Thinking in Network Terms

Albert-László Barabási in Edge:

We always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it. We were aware of it down the line, that we’re not independent from our environment, that we’re not independent of the people around us. We are not independent of the many economic and other forces. But for decades we never perceived connectedness as being quantifiable, as being something that we can describe, that we can measure, that we have ways of quantifying the process. That has changed drastically in the last decade, at many, many different levels.

It has changed partly because we started to be aware of it partly because there were a lot of technological advances that forced us to think about connectedness. We had Worldwide Web, which was all about the links connecting information. We had the Internet, which was all about connecting devices. We had wireless technologies coming our way. Eventually, we had Google, we had Facebook. Slowly, the term ‘network connectedness’ really became part of our life so much so that now the word ‘networks’ is used much more often than evolution or quantum mechanics. It’s really run over it, and now that’s the buzzword.

The question is, what does it mean to be part of the network, or what does it mean to think in terms of the network? What does it mean to take advantage of this connectedness and to understand that? In the last decade, what I kept thinking about is how do you describe mathematically the connectedness? How do you get data to describe that? What does this really mean for us?

This had several stages, obviously. The first stage for us was to think networks, only networks down the line. That was about a decade ago, we witnessed the birth of network science. I could say a couple of geniuses came along and did it, but really it was the data that made it possible. Suddenly we started to discover that lots of data that’s out there, that we’re collecting thanks to the Internet and other technological advances, allowed us to look at connectedness and to measure it and to map it out.

Once you had data, you could build theories. Once you had theories, you have predictive power, you could test that and then the whole thing fitted itself. It suddenly very actively emerged as a field that we now call network science. Going beyond networks, going beyond connectedness, we realized we started to know not only whom you connect to and whom you see and where are your links (the economical, personal, social or whatever they are) but we started to see also the timing of your activities. What do you do with those links? When do you interact?

That was the second way; we called it ‘human dynamics.’