The Internet can be seen as the combination of two much earlier innovations. The first was the telegraph, which allowed information to be transmitted electronically. With the advent of the telegraph, people could communicate instantaneously across long distances, which was unimaginable before that time.
The second innovation was the computer, which allowed information to be processed and stored with unimaginable speed and almost limitless storage capacity. Both the telegraph and the computer solved huge problems by themselves, but combining the two facilitated truly new and transformative social innovations that led to the network era we now live.
Our present understanding of the logic of networks is largely a result of the work of Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz, who connected the research done by Mark Granovetter and Stanley Milgram.
Following their findings, let’s think of people instead of computers and links of acquaintance as telegraph lines connecting them. This social world has not been designed by anyone. It has evolved through countless connections between chance and choice: people meeting people. Our social network is neither ordered nor random, but something in-between.
The potential of the network we are part of is mostly invisible to us in our ordinary social lives. We can only see as far as those to whom we are directly linked. We do not normally know, or think about, the people our friends know. But in a network-science sense these people are important to us. The friends of our friends act as ties that sew the larger social network together. They are the shortcuts to people far away. They make the world small for us. You typically have strong links to family members, friends and co-workers. The weak links, the connections of our connections, and the people we have met only once or meet very seldom, are bridges between worlds. An example of this may be the person from New Zealand whom you met at a conference a few years ago. Without that link you might not be connected to anyone in New Zealand. But because of it, you are linked in two steps to his friends and in three steps to everyone they know. This is called a small-world network.
Order, design, strong links and local proximity have been the leading principles of the world of work, but what if easier and more valuable work were in effect based on dynamic connections and interaction with people in the larger network? Finding these people is now possible with the help of digital social networks. The small-world geometry offers a way to see order and design in these apparently disordered networks. Digital, purpose-driven proximity may replace local proximity in the future world of work.
But the way we work needs to change. As people do their own thing, they also need to act as links for others. That is the new role in all work. People need to be fluent in connecting, curating and re-publishing.
What kind of technology would enable this to happen? I don’t believe the future of digital work is built on platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn.
The “Blockchain”, the engine on which Bitcoin is built, is a new distributed consensus/authority system that allows transactions, or other data, to be securely stored and verified without any centralized authority at all, because the entire network validates them. Those transactions don’t have to be financial and the data doesn’t have to be money.
The future of work may be built on connecting small-world networks and the Blockchain technology. The network is then the market and commons for exploration, coordination and value creation without any central authority. The importance of Bitcoin may not lie in digital currency. It represents a novel form of network-based organization.
This kind of work, I think, may be unimaginable today.
Thank you Rob Wile, Mark Buchanan and Mike Hearn
More: The future of Blockchain.