A temporal pattern of networked intellect
Charles Darwin is reported to have written 15.000 letters during his career. The case of Charles D becomes interesting if we assume that he received roughly the same number of letters as he sent. Think about the time he spent reading and writing; think about the time he spent networking. Would we have advised Charles to limit his time spent on social media and stick to his productive work? Perhaps not.
The history lessons taught in schools and leadership case studies taught in management education classes see the properties and ideas of particular persons as the drivers of the events that unfold in the world. Even today, this reinforces the common notion that history is made by outstanding individuals. But is it really so that if Newton had never been born, we would still be ignorant about gravitation?
The question we should ask is whether the great man theory of innovation, science and business really helps us to understand the world? Alfred Wallace, the British explorer and anthropologist published his version of the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, or, as many claim, before him. Wallace had an impact on Darwin and among other things, prompted him to publish his work.
The interesting thing here is that a great idea matured in different places roughly at the same time.
However, the idea had a history. Both Wallace and Darwin based their studies on earlier work by the Augustinian priest and scientist Gregor Mendel. To be really fair, we should of course continue the chain and know who the nodes in the network were well before Mendel? So instead of talking about Darwinian evolution, we should really call it Darwinian-Wallacian-Mendelian-and-the-scientists-before-them, evolution!
People have always networked. Before the time of universities scholars depended largely on correspondence networks for the exchange of ideas. These communities, known as the Republic of Letters were the social media of the era, following the communication patterns of today astonishingly closely. Many researchers claim that one of the key success factors in science is the network of the scientist. This was also the case with Darwin. Historians claim that Darwin’s network was the decisive thing that tilted the focus towards him and not towards Wallace.
The better-networked scientist is the better scientist. The better-networked knowledge worker is the better knowledge worker. The better-networked student is the better student.
The main difference from the time of Charles Darwin is the efficiency of our tools for networking, meaning thinking together.
This is what Darwin used letters for, to think together with his network of contacts. Over 6000 of those letters can be studied today at the Darwin Correspondence Project web pages. What is similar to the social media of today is the many casual, almost intimate letters Darwin sent, reflecting his own life and the life around him. Darwin did not make a distinction between his professional life and his private life in his approach to communication with his network. Perhaps we shouldn’t either.
A “man of letters” may today be a man of tweets, blog posts and Facebook, but the principle is the same: the size and quality of the network matters. What matters even more than the network, is networking, the way we use the network. In trying to understand what is going on, we should shift our focus from independent events and independent heroic people to networked temporality. Even more than understanding networking, we should acknowledge the inherently creative commons nature of thinking and all development. Life is a temporal pattern of emotional and intellectual interaction.
We are our interaction.