book reviews

Linked, Ch. 10-16

Having finished the second half of this book, I think my impression of it from the first half holds true throughout: while thoroughly interesting and endlessly useful, I may have come in just expecting a more formulaic or dense structure to the information.

In “Awakening Internet” Albert-Laszlo Barabasi lays out the foundation of the idea he’ll explain the nature and consequences of for the rest of the book: the scale-free network and its structure. By explaining the humble beginnings of the internet and its development as a distributed structure, Barabasi gives readers a foundational understanding of how our most important network works.

One of my favorite quotes, although from later in the book, I think beautifully explains why this structure and its characteristics are so monumental: “There is no single node whose removal could break the web. A scale-free network is a web without a spider.”

Actually, I think this quote sums up the underlying message Barabasi is trying to explain throughout. What makes the internet a strong network is its structure: the power is decentralized, no one server holds all the keys, and the ever expanding reach of the network only makes its potential more fluid and palpable. The possible growth and preferential attachment that helps perpetuate that network is fundamental to networks in general though.

Another eloquent example was the explanation of the corporate tree: for all information flowing back up to the top, or the CEO, there has to be a lot of efficient filtration and categorization, so there isn’t and information overload when all the branches reach back to that one base.

I also really appreciated the explanation of corporate boards and how people in those circles often work on more than one board. Connecting separate companies that may benefit from each other is so crucial to connecting small worlds of nodes to other small worlds of nodes, because, as other point made in chapter 11 illustrated, hubs with a lot of connections actually move much more traffic than an even distribution among nodes. So, these tree structures that center power at a base, and these select hubs, or few people with many connections, they’re the real driving force and deciding factor in many of our networks.

Some examples Barabasi used included a study of the spread of the antibiotic Tetracycline that found, basically, that a small number of nodes have a majority of the connections. Meaning, in the four Illinois cities included, a small group of the doctors surveyed were the common connection of basically all surveyed.
An easier way for me to visualize what this means is follower ratios on Twitter. It’s actually more beneficial to have social media influencers who can act as guideposts for the internet, because as Barabasi explains, from any one page on the internet only 24% of the rest of the pages can be reached directly. To me this means that you can’t really ever predict where you’ll end up on the internet because you only know the site you’re currently on, and where you might go next. If everyone actually followed everyone, the hierarchy of information would be lost. Much like the corporate tree that leads up to the CEO, it’s better to have “viral” people and posts that create a type of landing zone to decide where you go next.

All in all I found the information in this book invaluable, and I’ve already recommended it to my friend, a software engineer who already understands the technical side of the ideas but would love the explanations and possibilities opened up by them. It’s remarkable to think about the potential of a network like the internet, and as all systems have, what other networks it have the potential to perpetuate.

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Linked, Ch 1-9

Before I started reading Albert Laszlo-Barabasi’s book on networks, I read some reviews that commented both on its usefulness and its repetition of the same key ideas. Reviews like this one also mention, albeit more emphatically than I would, the excessive anecdotes prefacing every major point his book makes.

While this review and my reading only cover the first half of the text, I see the validity in that criticism. However, the more I read, the more I appreciated the examples and, for lack of a better word, parables, that Barabasi used to illustrate his points. I do think that more examples and less introductions could have made the text more useful, but I also think the magnitude of the ideas explained in this book carry enough merit to justify a full length book, so I guess I also see why it was given the length that it was.  To summarize the important ideas I took away from the book: the 80/20 rule, connectors, power law, the six degrees of separation, strong and weak ties, the scale free model, and the idea of ever increasing networks also increasing the magnitude of a problem on that network, are all concepts that are invaluable to how we understand information and how it spreads on a network.

At times, though, these lessons are lost in turns of phrase and convoluted, long illustrations, when their value for growing a network can independently carry the whole of the text. While I really valued the information I found in the chapters, I just felt that some space could have been left to illustrate different ways to use the information given, rather than repreatedly explaining why that information was so valuable.

In that sense, I think the book was pitched and executed more as a book on theory, when it seems it would have functioned better if it had initially been treated as a practical, hands on guide to networks and growing them, since so much of its lessons carry that benefit anyway.

Overall, this is the kind of text you appreciate finding because you know its information is fundamentally important to understanding different aspects of many other trades. The great thing about learning about networks as a human being, is that you can use them, build them, and benefit from them in basically any aspect of your life. Your social and professional circles, and your audience as a content creator (more people fall under this title than you think) all can grow under a real implementation of these ideas. I’m purposely not going to explain them too much, because the book is worth reading for yourself, but I’ll briefly talk about the ideas that stuck out to me.

The 80/20 rule : 80 percent being reaped by or made from 20 percent of those making. Barabasi explains how many different models this ratio applies to, but also makes sure to highlight that the systems that this applies to actually stand out as an exception, not as the rule. So while this ratio is good to keep in mind when it comes to certain examples like productivity and wealth distribution, it doesn’t always apply to every scenario you look at.

I also appreciated the example given in chapter 9, about an ever increasing reach in a network also being a liability, illustrated by the 1996 west coast power failures. I think it’s really important to remember that while our interconnectivity is so important, and I think fundamental to what makes us human, that it also leaves us more prone to misinformation, since the bad, or false or malicious, can travel just as effectively and legitimately as the good, or credible or true. I think that would be most easily illustrated by looking at the recent revelations made by social giants like Tumblr and Facebook, in their own roles in the 2016 election interference.

I found this read endlessly useful. I look forward to the second half, and knowing to expect lengthy examples and anecdotes makes it easier to filter down to the useful advice, which there is plenty of.