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The importance and effects of Networks

mgupta's picture

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked: The New Science of Networks is about how everything connects and about the importance of those connections in this world. He uses the spread of Christianity to introduce the strong effects that networks can have by emphasizing how Paul was able to master the network and spread word about Christianity. Obviously, there was not any technology in earlier times to make communication as easy as it is today; however, Paul was still able to make Christianity the biggest religion. This was made possible because of the strength of networks. Sometimes, we may not even be aware of how we are connected to certain people – even those who we are unaware of the existence of. For example, my first day at Bryn Mawr – my family friends came to drop me off and as we were meeting the international students and their families, talks led to how one of my current classmate’s mom is from the same hometown as my family friends and then they were able to figure out that they are distant cousins. Wow, the world really is small. They had never met each other before, never heard any mention of them, but nevertheless, they are related. As I started to read Linked, it made me wonder if it is possible that there are fundamental laws of networks that describe how the sum of relationships cause people to meet.

Reading more changed my string of thought, however, as Barabasi focused more on the formation of networks. He goes through a number of models that have been created over the years and talks about how, overtime, scientists have figured out what factors matter and which ones do not. They have tried to define networks using mathematical equations and linked completely different systems through the one main organization of the network theory. Basically what Barabasi tries to show is that a big part of life is governed by networks. He talks of diseases – how an individual cell is not responsible for the disease, but a network of cells is; of terrorist networks – how big attacks like the 9/11 are caused because of the strength of networks. He goes on to say that being able to eliminate the leader of a network does not destroy the whole network. Barabasi uses the term ‘web without a spider’ to explain the structure of terrorist networks – that even if Bin Laden is killed along with some of the key men, the Al Qaeda will still function and be able to accomplish its tasks. Similarly, if a hub of the internet is infected by a virus does not mean that the whole internet is affected by it. And when the hub is cured of it, it does not mean that the whole network has been cured because the virus surely still exists in parts of network. Therefore, the structure of the Internet is parallel to the structure of a terrorist network. However, if the terrorist networks had a structure similar of maybe a small private school, then it would be easier to demolish these. Removing the principal of the school along with the main coordinators and teachers would lead to a halt in the functioning of the school and therefore, being able to remove Bin Laden and a few of his main men would also be able to defeat terrorism maybe.

Sometimes there are links in the network that are only connected to the hub and if the hub is destroyed, these links are also destroyed. Barabasi uses the example of Paul Baran who is asked to develop a communication system that would survive a nuclear attack to explain the structure that would work best for networks. Baran explains how it is best to have a distributed structure to have a strong internet network, because since there are no hubs, each link is responsible for itself and will survive even if part of the network is destroyed. And even if some nodes were destroyed, alternate paths would remain to connect to all surviving nodes. Applying this to something that I have been learning in one of my other classes, I came to think of country economies. Economies run on government networks and corruption in the government is something that affects the economic growth of a country. As we looked at different countries, we learned that some countries have a positive economic growth rate despite pf the corruption and some of them do not. Why is that? The answer to this is also networks. Some of the corruption networks are centralized – the ones in the East Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan. And some of them are distributed like the one in India. In a centralized corruption network, the money flows to one main central node and therefore, the briber is assured to get results. In the distributed corruption network, however, since there is no main center, the briber is not sure of getting his results and may have to move to different nodes to find desired outcomes. Therefore, a centralized network works toward helping the economy and a distributed one harms the economy. Even though a distributed network is harmful to the economy, the concept of the strength of distributed networks is still relevant and parallel to Baran’s theory. A centralized network would be really easy to break because as soon as the leader is gone, the network will also be destroyed. The distributed network, however, will keep the network alive because there are many alternative ways to continue the bribery.

By the end of the book, Barabasi emphasizes that the topology of the network can also be altered by different reaction variations along the links of a network. He also emphasizes that these reaction dynamics are what is important to understand social networks. If experience leads to negative convictions about life, then distrust would emerge and therefore, it would alter the topology of networks because of fewer links and therefore may lead to weaker hubs possibly. The opposite would lead to confidence and more links and therefore alter the topology with stronger hubs. This would be something interesting to study as well, but I was just fascinated enough by the network theory and how the most diverse networks are able to relate and cause more networks to emerge.