cir­cle of friends; use each oppor­tu­ni­ty to assess how a net­work affects the envi­ron­ment.
  • Spend time inves­ti­gat­ing how your dif­fer­ent net­works inter­act. Friends you email, peo­ple you “see” on Face­book, a local stranger you always see at the cof­fee shop; be curi­ous about the con­nec­tions beyond your imme­di­ate aware­ness. This applies espe­cial­ly to our dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal worlds. Behav­ing as though the dig­i­tal is make-believe and the phys­i­cal is real and that they don’t con­nect is a com­mon error.
  • Engage with your net­works and notice the effects. Being an observ­er of a net­work is vital, but par­tic­i­pat­ing is equal­ly impor­tant. Assess your posi­tion as a node or link in any net­work. Query as to how many con­nec­tions you have. Assess each one for pow­er, speed, time to trav­el, will­ing­ness to par­tic­i­pate in the net­work, abil­i­ty to change the network’s abil­i­ty or reach. Pay spe­cial atten­tion to those nodes or links that cross between net­works.
  • Seek out larg­er and small­er scale net­works, from inter­na­tion­al rela­tions to local neigh­bor­hood coun­cils. Hav­ing expe­ri­ence across a wide vari­ety of net­works allows you to attune quick­ly to any new net­work.
  • Spend time in nat­ur­al net­works. You were born with the abil­i­ty and predilec­tion to under­stand the nat­ur­al world. Work to devel­op that under­stand­ing. Go into the moun­tains, or the prairie, or on the lake or ocean, and imbibe the sense of a con­nect­ed world. Use your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and sense of bal­ance to explore the world.

As you begin to devel­op this sense for net­works and their pow­er, you are tak­ing ten­ta­tive steps in the direc­tion of a new dimen­sion not yet ful­ly explored.  I high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing The Sev­enth Sense to move far deep­er into the dis­cus­sion. In the mean­time, go with care, enthu­si­asm, and a great curios­i­ty. I’ll see you there!

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