am 30. Juli 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, August 6, 2013.
This is not a book about the end of the internet, as the controversial title may seem to suggest. Rather, it’s a book about networks (meaning a group of interconnected people or things) and how networks evolve; and its main focus is on internet-related networks and the internet itself (which is one enormous network). The author, Jeff Stibel, argues that there are certain natural laws that govern the unfolding of networks, and that understanding these laws can help us understand how the internet (and other internet-related networks) are likely to evolve over time, and also how we should approach these networks in order to get the most out of them (including make money off of them).
When it comes to the evolution of a network, Stibel argues that there are three main stages here: 1) Growth; 2) Breakpoint and 3) Equilibrium. In the growth phase, the network grows in size, usually at a very quick (often exponential) pace. This is a precarious time for networks, for if they do not grow fast enough and large enough they will simply wither away and die (the vast majority of networks do in fact die at this stage).
Though a network must grow very quickly in the growth phase just to survive, this initial rate of growth is not something that can be sustained indefinitely. For all networks have a natural carrying capacity that limits how large they can be. This carrying capacity is defined by two factors: energy and organizational complexity. When it comes to energy, a network needs physical energy in order to sustain itself, and thus it is limited by how much energy is available in the environment and that it is able to access (and physical energy is never infinite, so all networks must ultimately have a physical limit).
When it comes to organizational complexity, as a network grows in size it also increases in complexity, and it eventually reaches a point where it becomes so complex that it becomes unwieldy, and begins to lose its utility. Thus a network has an optimal level of organizational complexity, and this optimal level of complexity defines its carrying capacity. (Whether a network hits its carrying capacity due to energy limits or complexity limits depends on the network itself—but whichever limit is met first defines the carrying capacity of that network).
Now, while each network has a natural carrying capacity, a healthy, successful network will almost always grow beyond its carrying capacity during its growth phase. This is because a network never actually knows what its carrying capacity is beforehand, and can only discover this by feeling the effects of having gone beyond it. Once a network exceeds its carrying capacity it begins to perform in a suboptimal way, until eventually, if it keeps on growing, it collapses. The point at which a network collapses is the breakpoint (the second stage in the evolution of a network).
Now, if a network has grown too far beyond its carrying capacity (often due to human interference) it may collapse entirely. However, if the network is allowed to reach its breakpoint naturally, it will usually just collapse in a way that leads it to shrink back in size and complexity to its natural carrying capacity. If the former happens the network dies, if the latter happens the network reaches the third and final stage: equilibrium. In the equilibrium stage the network may lose some of its size, but it is at this stage that it begins to improve in quality and stability.
Take an ant colony, for example. A successful ant colony grows in size until it reaches its breakpoint (sometimes due to an energy limit, but most often due to a complexity limit), at which point it begins shedding ants off to form new colonies. This downsizing process continues until the colony shrinks back to its natural carrying capacity–at which point it enters its equilibrium phase. It is only when it reaches equilibrium that the ant colony becomes as efficient and stable as it can be, and hitting this stage most often allows the colony to persist well into the future.
Or take the human brain. The brain generates new neurons and connections at an incredibly quick pace in the beginning. Eventually, though, it hits a breakpoint, at which time it begins culling back neurons and connections until it reaches equilibrium. It is at this stage that the brain begins developing real intelligence and even true wisdom.
When it comes to the internet—the network that is the focus of the book—we learn that this network is still in its growth phase, and thus it still has much evolving to do before it reaches maturity. Specifically, the internet must still grow beyond its carrying capacity, reach its breakpoint, and collapse back to equilibrium. What this means is that the internet stands to go through some very significant changes in the coming years.
Drawing on evidence from other networks, Stibel seeks to chart out what is likely to happen to the internet (and other internet-related networks) as it passes through its various phases on its way to equilibrium. Stibel predicts that the journey will feature some real growing pains, but that ultimately the internet will emerge better and smarter than ever (and may even develop consciousness).
The point of view that the author brings is very unique and interesting. His argument is also very persuasive. The one area where I felt the book fell short is in exploring the implications of what an intelligent and even conscious internet would look like. Will the internet just function in a way that it appears to exhibit intelligence and consciousness (as an ant colony does), or will it actually be intelligent and conscious (as a brain is)? Perhaps the author himself does not know, but if this is the case, he should at least say so. Instead, the author is very ambiguous here, and plays with the idea that the internet will actually be conscious, without fully committing to this or drawing out the implications thereof. Still, a highly entertaining and interesting read. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, August 6.