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!