For as long as I remember it’s been my feeling that part of what made the internet so powerful was that it finally gave us a way to understand networks. Prior to the web, networks were mostly invisible and we didn’t have a great grasp of how they worked.
The problem with my argument was that I didn’t really ever have anything to back it up. I mean, I had my understanding, but I hadn’t ever read anything that explicitly spelled things out this way.
Today I finished Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. The book cemented my thinking with lots of real examples of how the web opened up our understanding of complex networks. The afterword summed things up perfectly for me:
I am repeatedly asked a few basic questions when I lecture about networks: Why did it take this long? Why did we have to wait until 1999 to discover the impact of hubs and power laws on the behavior of complex networks? The answer is simple: We lacked a map. The few network maps available for study before the late 1990s had a few hundred nodes at most. The enormous World Wide Web offered the first chance to examine the intricate anatomy of large complex systems and established the presence of power laws. As other large maps followed, we gradually understood that most networks of practical interest, from the language to the sex web, are shaped by the same universal laws and therefore share the same hub-dominated architecture.
In case you didn’t feel like reading that, my bigger point is that whatever it is we take away from the surface web (say watching videos or reading blog entries), the structure is equally important to our understanding. You might even say the medium is the message.
Think of it this way: The message is the bright shiny object, the low-hanging fruit. It’s the 3 minute YouTube video of the guy lighting his farts on fire. It’s the thing that makes you laugh. The medium, however, is also communicating some very strong messages, letting you know that you can find entertainment on new screens, that three minutes is the ideal time for your shortened-attention span, that if that idiot can light his farts and get 70,000 people to watch it, so can you.
Most everyone concentrates on the message, and rightly so, those watching the video most likely don’t care about the deeper repercussions. Much of that communication is covert. The thing is, if you want to understand what’s really going on and make something meaningful, you need to be in touch with that covert communication.
Here’s how McLuhan broke it down:
What I am saying is that new media may at first appear as mere codes of transmission for older achievement and established patterns of thought. But nobody could make the mistake of supposing that phonetic writing merely made it possible for the Greeks to set down in visual order what they had thought and known before writing. In the same way printing made literature possible. It did not merely encode literature.
And here it is in plain english:
Word to that.