Further thoughts on “The Architecture of Complexity”

Hierarchy of digital distractions
Hierarchy of digital distractions (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

In his 1962 paper “The Architecture of Complexity”, Herbert Simon writes that social systems often are what he describes as “near decomposable” – by which he means (the next few are my words, not his) that paths through social hierarchies are narrow:

This is most obvious in formal organizations, where the formal authority relation connects each member of the organization with one immediate superior and with a small number of subordinates.”

Taking the argument further he compares social organisations (and society as a whole) to crystals and other physical hierarchies, remarking:

In social as in physical systems there are generally limits on the simultaneous interaction of large numbers of subsystems. In the social case, these limits are related to the fact that a human being is more nearly a serial than a parallel information-processing system. He can carry on only one conversation at a time, and although this does not limit the size of the audience to which a mass communication can be addresses, it does limit the number of people simultaneously involved in most other forms of direct interaction … one cannot, for example, enact the role of “friend” with large numbers of other people.

This means, he says, that “lower frequency dynamics” will be associated with society than with groups of friends – his parallel here is again with natural hierarchies, where he says the length of the bond or chain of interaction determines the “frequency of vibration”. In other words, the pace at which society changes is limited by the very large number of small interactions that need to propagate along large social distances.

By now I am sure most of you can see the point I am going to make: social media changes all this – as suddenly it is possible to be friends with a large number more or less simultaneously. In this case maybe we should see the events of, say, the Arab Spring, not as driven by social media because it escaped censorship but also because it radically shortened the social distance between those who were previously kept apart: atomised, to use another physical parallel.

Not a particularly original observation over the last 18 months – but worth thinking about as an alternative explanation of the power of social media from that offered by, for instance, by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together.

Shirky says the power of social media is that it lowers the cost threshold – it is not, as he cites in one example, that there were not lay Catholics concerned about sexual abuse before the internet, but that they could not afford to communicate.

But reinterpreting Simon the change brought may be more fundamental – the powerful bonds of friendship may spread as never before and the experience could be rapid and radical changes in society.

Power law growth is not the only way on the internet

Sometimes it is difficult to understand what to think about the internet as a transformative medium.

We can see the Arab Spring and the way in which networked and social media has broken down the only monopolies of power and information in authoritarian societies (though do not forget the way the Iranian regime used social media to pick off its opponents too) but in Britain I can also see that, despite a lot of hype and hoopla, the “traditional” media – broadcast news and print journalism – still count for more than any and every blog, even though the internet is continually reshaping these outlets too (or in the case of print, slowly strangling it to death).

I think one of the barriers to understanding the real impact of the internet on communications is what seems to be the need of the growing army of social media consultants to deploy the hyperbolic. The famous (and utterly compelling) video shown below is just one example.

But the reality is that one can build a decent presence on the internet without looking for explosive growth, viral spread and power law dynamics. This – the long tail – is typified by the this blog. I do not claim that anything written here is driving the news agenda in Britain, and nor is readership growing exponentially. But it is growing in what appears to be a linear fashion.

I have had a few stories picked up by slashdot and occasionally by one or two other influential tweeters and similar, which cause spikes in readership of particular pages. So I looked at the graph of readers of the home page.

Home page view numbers

There are still spikes for the wash over from the big hits, but much more important for me is the steady growth in the core readership. Already in 2012 the hits on the home page (3721) are comparable to the total for 2011 (4215) despite the two big peaks you can see at the end of February and start of September for last year. Much of that traffic is search engine driven (across the site as a whole Slashdot has been the top referrer – 15900 views – with all search engines managing 9646 referrals, but that is way ahead of Twitter – 1914 – and Facebook – 479).

Of course, it would be great if the blog “went viral” and millions were coming here to read about hex editors and domain-specific languages. But that is never likely, so the steady growth is a healthy sign, I think, that I must be getting something right. It also ought to remind social media boosters that theirs is not the only way.


Email is ill, but is not dying

Illustration of Facebook mobile interface
Image via Wikipedia

The BBC’s website has an interesting article on the prospects for email, a subject I have written on here a few times.

Email is no longer the killer application of the internet, certainly. Designed by scientists to send messages to other scientists and so built around the notion that all users were acting in good faith, it is weak and that is, no doubt, contributing to the rise of social media as an alternative means of communication.

But there is no reason why we should replace one broken security model – that of email – with another – a reliance on proprietary software (Facebook is proprietary after all).

Email will last because it is open. But maybe someone could and should write a better email.

Does email have a future?

An email box folder littered with spam messages.
Image via Wikipedia

To anyone who sits, as I do, in front of an email program every day waiting for something new or who, again as I do, carries around a BlackBerry, awaiting the next instruction, the title of this blog might seem slightly silly.

But I know my children, who are never away from the computer, hardly ever touch email and although email is undoubtedly the first of the social media it is the one least regarded by any campaigner or professional communicator.

And reading on in John Naughton‘s A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet it is very difficult these days to share his excitement about the medium – even though I too was once a True Believer. Naughton writes of email’s “hypnotic attraction” and of people “raving about the wonders of email”: does anyone (at least in the West) feel that way today?

Perhaps it is familiarity that has bred contempt, especially when so many office workers can feel like slaves to the system. Perhaps it is the poor quality of most (all?) email clients: the multitude of clicks to read attachments and close messages and so on can be wearing.

But there is more I fear. Spam has taken a terrible toll on email’s credibility. It seems strange to think that little more than a decade ago it was actually quite rare. Now it is so ubiquitous that I doubt that even the fine range of cruel and unusual punishments I would happily subject spammers to would suffice to kill it off (even if it killed some of them). Surely one of the reasons why other social media are popular is because they do give you more power to shut off the spammer (they also have better interfaces generally, also).

But the ability to email anyone for a legitimate reason seems to me to be a positive thing: MPs and others in public office, for instance, should not find it too easy to cut off the flow of public information.

But it is also plain that SMTP email is not up to the job. We have resisted a paradigm shift because the installed base was so high, but actually the whole thing has been crumbling beneath our feet.

What to replace it with? Could a system of distributed public/private key verification work? (Users sign emails with private keys while the signature is verified by a public key – if public key and email address do not match the email is junked and bad senders can be excluded by blacklisting their address).

Maybe, but there seems to be little commercial imperative in it, so it will either arise spontaneously or be sponsored by government and that might raise other concerns.