the faster we go the rounder we get, but movement may be an illusion.

13th October, 2006

I just read “Could it be a big world after all?” by Judith S. Kleinfeld, a re-examination of Stanley Milgram’s “small-world” aka “six-degrees of separation” study. The following will make significantly more sense if you look over Judith’s paper.

Her abstract is here:

“The idea that people are connected through just “six degrees of separation,” based on Stanley Milgram’s “small world study,” has become part of the intellectual furniture of educated people. New evidence discovered in the Milgram papers in the Yale archives, together with a review of the literature on the “small world problem,” reveals that this widely-accepted idea rests on scanty evidence. Indeed, the empirical evidence suggests that we actually live in a world deeply divided by social barriers such as race and class. An explosion of interest is occurring in the small world problem because mathematicians have developed computer models of how the small world phenomenon could logically work. But mathematical modeling is not a substitute for empirical evidence. At the core of the small world problem are fascinating psychological mysteries.”

My point:

The internet is connecting us with the people all over the world, its true! Even people from different social casts – something that seems truly amazing: but the people from other social classes are quite probably connected to us and the internet in the sense that they are working in differentiated areas connected to the web. Meaning that the internet is built and maintained via an all too familiar division of labor where job is more often than not associated with class, similar, if not identical to the offline world. There are the people working behind the scenes, “under the hood” of the internet: programming, building the hardware, or answering the phones at the outsourced tech support centers, and people using the web for entertainment, research, etc…. the usual divisions.

We’re “in touch” via the internet but under the conditions of the divide and conquer mentality of the recent past – so we’re really not any closer as a species – it’s not like we’re actually making friends with people from other countries AND other classes. Sure, we’ve all met people from other geographic regions – sometimes online, sometimes at an event – a conference or festival, but I’m wondering if, aside from a different mother tongue, if the people we feel we are genuinely connecting with, becoming authentic friends with, don’t already have a lot in common with us – and that commonality may very well have to do with class – I’m tempted to say education, too, but while similar education certainly goes a long way towards creating resonance with others, I’m still wondering whether, at the end of the day, if our primary common linkage, the thing that resonates strongest and bonds people most readily isn’t socio-economic.

Of course there are exceptions, but given all the hype about the small-world and global village we are all being woven into – think carefully about your MySpace experience, I’m wondering whether we’re not really mapping the “old” social cast system, developed over the past centuries or more, into the “new” wired world. Lawrence Lessig, among others, makes the point that the freedoms we experience now are in proportion to the degree to which we can fight off the attempts of the past to re-establish itself in the present.

The web as metaphor suggests a more equal relationship between participants than we are currently experiencing. That more equal relationship will be very different than what most of us are familiar with.
Are we willing do the work and take the risks to make the promise of greater integration real?


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