Networks are getting faster…

I was born in Mexico. Spent the first six years of my life in a society very different from what I have known since. Somewhere, in my already weakened neural connections, reside memories of a world not based on explicit networks. Our community was without paved roads and electricity and its many associated benefits. News and information didn’t travel very quickly. Some homes had a diesel generator that would be operated for a few hours a week, allowing community members to gather around a radio listening to news reports. Others – those crazy young kids – had access to small battery operated radios, though their interest was not in news, but rather music and culture.
While information flowed slowly, an entirely different reality existed. I recall evenings sitting around an oil-lamp, listening to (but not understanding) the conversations of adults. They spoke of “big things” – church, country, world conflict. Even though I had only an anaemic cognitive awareness of what was being discussed, I could share emotions. Fear. Anxiety. Laughter. It was a good feeling to be sitting in the peripheral world of adults – a small network sharing ideas, feelings, and world events. But it was not just the network that mattered. It was also the context in which the conversations took place. The memory of the oil lamp is to this day revived in certain settings and by certain smells. The flickering shadows cast on walls, moving almost rhythmically with the tone and energy of the conversation. And most importantly, the sense of oneness, of belonging, and of seeking to know and understand the big things of the world. While modern networks of electricity, news, information, roads, and technology were largely non-existent in this setting, the spirit these networks serve for me today already existed. It was the spirit of being human. Of connecting.
When my family moved to Canada in the late 70’s (under less than ideal conditions), the world views established in Mexico prevailed. Disdain for technology ran high in the minds of my parents. No TV. No computers (once they became broadly available in the mid 80’s). No radio. No newspapers. My distraction was found in books – forming connections between ideas and concepts that spanned centuries, instead of minutes and days as afforded by the technology at the time. The setting had changed – sand and cactus were replaced by farmland and snow. The oil lamp no longer attended animated conversations. Instead a chandelier above the dining room table provided a uniformity of light. Conversations, though not accentuated with dancing shadows, still formed the basis for coming to know and coming to understand the world in all its complexity. At least at home.
At school, newer networks were becoming prominent. In-class discussions of current events, use of textbooks and instructional video (after I learned English) replaced the filtering of ideas that had previously occurred through conversation in a trusted small group around a table. While principles were similar – small networked group – the humanness and the sense of belonging was missing. It was replaced with obligation and routine. I was not fascinated by the speakers, not enthralled with their ideas, and certainly not emotionally involved. The network had become a bit faster, a bit more diverse, and a lot less personal. Laughter was gone. The teacher and I played our respective roles, largely void of passion.
When I started university, my exposure to networks was ramped up significantly. Universities are awash with ideas, information, and opportunities for networks. But networks of what type? From my experience, these networks fit into two broad categories and do not necessarily meet often. The primary network is the connection to information, to theorists, to multiple world views. This is a cognitive engagement that is can be invigorating intellectually, but in university settings, is largely void of the humanness I encountered around discussion tables. The second network is social and relational, formed with other students and generally not academically focused (outside of the occasional study group). Learning and social networks, which for me had in my youth shared the same context and domain were torn asunder (always wanted to use “asunder” in a blog post). The trend of accelerating networks and decelerating humanness continued.
But then, in early 2000, I came across an interesting piece of software referred to as “a blog”. In the very choppy hit-and-miss Blogger tool at the time, I began playing around with different ideas and started forming a small network of likeminded individuals. Our conversation was largely parallel, not direct, but a new level of energy existed in the network. A trackback, link, or comment relating to a blog post formed the basis of an emerging network. Learning was becoming somewhat social. Information dissemination was accelerating at a much quicker rate than in traditional media. A newspaper published once a day. The evening news on TV was a similar “fixed time” summary of the day’s events. “The expert” dispensed information at select times. In contrast, blogs and other web-based tools enabled information to be disseminated at a significantly more rapid pace. The cost of this speed? Amateurs were granted equal footing with experts in the production and exchange of content.
The network trend has since continued and even accelerated. del.cio.us, Myspace, Facebook, ustream, and Twitter represent an acceleration of information sharing on par with the distinction between a traditional newspaper and blogs. Growing up, my information network was slow, but social contact was high. In early school years, the information network accelerated, at the expense of humanness of the exchange. In university, both information and social networks grew in intensity but did so separately. And with the growth of network tools for learning, socialization, and information exchange, the world became rather small. It was not unusual for me to spend more of my day in conversations with people in Europe, Australia, Middle East, US, or across Canada, than with others a few desks down from me at work (see Barry Wellman’s article on Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism (.pdf) for a more thoughtful exploration of the topic). In a digital sense, my early experience of small network conversation (though peripheral due to my age at the time) was revived in these global conversations. While we didn’t share the same geographical space, we shared the same ideals and passion for learning, information creation and sharing, and desire to belong, to be a part of something.
I have been critical of Twitter in the past. Recent experiences, however, cause me to rethink Twitter (my profile is here). Tools like Facebook and Twitter continue the long trend of “binding back” to our social, networked, small-group past. A past centered on the social sharing of information and making sense of the world together. The breakdown of distance and the growth of the speed at which information flows in our networks, is fortunately balanced by the rise of social tools. We don’t, after all, make sense of our complex world as individuals. We make sense as a network…a network in which we possess a unique identity and in which we find our sense of belonging and our sense of humanity. The flickering oil lamp has given way to Twitter, yet the context of engagement and need to socialize remains as it was then.

One Response to “Networks are getting faster…”

  1. Networks are sort of becoming faster but nodes in the network may be more meaningful when the network is slower. Blogs (connected by links, rss and trackbacks) are slower but richer than twitter with support for more links, multimedia etc. Also blogs are more enduring because twitter decays very fast. Its hard to track an historical conversion on twitter. Of course comments allow blogs to become faster and twitter can act like a commenting forum for a blog too.
    Off topic: There aught to be a twitter name entry field in blog posts by now :)
    Eamon