Small worlds

I was taking part in a training course on the management during an extreme national emergency. As a part of the program, we went through an exercise that simulated a deep global crisis with severe implications for the governance of Finland. Although the gravity of the situation as it was expressed in the daily briefings was beyond anything we really experience, or can think of, at home today, all aspects of the apocalyptic views presented are actually a reality somewhere in the world at this very moment. This led me to reflect on my learning.

Another reason for writing this was what is actually happening in real life at home. Finland has traditionally been one of the most pro-European Union countries. But now the government seems to be blindsided by the rise of the populist anti-euro party. In the face of the assault of the “True Finns” the Social Democrats too seem to be abandoning their pro-EU roots. If this trend continues after the elections, where are we heading?

The experience brought by the Internet is that all people on our planet are only a few links, or handshakes, away from each other. The claim is that even when two people don’t know each other or do not have a friend in common, only a short chain of intermediaries separates them. Stanley Milgram performed his first famous experiments even before the era of the mobile phone and the web. His results indicated a median chain length of less than six (degrees of separation). The research was groundbreaking in suggesting that the whole global human society is an interdependent network characterized by extremely short path lengths. If the median was just below six in 1967, it is safe to assume that the number is even lower today.

The dominant ways of thinking about the world have their origins in Newtonian mechanics in which the universe was simply the sum of independent parts. At the moment, this part – whole thinking is being directly applied to the ways we think. Interdependence plays a minor role and is anyway seen as the result of a deliberate choice. The populist thinking follows the logic that we can choose not to be interdependent.

I learned last week that leaders cannot know what the outcomes of their actions are. This is because what really happens arises in the complex interplay of many actors with many intentions, which is why leaders cannot choose outcomes although they can choose their next action. We often create things together that nobody wants to create

Nothing ever happens in an independent way.

Interdependent individuals relate to each other in a responsive manner, with a gesture from one party calling forth a response from another. George Herbert Mead was the first social psychologist to take the stance that meaning arises in the responsive interaction between gesture and response. The important implication is that meaning does not then arise independently in each actor first to be then subsequently expressed in action. Actions are not independent. Meaning is not attached to any single act but is perpetually created in interaction.  Knowing is then a property of the interaction. Cognition is relational.

Our perception of the world is confined to groups of immediate acquaintances. Sometimes this is good news, sometimes very bad.

The old ways of understanding human behaviour are not up to the task any more. In contrast to Newtonian traditions, the science of social networks offers an entirely new way of understanding the interdependent human society.

Let’s imagine your house is on fire. Luckily there is a lake nearby. But you are alone. You run back and forth but without some help you may not be able to carry water fast enough. Lets then suppose that you are not alone, and people around you want to help. If you have seen old movies where this happens, a peculiar form of organization emerges. People form a line from the lake to the house passing full buckets of water towards the house and empty buckets back towards the lake. What is happening is called a “bucket brigade”. It is not about the individuals or the community but about a particular form of emergent linking that at the same time distributes the task at hand and integrates the efforts of the people in a coordinated way. If we take the idea of the bucket brigade and connect it with the notion of the small world network, we have a global concept of participation.

A better understanding of social networks is essential for facing the new threats in the world. They are only a few handshakes away, whether we want it or not. This better understanding of interdependence also leads to the necessity for empathy and participation. Stanley Milgram proved that the distance between the fires and the lakes in our world is very, very short indeed. This is why we need to take part in the bucket brigades, and not only when our own house is on fire.


Thank you Duncan Watts, Ralph Stacey, Kim Mattsson, Torsti Astrén, Arto Kujala, Marjo Korkeamäki and Anna-Mari Pesonen. Thank you Olli Haikala for coaching. Thank you Lapin Lennosto

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