Hierarchies and networks – Why networks matter

Hierarchies and networks

I have been saying this in many forms over the years .. but still worth re-emphasizing since it’s the philosophical foundation of OpenGardens

What exactly is a network? And why are networks so special?

Networks are all around us. But their effects are less well understood because  in our daily lives, we are used to hierarchies; for example, in the organization of offices and institutions, we still see hierarchical structures. Hierarchies are the opposite of networks. While hierarchies will not be replaced by networks in all cases, but  already, through the Internet, we are seeing networks assert their strength in many aspects of Life.

Networks have a subtle but disruptive impact. Global warming is a good example of a network level change. Here, by ‘network level change’, we mean that events leading to global warming are interconnected, but their impact is felt only over a long period of time and is felt separately from the change that triggers it.

For instance, you cannot know by how much exactly the ozone layer will change for every plastic bag that you fail to recycle, but most people would agree that the environment is impacted  for every such plastic bag that ends up on the ocean floor.

On first impression, networks are not special in any way.

A network is simply a collection of links between units (also called nodes).

Networks exist at multiple levels: global, societal (country), group (office), and individual.

Every unit within a network can be seen as a closed system.

Closed systems interact in predetermined ways.

When a network connects more than two closed systems, their interaction is no longer predetermined.

This could be seen as ‘opening up’ the system.

The system has now gone from a closed system to an open system.

Open systems interact in unknown, radical ways.

All closed systems have a natural propensity to find new connections which cause them to ‘open up’.

What happens when networks open up and how do networks evolve?

But what happens when systems open up? That is, how do networks evolve? This is a complex question.

You can study the propensity of a system to change in two ways: as a biological system or as a mathematical system.

From a biological perspective, a system evolves to survive and to grow. First there is an initial interaction. From that interaction comes variation―the system changes and adapts. Over time, there is selection and retention―the best qualities are adopted and retained.

This approach is basically along the lines of Darwin’s natural selection theories.

From a mathematical perspective, networks evolve by creating order out of chaos.

How does order appear in a network? Without going into the mathematics, all parts of the system appear to communicate with all other parts purely by local interactions.

In general, a system comprises a set of interacting or independent entities that form an integrated whole.

When we speak of a system, we also define a boundary―the external context within which the system exists.

Entities within a system interact with one another (within the boundaries of the system) but can also interact with entities from outside the system’s boundaries.

An open system continuously interacts with its environment.

In doing so, it evolves and grows based on external input.

In contrast, a closed system does not get external feedback and does not evolve.

Breakdown of hierarchies are related to networks and open systems, which lead to connections, and more connections lead to more social interactions and to a “step change” in the body of knowledge.

This step change is exponential and disruptive – powered by the Internet


Clustering: More than connecting friends – An amplification of ideas

When left to themselves, networks have a tendency to “cluster” because two elements connected to a common third element are more likely to establish links among themselves, leading to clusters.

This leads to phenomena like six degrees of separation. “Six degrees of separation…refers to the idea that everyone is [at most] six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of ‘a friend of a friend’ statements can be made…to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.”

Thus, networks can potentially connect friends, and these human factors offer a bigger reason for the success of social networks.

But networks do more than ‘connecting friends’, networks propagate and amplify ideas.

Places that lie at the crossroads are a hub of new ideas simply because they ‘connect people’.

Consider the case of the ancient mummies found in the Tarim Basin.

The Tarim Basin  is located in the far western region of China.

Surrounded by inhospitable mountains and deserts, the Tarim basin is a vast, arid micro-continent and may have been one of the last places in Asia to be inhabited because its aridity required that technology for water transport and storage be developed before people could live there.

However, ancient DNA from mummies found there suggests that a culturally rich and interrelated population of Western, Eurasian, and Asian people had lived here since the early Bronze Age.

If this region was so arid and inhospitable, why did people choose to live there, intermingle and thrive in such a hostile environment?

Despite its bleakness, the proximity of the Tarim basin to the ancient Silk Road was the main reason for its cultural development.

Thus, living at a crossroads is good for the creation of new ideas no matter how hostile  the surroundings.

With networks, we no longer need geographical hubs – we have social hubs and these social hubs are far more fluid, dynamic, global and disruptive to control 

So, why are networks important?

Simply because networks lead to Open systems.

Open Systems lead to a breakdown of hierarchy and to more equality and this impacts society broadly.

In a world in which hierarchies break down leading to a more equal society.



Tarim basin – Image source – wikipedia

The cultural impact of networks and social networks

The rise of networks and the liberalization of society go together.

As networks proliferate, society becomes more liberal and equal.

Because ideas and networks know no boundaries and they have a tendency to open up closed ecosystems, their effects are global.

As connections are formed globally and contradictory views are shared and discussed, we will question many forms of authority and structure in society that we have taken for granted in the past for instance, governance, religion, Identity(to which groups we affiliate ourselves and the creation of a global identity) and spirituality.

Thus, networks have a disruptive effect.

In this sense, networks can be good for humanity and we will see networks bring about even more creative change in future.

The relationship is symbiotic. The more we use networks and grow, the more the network is enriched.