More Than Self-Governing, Social Networks Are Self-Creating

26 02 2008

New scientific thinking (with video!) from Edge.org’s “Third Culture” on how our social networks create and recreate our changing reality, very much as biology does:

It is customary to think about fashions in things like clothes or music as spreading in a social network. But it turns out that all kinds of things, many of them quite unexpected, can flow through social networks, and this process obeys certain rules we are seeking to discover.
We’ve been investigating the spread of obesity through a network, the spread of smoking cessation through a network, the spread of happiness through a network, the spread of loneliness through a network, the spread of altruism through a network. And we have been thinking about these kinds of things while also keeping an eye on the fact that networks do not just arise from nothing or for nothing. Very interesting rules determine their structure.

What about family privacy principles, culture, entertainment preferences and boycotts, religion, politics, free will and choice in all things large and small? Homeschool advocates working in the legislative process, for example, could certainly benefit from understanding it through this science!

And for real folks who wisely keep their distance from political social constructs, does this also apply to our deepest sense of who we are, and can it be studied and understood scientifically as “created” but right here on earth moment to moment, rather than being immutable and divinely ordained?

Hey! Could it be this emergent theory of human consciousness and experience of reality, rather than “evolution” per se, that is the elephant in education’s living room?

Is that the scientific theorizing that anti-science religious creationists REALLY fear humans learning about, and most intriguing to me then, do they so effectively spread this fear precisely through the kind of scientifically verifiable social contagion this research investigates, thereby validating it even as they preach against it??

You just gotta go read and think about this stuff! And then I hope we can socially spread the germs of our thinking all around our networks. . .Paul, Nance, Daryl, Scott and I had the vaguest glimmer of this idea being important back in the NHEN forums (wow, look, January 2004, four years ago already — maybe it’s the social contagion of election year politics that infected us??) and so we started a discussion there we boldly called, “Brainstorming Network and Systems Theory for Homeschoolers.” Of course we only scratched the surface of our ignorance, trying to find an intelligent QUESTION, never mind expecting intelligent answers at that point. 🙂

Now, today, here’s the barest hint of what the cutting edge of social network contagion sounds like (I’m so excited!) :

We have had advances in methods, we have had advances in data. We have also had advances in ideas. People are beginning to think more creatively about what it means to have these kinds of higher-order structures. Since the late 1990s and into the 2000s science more generally has been engaged in what I call the “assembly project” of modern science. Astronomers are beginning to think about how to assemble stars into galaxies, computer scientists are thinking about how to assemble computers into networks. With the development of the Internet in the mid-1990s, everybody began to think about computers, and their networks, and about how they interact and so forth. Engineers struggle with these problems.

Neuroscientists are beginning to think: okay, well, we understand a lot about neurons, but how do they interconnect to form brains? Geneticists are saying: at the end of the day, we will have understood all 25,000 (approximately) human genes, and then what? How do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? How do we reassemble all of the genes and understand how they interact with each other in space and across time? We have seen the recent birth of a new field of biology called systems biology, which seeks to put the parts back together.

And similarly, in social science, there is an increasing interest in the same kind of phenomenon. We have begun to understand human behavior, and we have models of rational decision-making — rational actor models —which have led to further innovations. But these models all pertain primarily to individuals.

Adam Smith talked about markets as a phenomenon that emerges from the action of individuals, but nevertheless we have primarily focused on the actions of individuals. How do we put all these parts back together to understand groups? Again, the study of social networks is part of this assembly project, part of this effort to understand how you can then have the emergence of order and the emergence of new phenomena that do not inhere in the individuals.

We have, for example, consciousness, which cannot be understood by studying neurons. Consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal tissue. And we can imagine similarly certain kinds of emergent properties of social networks that do not inhere in the individuals — properties that arise because of the ties between individuals and because of the complexity of those ties.

Understanding all of this is what drives me and James Fowler to death right now. . . A lot of times, people fail to understand networks because they. . .think about the architecture of the network. They think about how people are connected, which is of course incredibly important and not easy to understand either. While on the one hand the topology can be understood or seen as fixed or existing, on the other hand this topology is itself mutable and changing and intriguing, and the origin of this topology and its change is itself a difficult thing.

But here is something else: . . . Things move through it, and this has a different set of scientific underpinnings altogether. Understanding how things flow through the network is a different challenge from understanding how networks form or evolve. . . You need to understand both. And they both interconnect and affect each other, just as in our bodies our anatomy and our physiology are interrelated.

This is what James and I are tackling right now. . .

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14 responses

26 02 2008
NanceConfer

First things first. “Inhere” means “to be inherent.” To be part of.

OK, now to finish reading. 🙂

Nance

26 02 2008
NanceConfer

We’ve been investigating the spread of obesity through a network, the spread of smoking cessation through a network, the spread of happiness through a network, the spread of loneliness through a network, the spread of altruism through a network.

***********

Now, some of these I would have thought of as spreading through a network but not others.

There are likely many things I don’t think of as networked that are. Hmmm. . .

Nance

26 02 2008
JJ

Just imagine if we discover that learning and education are “social” consciousness constructs that obey these social contagion rules? And suppose it turns out that nothing we certify or spend money on or test for, has much to do with how it really works??
The mind boggles at the implications! 😀

27 02 2008
JJ

From the homeschool hegemony thread’s comments:

I came home with a new issue of “Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas ” because the cover story and theme of the whole issue is “Who Are You? Personal Identity and Time, Memory, Continuity, Freedom.”

In the piece about identity and continuity, the point was that there are problems with both physical reality and belief reality as human identity. SOooo – the solution is that we are what we choose to “do” and so what we experience defines us, to the extent that it influences what we do in response.
[and if via social contagion, we influence each other’s actions, then we in a real sense “create” each other!]

I guess that means homeschoolers really DO define each other and maybe all parents do, and that black people define each other just by acting to define themselves, and parents define who their kids are even if they don’t try to, with every nurturing or even neglectful action etc — because we do interact with each other and influence each other’s actions and reactions, like it or not.

I wonder if that means weeds are a defining part of any garden and of us as gardeners, whether we manage to keep them at bay with our various actions or not — even if we never plant a garden because we know about the tendencies of weeds and are discouraged by them, decide not to fight them? 🙂

We know School is a major definer of our society, and maybe we don’t think enough about how it surely must also help define homeschooling and unschooling — even just because we know about School.

The more we talk about it and study it and write about it and worry about it and plot to fight it off — even to advocate against it and insist we must stay free of being defined by it — is it nevertheless defining us all the while?

27 02 2008
JJ

From “Power of Story Rules”:

NEW YORK TIMES
May 22, 2007
This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)
By Benedict Carey

. . .“When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent. . .

1 03 2008
JJ

Here’s a sad NYT social contagion story imo:
“Free Lunch Isn’t Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry”

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