It’s a smaller world than you think
This epic growth occurred without conscious design or an overseer (except perhaps Al Gore, but that’s another commentary). In effect, the “wiring of the Internet” has been uncontrolled to the point of being practically random.
The Internet and the World Wide Web are the result of decisions by countless individuals, universities and businesses, all without a common theme.
Yet by some mysterious principle the Internet seems to have a wisdom of its own. So what does this have to do with the title of this commentary?
The Internet and the World Wide Web are superb illustrations of the interconnectedness that graph theory mathematicians call “six degrees of separation.”
In the mid-’60s an American psychologist, Stanley Milgram, was studying the interpersonal connections of people in a given community. After much research, he theorized that no more than six links separate any two people on earth. His findings passed into popular folklore and today are a part of the science of graph theory.
In essence, through a series of ordered and unordered connections, mathematicians hypothesize that every one of the earth’s 6.2 billion people is only six handshakes from anyone else – and that’s a very small world.
If you know someone’s name or are familiar enough to say hello if you pass them on the street, those people fall into your “local network.” Local networks include both strong links (family members, good friends, co-workers, etc.) and weak links (the paperboy, the shopkeeper, refrigerator repairman, etc.) By using connections from your local network (you know 50 people and each of those 50 people know 50 people, etc,) you can literally connect to anyone in the world.
Think about it, how many handshakes are you from President Bush? I know a congressman and he knows the president, so that’s two handshakes; the woman behind the deli counter at the City Market who happens to be from the Ukraine knows me, so she’s three handshakes away from President Bush. Her cousin, who has never been more than five miles from a small farming community in Russia, is only four handshakes away, and so on.
Obviously a controlled experiment is impossible. Besides, who has the time to meet with 6.2 billion people? But this really works.
Here’s another factual example: Monsignor Valario Valeri is a family friend who before he retired was the first secretary to the secretary of state of the Vatican. Monsignor Valeri knows the pope, who in turn knows Fidel Castro, who knew Nikita Khrushchev, who knew Joseph Stalin, who knew Winston Churchill – see where I’m going? The examples are practically infinite.
Albert Einstein once said, “In science, imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Mathematical laws and observable patterns exist in everything from the world of neurons to social and financial networks, and are useful tools to help understand the planet we inhabit.
We just need to look for them. It’s also a fun game to play at cocktail parties.
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org