May 28 2009

small is beautiful

by at 4:01 pm

I am thinking about communication networks across the continent of Africa. In order to conceptualize the actors, and therefore the structure of their relationships, I looked for a visual representation of the existing structure of these networks. I found that representation in an image that might be familiar to many of us, by now: the lights of the world, as seen by satellite, at night. I cropped out the continent from its global context, and then circled the clusters of lights that appear across its surface. Continue Reading »

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May 28 2009

Educating Girls in Afghanistan with a Network Approach

by at 10:47 am

Education inarguably is key for human development, yet in many countries this opportunity is specifically denied to girls – sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes for want of laborers. When girls are cut off from education, they are kept in a cycle with fewer opportunities, less access to the legal system, worse health and other deficiencies. Yet providing girls access to education is not as easy as simply opening a school, especially where religious leaders or fundamentalists are determined not to educate women.

Afghan girls in school, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

Afghan girls in school, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor

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May 26 2009

nails and networks

by at 4:46 pm

As I was stacking boxes and stocking shelves yesterday morning, I thought about the webs of production and distribution that all the brightly packaged products had to follow to reach the store where I work. In order for me to sell, say a box of nails to a customer, that had to travel a long way first. Working backwards, I noted the cases into which the nails had been packed for shipping, on a tractor-trailer that had woven its way into the city from our warehouse in Virginia.

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May 26 2009

Which nodes create successful networks?

by at 10:56 am

Nodes in a network often reveal the network’s infrastructure and focus. Globalization seeks to restructure social, political and economic relationships between individuals, businesses and even states. Depending upon where the focus lies, the results and system’s structure can look very different. These factors (politics, economic relationships, and social foundations) can change the perception of the actors involved in the network and drive the network to success or failure. Globalization means these networks at their very roots are changing while at the same time they are being redeveloped.

Globalization is highly dependent on the interactions of states and other political systems.

For example, states often have control over the development of cities through restrictions and policies. Allen J. Scott and Michael Storper point this out in their essay, Regions, Globalization and Development when they talk about the benefits and sacrifices of urbanization (pg. 5). Scott and Storper identify the problem with “countries that urbanize too much and too fast, generating “macrocephalic” urban systems consisting of a few abnormally large cities in each country” which in turn put too much strain on the economy and the developmental network (pg. 5).

Macrocephaly is an abnormal largeness of the head. Something with a head too big for its body can loose its balance and result in a less manageable climate. All parts of a body must have equal function.

Thumbtack Press

Thumbtack Press

However in most cases the “nodes” are arranged by economic institutions. They often “entail the formation of routines of economic behavior that potentiate and shape activities such as production, entrepreneurship and innovation” (Scott and Storper, pg. 23). Because economic institutions are often external and are not tied to one area they have little connection to the community in which they have landed or its infrastructure. There is no link from one to another. In fact often countries are chosen because of their proximity to other countries and the number of workers available. Money drives this network. Continue Reading »

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May 21 2009

between arc and node

by at 4:13 pm

I often tend to isolate myself, and, subsequently, my ideas. But upon reading Nexus, I was reminded that even if I were to keep totally to myself, without any social relationships at all, I would not exist in a networkless vacuum.When I began to map out a rough network of my intellectual life, I found that I was focusing on those close to me, and that I was forming a very dense web, populated mostly by tight clusters of individuals. These clusters reflected the groups with which I have been involved, including my family, teachers from high school through college and graduate school, and some of my closest friends. It was only at these last nodes of my network, the friends that I have gathered from our collaborations in music, poetry, art, research, and social life, with whom I remain in touch, that some of the weaker links between members of my network began to emerge, filling in many voids in my network.

I remembered more of these clusters, of which I had been a part or to which I had been loosely linked. I found relationships between members of my family, for example, and close friends, with whom I had ended up at the same school, through whom I had met a close but geographically distant friend. I saw the sudden emergence of institutions I had thought external to my network. I realized, looking back at the myriad examples of small worlds and networks in Nexus, that not only are we each linked as human beings through these relationships, but that the same kinds of relationships exist between disciplines like the music, poetry, art, and research of which I had been thinking. The balance between random chaos and perfect order to which Buchanan so often refers became, itself, a powerful, beautiful inspiration.

However, I was also struck by a peculiar turn of rhetoric that kept slipping into my own conceptualization of these relationships. Once I had begun thinking in terms of networks and complexity, I found it hard to break with the spatial metaphors on which such terms often draw: network itself is fundamentally a spatial-visual construct. Recognizing this, I tried to become more critical of my own use of these terms. It is possible, after all, that even a “groundbreaking” theory can lock its proponents into rigid ways of thinking; how much more possible is this for a persuasive and elegant theory that very closely resembles a theory of the universal? Though complexity is a seductive and powerful mode of analysis, avoiding many of the traps of both strictly linear, causative logic and “chaos theory”, it still has its faults, and the reliance on spatial metaphors to explain abstractions is one of these.

There is a strong sense that those who took place in the negotiations to form the Washington Consensus used a much less densely-populated network than they could have, where either connections or actors relevant to the negotiations and to their outcomes were ignored, relegated to a void. Concurrently, the powerful institutional forces represented themselves as central to the network of negotiators and decision-makers, taking western liberal-democracy capitalism as an ideal economic model to which any country in crisis could aspire, although in spatial-metaphor terms, their model was largely peripheral to those towards whom the outcomes of their decisions were directed. Finally, there were connections both formed and broken during these proceedings, including the important ideological connections between, for example, fiscal policy discipline with privatization.

It seems that the most critical engagement we can make by using network theory and a view towards holistic complexity in terms of analysis and policy recommendations is to refine already-existing networks, finding what we had missed in earlier descriptions, and adjusting our views of the underlying structure of relations to reflect what actually exists, so that our implicit critiques and ideological assertions can be most effectively and accurately applied. In other words, our process must always be a dynamic one, not only stepping back to see a bigger picture (so to speak), but also moving closer to examine subtle details, and changing our perspective “horizontally” as well, so that we do not rely on a fixed center in our conception of the socio/political/economic world network, but are able to recognize when such centers shift, and to react with grace.

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