The Network is Challenging Us

Peter Kruse
Peter Kruse is founder and managing partner of nextpractice GmbH in Bremen, Germany. He worked for over 15 years at several German universities in the field of brain research. His main topics have been the processing of complexity and the autonomous order formation in intelligent networks. He is internationally successfull as a consultant for over ten years now.

 

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If we see the Internet as one of the FutureChallenges mankind is facing, what would you consider to be the most important aspect in dealing with it? Is the Internet challenging us?

Peter Kruse >
Who are you addressing as “us”? If “us” stands for the group of individual persons using the Internet, I think the challenge is primarily a matter of dealing with too much information. In the Internet the most striking problem for any single user is the reduction of complexity. Confronted as we are with the steady real-time flow of information, overload seems to be normal and understanding is more of a lucky   exception. To successfully cope with the complex dynamics of the Internet, it is helpful or even necessary to understand and apply the principles of self-organizing systems. Self-organization describes the capacity of interactions in a system to create “stable states of order far from equilibrium” without a steering mastermind. Self-organization occurs when the macro level of a holistic pattern-formation process interacts with the micro level of a huge number of spontaneously active elements. By looking at the Internet in a fuzzy, less detailed way it is possible to get access to emerging patterns in knowledge domains, communities, societies and cultures. Being personally stressed by overload is not a question of the perceived amount of information but of the strategy of information processing deployed. If one is able to behave like an element in the dynamics of a self-organizing system, there is a chance to get access to higher levels of pattern-formation. The Internet is far more than a distribution channel for a chaotic cacophony of more or less trivial information which can only be managed by restriction or the clever filtering out of real assets. The Internet is an ocean which mirrors global and local cultural dynamics. The future killer-application displacing search-engines will probably be invented as a kind of computer tomography for Internet dynamics.
The long-term effects of the Internet may be more comparable to the impact of the worldwide launch of photography than to the democratization of knowledge through Gutenberg’s printing press. Photography suddenly opened up the aristocratic privilege of creating a documentation of one’s own history by being painted in a timeline to everyone. Photography catalyzed the individual self-awareness and self-confidence of people by giving easy access to biographical patterns. What photography did for individual consciousness the Internet is now starting to do for the self-awareness and self-confidence of society. By being an active part of the  complex dynamics of the Internet it is possible to realize trends and developments far earlier and far better than ever before. But please remember, you should concentrate more on the macro-levels of order formation and not on every single bit of information. It is a matter of changing attitudes  and expectancies.

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“Swim with the dynamics and do NOT filter the information” was the title of an interview you gave recently. What do you mean by this?

Peter Kruse >
If you want to reduce complexity by filtering out valuable information, the intelligence of the result is always limited to the intelligence of the filter mechanisms used. You have to understand the pattern before you are part of the pattern-formation process. Filtering is a form of knowledge management. To be part of the dynamics is a form of entrepreneurial risk-taking and artistic creativity: surprise and be surprised. “I do not seek, I find” as Pablo     Picasso once formulated the difference. Be part of the dynamics and not the mastermind at the back. And be certain that the Internet with the participation of so many people is so quick and complex that it will always be ahead of you, no matter what you do.

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When you’re talking about “patterns”, is this some kind of layer over the Internet? How would you   describe a pattern?

Peter Kruse >
If you look, for example, at a pointillist painting you realize that it is necessary to step back to solve the problem of millions of pixels by reducing the complexity to the overall impression the artist wanted to share with you. It then becomes a landscape, a group of people or some animals in the wood. Our brain is extremely well trained in this process of reducing complexity by order-formation. Like the Internet, our brain is a self-organizing system. So the Internet and the brain make a perfect fit. No need for payback.
What happens when you look at a pointillist painting is directly comparable to what enables an  entrepreneur to put forward a future business opportunity earlier than his competitors or what enables an author to formulate the attitude to life of a whole generation. J. D. Salinger published his novel “The Catcher in the Rye” in 1951 as a book for adults, but the stream of consciousness he gave to his protagonist Holden Caulfield has attracted adolescent readers round the world ever since. His antihero is an icon for teenage rebellion – an archetype, a basic pattern.
But for me by far the best way of explaining the idea of pattern-formation as a way of reducing complexity are the fascinating think tools we call “metaphor” or “analogy”. They enable the direct transfer of an insight from one area of application to a totally new one without substantial loss: “a new broom sweeps clean”, “the early bird catches the worm”, or “too many cooks spoil the broth” etc.

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Would you describe the Internet then as a huge social brain?

Peter Kruse >
No, this would be an analogy with major shortcomings. Our brain is an assembly of single cells whose architecture is far less complex than the architecture of the overall system. In the Internet every active user has – hopefully – a brain and therefore all users are themselves equipped with a basic architecture more complex than the Internet as a whole. Each user is able to create a phenomenon like consciousness. But the Internet is not able to reach such levels of order-formation. The Internet is a network of brains that sometimes creates collective intelligence – nothing more. Mystification doesn’t help. The brain and the Internet are without doubt self-organizing systems with non-linear behaviour and a high degree of unpredictability.

When the Internet started, the first boom was triggered by people’s fascination with easy access to a rich world of knowledge, ideas and pictures. With hyperlinks, connectivity in the network exploded and it started to become increasingly unmanageable. The focus of users shifted from the provider to the search engine, from access to filtering. But users quickly realized that search engines are not able to solve the problem of qualitative evaluation. The structural possibility of connecting bits of information via hyperlinks takes information out of its context and makes it extremely difficult to decode intended meaning. To describe this loss of contextual support, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens invented the telling term “disembedding”. The reaction of users to this was to solve the problem by “rooming in”, giving poor lonesome information a caring social environment or community. The focus of users shifted from search engines to the social software of Web2.0. First motivated by the need to reduce complexity via recommendations, users were soon inspired by a new motivation to be present in the Internet: leaving one’s mark in order to be recognized by others. The first Internet-boom of access to information was followed by the second boom of active participation. The first huge migration of the information age had begun. People changed from being Digital Visitors who use the Internet as a tool into Digital Inhabitants who just live in the Internet. The Internet started to become a cultural area in itself. The distinction between “real” and “virtual” disappeared long before the idea of augmented reality was born. From a systems theory perspective, the explosion of connectivity was amplified by the explosion of the number of spontaneously active elements. A network was formed with many links and nodes able to produce non-linear dynamics. On top of this, by inventing the re-tweet-function, Twitter-users added the possibility of circular excitation which in the brain is a basic feature of short-term memory. Merging high connectivity with the plethora of spontaneously active elements and the emergence of dynamic engrams by circular     excitation gives a very effective incubator for unpredictable hypes. This dynamic characteristic of the Internet opened the door to the famous “long tail” – suddenly everyone was in principle able to set off an avalanche to reach the centre of public attention.

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Leaving behind the individual level, what do we have to deal with as a society? What is the challenge from this perspective?

Peter Kruse >
This is the big question. The impact on the personal level is quite obvious – it’s all about reduction of complexity and the need to find an appropriate   balance between protection of privacy and the wish to be personally recognized and powerful. But on the level of society the impact is far more diverse and also varies from culture to culture. If you look, for example, at German culture, one of the most challenging effects is the change in the status of the expert. In German culture, proven expertise is a highly desirable core value. The expert is a person able to judge the importance of information and to direct development in promising directions. The federal government in Germany has accordingly just set up a group of 17 experts to work on “the  Internet and digital society”. But they’ve also added an 18th member: citizens. Even the politicians who have long embodied one of the most unquestioned expert statuses in German representative democracy now seem to recognize the tsunami on the horizon. The Internet is a bypass for every gatekeeper-restricted information flow that does not realize true added-value. In instable network dynamics it is impossible to maintain a powerful position over a long period just by assigning the label “expert”. Expertise has to prove its value anew at all times and not just once in an exam or assessment – and this means hard times for established hierarchies. To answer the question about the impact of the Internet on society, you have to think about cultures and subcultures. This is not simple.

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But isn’t there some general impact that holds true for any society?

Peter Kruse >
To continue the comparison between photography and the Internet: with enhancement of the visibility of pattern-formation processes in social dynamics and with the inevitable increase of transparency, the degree of self-awareness and self-confidence will grow in any society. Quite apart from the more pessimistic notion of cocooning and declining interest in political activities, the Internet thus nurtures the realistic hope that people will engage in public affairs – which does not necessarily mean that they will engage in political parties. Democracy is beginning to become more direct …

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… which is a real big thing…

Peter Kruse >
Self-awareness and self-confidence lower the threshold to action – in individuals as well as in    societies. The more people are interested in the dynamics of society and the more they are able to detect underlying pattern-formation processes, the greater becomes the amount of distributed knowledge needed to gain collective intelligence. One universal contribution the Internet has made to changing society is the opportunity it offers for obtaining global insights, while the other is the chance to trigger avalanches big enough to become part of public agenda setting. Before the Internet arrived, every motivation to change something had to search for ways of boosting its own impact by attracting the interest of the mass media or by investing heavily in PR activities. With the Internet, however, power shifts dramatically from offer to demand. When there is something of interest in the “long tail” to many people, the network will connect immediately and is in theory at least always ready to release an avalanche effect. So the situation has switched from an “idea in search for supporting networks” to “networks in search of attractive ideas”. Anyone may be the butterfly flapping with its wing in Brazil that sets off a tornado in Texas, as the meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz put it. In non-linear systems small causes can have great effects. With the presence of today’s Internet, it is impossible to keep the people out. Participation is king.

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When millions and millions of people are communicating with each other in the networks will we have less conflicts in future? Will there be more and deeper understanding between cultures and will transparency make it more difficult for governments, lobbyists and global players to push through their own interests?

Peter Kruse >
Transparency is a really potent mechanism. In combination with social networks, the fundamental shift of power already predicted for business more than ten years ago in the Cluetrain manifesto now reaches a new dimension. Tactical activities based on hidden agendas no longer engender the most assertive and sustainable competitive advantages. All the stakeholders in society have to learn this and I am sure it will not be an easy lesson to learn. But I am very optimistic that the necessary change of attitudes is only a matter of time. When environmental conditions change, being non-adaptive is not a healthy strategy as evidenced by the story of the dinosaurs. The only chance is to set back the clock on environmental conditions. But as long as no one shuts down the Internet, the story will go on.
With regard to the second aspect of your question, concerning the hope for harmonizing the world by using the Internet to foster the emergence of one overall culture, I am by no means so optimistic. The rise of a culture depends on the existence of a shared value system and on an adequate alignment of semantics (meaning), semiotics (symbols) and syntax (grammar). People have to interact very often, intensely, and quite redundantly in order to create a stable culture. This is not given in the Internet. Hence my proposal about an overall Internet culture is limited to a commonly agreed netiquette, some basic attitudes and core values. But in the network there will be a highly sophisticated and diversified landscape of subcultures open to everyone and ready to interact with each other. Therefore – not to follow the line of growth into one integrating culture – there is a high probability that the ability of the always curious heavy Internet users to share empathy with others will grow steadily. This applies to even strange or weird cultures. In this respect the Internet can be helpful in reducing the conflict potential in the world. But it also means that everyone has to jump out of the box from time to time, otherwise the Internet will enhance the danger of closed shops in which people feel comfortable. And this would result in an increase of conflict potential – again no easy answer to a clear challenge.

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The way you have been describing the network – this communication infrastructure we’ve created – what does it mean for the political or the educational system?

Peter Kruse >
As already mentioned, with its structure and dynamics the Internet poses a threat to any mode of formal hierarchical power. The attempt to defend a gatekeeper position without convincing attractiveness or proven added-value will be rapidly bypassed or cancelled. The Internet is not very loyal – you can be a hero and the most visited node today and a lonesome nobody tomorrow. Think of all the  Internet giants whose rise and fall we have already seen. In the Internet there is no chance of building an unforgettable brand like Coca Cola. Even those Internet companies which can create a generic term like “to google” should not feel too secure.
My recommendation for politicians is simply to be as active an element as possible in the networks. And please, do not use the Internet as an instrument for self-promotion, just as a place where you are an authentic, transparent and open minded partner for interaction. There is no other Web2.0 strategy apart from “please and thank you” as the German blogger Leander Wattig boiled it down.
For the educational system I have only one deep-rooted personal wish: skip the idea of optimizing the learning process as we did with industrial production. The Internet desperately needs people who are capable of judging information from very different domains, who are able to withstand the frustration of overload without disconnecting. Lateral thinkers, creative fools, people with broken careers – all the vulnerable people ready to take on the risk of unpredictable processes should be given the opportunity of deriving maximum benefits from educational institutions. We need a new definition of what is a “social elite”. Don’t be too streamlined and too target-oriented. Be inconvenient, unsatisfied, always in between and able to let things grow.

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But to be not too much ‘in between’, how can one translate insights into action by using the Internet?

Peter Kruse >
To be honest, I don’t think the Internet is a good tool for success in the usual sense of professional project management. Project management means to strategically minimize the distance between an actual and a target value. The underpinning concept here is steering and regulation – first order cybernetics and linearity. As mentioned at the start, the Internet is a self-organizing system with complex non-linear dynamics. The only remaining key for enhancing the probability of realizing your own ideas through use of the Internet is the empathetic perception of changing states and interactions. The Internet is not a technical but a human network. Its avalanche effects are enabled by its system characteristics but are equally driven by emotional resonance effects in the community of users. Early perception of trends, value drifts and attractive topics allows striking the same chord on many pianos. This may culminate in the rush of a coherent wave. It is like transferring from low-energy diffused light to a powerful laser beam.

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What does this mean for the relationship between online and offline worlds? Does the difference still play a role or is it no longer helpful?

Peter Kruse >
The time of the prediction that the Internet will end up in a perfect virtualization of the real world only limited by memory capacity is now over. This idea was nurtured by the dream of a totally uncontrolled and omnipotent space for personal experiences. Freedom far beyond reality was the basic motive. But the enhancement of self-awareness and self-confidence in society that I mentioned before will redirect people into taking up more responsibility in real life once more. Increasing use of smart phones together with the possibility of putting Internet layers directly on top of everyday activities are the key drivers of such a development. But even without augmented reality, the fascination of being a powerful part of the economy, politics and culture is too strong to allow use of virtualization as a trivial getaway. Persuading a company to act in a more sustainable manner by starting a corrotmob (pull) or forcing a global player to change strategy just by launching a video on YouTube (push) are both satisfying ways of releasing endorphins.

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In connection with the added value of the Internet, the concept of “collective intelligence” is often mentioned. What is meant by this and how can collective intelligence be stimulated through use of the Internet?

Peter Kruse >
One basic assumption related to the concept of “collective intelligence” is the existence of distributed knowledge. Following the Condorcet-Jury theorem, even when no individual person in a group mandated to decide between two alternatives knows the right solution, the result is better the more persons are involved. But this only holds true when the mean decision-maker in the participating sample is slightly above random (Delphi-effect). Especially when it comes to simply estimating quantities, it can be demonstrated that the group-result is always better than the results of single participants alone. But collective intelligence is far more than this and really not a rare freak phenomenon. Taking collective intelligence as a synonym for cultural performance, it becomes obvious that the added value of people interacting in the complex dynamics of a network is not an invention of the  Internet age. If we reject the “great man” theory of history, the idea of viewing the cultural development of mankind as the result of collective intelligence is quite compelling. The Internet is just a turbocharger scaling this form of intelligence up to new dimensions of speed and crowd. The only severe limitation for realization of collective intelligence in the Internet is imposed by the problem of disembedded information. Without an automatic understanding of meaning (semantics), the collective intelligence of the Internet is not able to reach its full potential.

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Does it really need an automatic understanding or is the context created by social networks already sufficient to solve the problem?

Peter Kruse >
The disambiguation of content by recommendation, annotation, or interpretation in a community does not work with really large numbers of people and with value-related information – the so-called “soft facts”. Look at Wikipedia and it soon becomes evident that this form of collective intelligence only works because the number of active editors is very small compared to the numbers of visitors. Because Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, acting as a watchdog to find out whether a fact is right or wrong is all that is required. Yet achieving consensus in the case of ethical or emotional questions is far more complicated and in fact is not possible in a network with as many active elements as the editors of Wikipedia. In November 2009 the Wall Street Journal wrote that Wikipedia has been continuously losing its editors for some years now. The network has simply grown too big and its cultural coherence has dropped below a critical value. Social networks are only able to solve the problem of disembedded information when the number of participants does not exceed a critical threshold and the information to be evaluated remains as close as possible to facts and figures.

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What would be your hope if someone really does find an algorithm able to disambiguate language and automatically evaluate meaning?

Peter Kruse >
I do not see this on the horizon nor am I sure that I would like to see it. Things as promising and powerful as the Internet generally bring dangerous side-effects with them. There’s no such thing as a free lunch! Even today the Internet is in a delicate balance between “what’s in for me” and “what price do I have to pay”. The semantic Web enhances the risk of misusing information to a degree that will not be easy to tolerate. Some big brother may well grow too big. So I am quite satisfied with the shortcomings we are now facing. Even today the mere amount of information is so high that any attempt to take control quickly reaches its limits. The real master of the universe is still the entity of Internet users. If the Internet really does get the Nobel Prize for Peace this year, it should be dedicated to them and not to any of the professional players.

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Talking about control of the Internet, we get pretty close to the question of censorship. Do you think such forms of restriction will take over or survive in the long-run?

Peter Kruse >

The Internet is the best instrument to enhance distributed knowledge in the world and to use the treasure of creativity in the “long tail”. Confronted as we are with global problems of high complexity, I think we really cannot do without the Internet. Back in 1956 Ross W. Ashby had already formulated his famous “Law of Requisite Variety” which states that the system able to solve a problem always has to have a higher variety of possible internal states than the system producing it. The complex dynamics of the Internet is a compelling answer to the complex dynamics produced by modern societies. Any form of restriction of access or censorship of content should be prevented as far as possible.

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Would you consider the use of the Internet as a human right?

Peter Kruse >
For me it simply is equivalent to having access to air or water. The Internet is a global commons. We should invest everything to bring it to even the remotest places on earth.

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One last question … please give us 140 characters on “the network is challenging us :-)

Peter Kruse >
The Internet is a tutorial made by mankind to instil the need of changing the value system underpinning the “subdue the earth” imperative.



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minimizarais
Oct 22, 2014 17:26

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