Monday, August 26, 2013

Our future relies on our social networks




Harold Jarche’s excellent post “The social imperative”, where he tells a story of how a group of baboons became healthier and less stressed by cooperating, inspired me to think and write a bit about what role social networks play for our ability to cooperate as humans, as well as to survive as a species. As Harold writes, recent research shows that evolution is on the side of those who cooperate:
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

In the post Harold points to the limitations of hierarchical organizational models for dealing with large-scale levels of complexity. He refers paper called Complexity Rising by Yaneer Bar-Yam in which Bar-Yam writes that “hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases” and that they “must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.” Harold’s conclusion from this is that “we need stronger networks and looser hierarchies”, given that our social networks are the infrastructure for increasing lateral interactions and thus our ability to deal with complexity.

When discussing online social networks and the phenomena of social networking, we need to look at the bigger picture and the underlying need for social networks instead of just dismissing these things as hype or nonsense, using trivial arguments such as "I'm not interested in hearing or seeing what other people ate for breakfast". The concept of social networks is of course not a new thing. Social networks are the very core of being human, a thing that separates humans and other primates from other species. What is new is that we have extended our capability to build and sustain our social networks using information technology, for example online social networking platforms.

Humans, like other primates, are highly social animals. We have also proven to be very successful at adapting to different and changing environments, despite the fact that we aren't highly specialized in anything. We don’t have very developed senses, nor do we possess enormous strength.  We can’t run very fast and we certainly can’t fly (by ourselves, that is). Therefore, one might say that our as humans specialty is our ability to quickly adapt to different environments, and our social networks play a very central part in this. Besides the more obvious benefits of cooperation such as sharing of food and protecting each other from predators, our social networks allow us to quickly disseminate information across the group so that we can quickly adapt to a changes in the environment.

As a side note, plenty of research support the idea that we humans and other primates have evolved our complex cognitive skills as we have adapted to life in large social networks. Even the relative brain size of primates has been correlated with social group size, suggesting that adapting to the complexity of social groups is a key reason for the larger, more complex brain of humans.

Humans invented physical tools to extend and enhance our physical abilities. We invented the written language and communication technologies such as the letterpress, the telegraph and the phone to extend our ability to communicate with each other. We invented trains, planes and automobiles for faster transportation, and the invention of aviation gave us the ability to fly. More recently, we invented the computer and other devices such as the smartphone to extend and enhance or cognitive abilities. With online social networks, we are back at the core of being human – our ability to adapt to different environments by cooperating as a social group, and the cognitive skills we develop as our social networks grow in size and complexity. The greater the challenges we face, the more we need to extend and enhance our social networking, communication and collaboration abilities. Our social networks, and thus the means we have to support these (such as online social networks and social technologies in general), are key ingredients in any approach to deal with challenges we need to face ahead.

Therefore, the importance of Harold’s closing remark cannot be overestimated: “Becoming more social is not just a new business driver but also a societal imperative.” In my opinion, no words are big enough when describing how important it is to develop our ability to deal with complexity as a social group. Borrowing the words of Esko Kilpi, our social networks aren’t just the “the architecture of work”, but also the architecture of society and the foundation upon we need to build our future.

Photo: My own photo of a group of Baboons near Cape Point in South Africa