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On feeding connections (I)

Translation of Ilaria Montagni

It's difficult to face new things. it's difficult to communicate new things. It's difficult to write in order to communicate new things. Those who read try to find immediately some points of reference and these are in the territory of old, pre-existent and familiar things. In order to face new things, everybody must make an additional effort: the person who writes must manage to find adequate expressive tools, the person who reads must be ready towards new things, (s)he must be ready to adventures. A fundamental tool to communicate the new things is the metaphore but in order to make it work, it must be based on the familiar ground of the reader.


What I'm trying to explain about the way to be on-line is actually very simple but at the same time very difficult to communicate. I think the reason of this is the difficulty to find appropriate metaphores for different motives. In this article I will try to use all the metaphores which come to my mind with the hope that if one doesn't work, another can. Anyway, dear reader, before recurring to this strategy, I'd like to reassure you on the fact that what I ask to you is not free, is not a simple school exercise. it's an effort everybody must do because it is imposed by the great changes in the world we live in.


In this post , which is the first of a serie of three (I think...) propose areflection on two  fundamental elements which is necessary to focus on before any other consideration: the exponential growth of the evolution and the role of the networks. In the second post of the serie we will try to play a bit with some metaphores with the hope to be helpful in order to learn to take care of one's connections. In the end, in the third part we will try to make some considerations on communities and on the idea of Personal Learning Environment.


The conclusion, which we can suddenly communicate, will be almost like this: in order to use at one's best the new communication technologies we must learn to ignore them.


Evolution and exponential growth

There is no doubt that we live in an era of big changes, but it could be a mistake to think that these new things have no precedents and worry and mesmerize a condition of balance, and that maybe we could have avoided or changed something if we had made different actions. The world has never rested, rather it exists and, at this time of our and its history, we feel it thanks to the fact that it is made of only changes. We are the product of the evolution which happens on this planet and it is a fact universally accepted which the evolution has an exponential trend. [1]


There are overworked words. And exponential is one of those: exponential trend, exponential growth, exponential boom. I think everybody associates the word "exponential" to the idea that something grows in an explosive way, of course. But it is not only this. The exponential is also a maths function, let's see it. [2]



It is true that the exponential explodes but not always! It explodes on the right side, for x -> ∞ , mathematicians say. On the left side, instead, the exponential is absolutely calm, it seems that nothing is happening. Well, if the exponential represents the evolution, both on abscissas (the axis of x, the horizontal one) we put the time and on the ordinates (axis y, the vertical one) we put some index of the evolution: quantity of the human population, learning acquisition, level of complexity of the biological organisms or other things. Any quantity you put in, if the trend is exponential, in the initial part the growth is very slow and only from a certain point over we understand that we are in an explosive situation. It's like this that the illusion rises about the fact that things have started running out of the blue. But it's not like that. In the initial phase of the exponential growths nobody consider nothing and linear approximations or rather the stable balance hypothesis have real credits. Instead, the wordl has always been changing, the evolution has started on earth when conditions have permitted it, water, atmosphere, sufficient atoms quantities at disposal and appropriately spread and from that moment it hasn't stopped.


Well, at the beginning of the third millennium, the explosive phase has become visible and to the humanity is presented the challange to learn and face a succession of changes which is always more closed. There's no way to flee and no human activity can escape this. The new things will be our natural element.


Networks and organizations

In the last 400 years, during which technology and economy have started growing enourmously fed by the science progress from Galileo Galilei til now, the organizations of any type have structured themselves following the hierarchical pattern changed by militar organizations, maybe the first organizational pattern of the history.


At the beginning of the third millennium a new element has appeared even if it already existed and only now we see its fundamental role: the network [3].

The life emerges notwithstanding the endless rise of entropy established by the second principle of the thermodynamics with two legs: organizations and networks.


Networks are groups of nodes and connections. We call them networks notwithstanding the nature and the number of nodes, the nature and the structure of the connections. The networks have no order nor hierarchy. The nodes, for the functionality of the net, are all equal. There are no different roles for the nodes, there are no nodes of a type and nodes of another. The networks grow spontanously in a chaotic way.

With the term organizations I refer here to any structure which reveals any type of hierarchy. The organizations have an ordered structure and the parts which make it have well-defined roles.


The node of a network, itself, is a punctiform entity which is limited to the interaction with other nodes following the rules for all nodes and particular types of networks. Anyway, if we go and see a single node with the "microscope" we find out that it has an internal structure, composed also by organizations and networks.


In nature, organizations and networks are synergistic. Everything is mada by complex systems of entity where sometimes prevail the nature of the network and sometimes that of the organization. Always more complex systems are made by inextricable heaps of networks ans organizations of inferior level in a type of illimited and very complicates system of Chinese boxes.

This pattern can be applied to all aspects of the world, from the description of the biological systems to those of the macroeconimc systems.

How does a machine is created today? Once I've read about a new Chines machine which is Chinese because the concept and the management of the industrial process have happened in China. Anyway, the different systems which compose the machine are made in the USA, Germany, Austria, China and some other countries. The machine is assembled in a factory in the South of Italy. This is a trend which characterizes the entire world economy. It is now normal to buy a car of a certain brand where more tha 50% of the systems which make it have been projected, built up and assembled by an international network of producers independant from the brand of the final product. Do you need some brakes for the car you are creating? Well, you have to consider all the producers of brakes in the market and choose that capable to give you the brakes with the qualities you want and the lowest price.

The nodes of an industrial network are the enterprises which are the organizations characterized by a precise hyerarchy, Cheaf Executive Officer, members of the board of directors, manager and so on. Anyway, in order to work, any single enterprise has to behave as the node an enterprises' node. The mass of rules which characterize the connections among enterprises is well-defined but the network of enterprises grows in a chaotic way. Nobody can really control the way a network grows.


Our society is composed by settlements which go from the most minuscule of the villages to the biggest city. Each human settlement is composed by networks and organizations. For example, every town has a major, a counsel, a serie of technical offices where work people with precise skills and responsabilities and so on. Anyway, in each town the totality of settlements represent a network which has developped during the history in a spontaneous and chaotic way under the influence of a very complex heap of factors. Nobody has never projected the entire distribution of settlements in a town. Similar attempts in the past are maybe similar to some dictatorships but these are episodes that are re-absorbed quickly during the natural course of time.


The world of software open source, the os Linux for example, is a network of software developpers, each of them beahves like in a node of a network. At a "microscopical" level we can recognize that the single notes can be very different. We can go to the IT student or to the IT amateurs, from the IT enterprise which develops an Open Source software as a variant of a line of products to the multinational which invest billions of Euros in the integration of disposable Open Source products with those of the home. Notwithstanding the different types of contributors, all interact with the Open Source world by adequating to the same rules and thus acting as nodes of a network.


In an article published on The Economist the 25th October 2005, Mr. Kelly, responsible for the division Intellectual Proprety of IBM, to the question on the reason why the IBM, the major producer of industrial patents in the world, have given them for about 40 millions of dollars in 2003 to the Open Source world, answers: "It isn't because we are nice guys" explaining that now it is obvious that the ecosystem vitality made by the network of Open Source developpers is too important for the health of the IBM business.


The single nodes which make the Open Source developpers network behave similarly but they can have very different internal structures, from that of a big multinational to that of a single person, the latter for example made by a very complicated system of cells organized in different structures. Maybe the most complex of these structures is the brain which is made by a network of cells, each neuron a node. For its turn, the single cell is a complex system of macromolecules whose analysis brings to other structures and networks. And so on.


There's probably a lot of things to understand on the proprieties of the networks and their relations with the organizations, but there is no doubt that in all the fields the rle that the networks seem to play in all the aspects of the surrounding world is becoming really important. A true certain fact on which a lot of people agree is that when, in any context, new things appear, this happens always as a product of the network: the network, when it is in good shape, produces something which is superior to the simple addition of its parts. A totality of its software developpers chaotically overlooking on the same network have produced not only a certain quantity of softwares of the single products, but they have also created the industrial product able to compete in certain sectors and to win the challange with other conventional industrial products. In other words, they have created a new production pattern, lately replied in other contexts. They have created something new. New things appear as a superior thing face to its parts in the networks which are safe and sound: life to a macromolecules network, mind from a neurons' network, culture from a minds' network. It is not a chance that there are relevant observers from the political world who are considering with a lot of attention the role of the networks in the economic and political aspects of the society.


Our position in the history of the evolution on earth and the role of the networks, which have always existed but which are understood only today, are essential elements which have to be considered in order to try to face the big changes nobody can ignore. it's only under the light of these considerations that we can face also the so-called online world.


[1]     The law of accelerating returns, Ray Kurzweil.

[2]     In order to make this graphic, I've used a tool available on the net searching in Google with the words “web tool plot function”. Less than a minute between the desire to represent the exponential and its realization. For my searching work, I've used several softwares in the past for elaboration and production, but these are absolutely slower. .

[3]     Living Networks, in Network Logic, cap. 2, by Fritjof Capra.

[4]     Connexity revisited,  in Network Logic, cap. 4, by Geoff Mulgan.


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