Connection is Fundamental: Networks for Life, Learning and Livelihood
By Curtis Ogden, Senior Associate at the Interaction Institute for Social Change
"Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance."
This is the first post in a series focused on network theory and its actual and potential applications to education and learning. Network theory is on the one hand a new and emerging interdisciplinary science and on the other hand it is ancient, grounded in indigenous and experiential ways of knowing about the reality of interconnectedness. Another important element of "network science" is imagination--the use of creative expression and metaphor that recognizes and works with relationship and relatedness that can help to guide our minds, hearts, and hands. These posts will draw insight from this broader understanding of network theory. This first post offers a larger view of the nature and potential of networks in our lives.
There is a lot of talk about networks these days. And there is considerable hope and effort being put into more interconnected ways of working and learning in order to bring about much needed innovation and change in multiple fields, including education. This is exciting, and at the same time I am concerned that the conversation can be relatively narrow, or leap ahead of some deeper insights of network theory and practice. In so doing there is a risk of not getting to the more promising potential of networks.
Connection is fundamental. This is a core observation of network theory (and various wisdom traditions). Network theory starts by pointing to the fact that we often talk about the world in terms of individual things and their properties. This kind of approach may work in situations and in systems that are fairly simple and relatively static. But when the interactions and the complexity of the elements in a system increase, it is the connections that determine the characteristics of the elements in the system and its overall health. This holds true for any kind of dynamic living system--ecosystems, human communities, economies, etc.
"Network theory suggests that what a system becomes emerges from the complex, responsive relationships of its members, continuously developing in communication."
Life is at base a network. It thrives on connection. We all know this, experientially, because we are alive! And when we are not feeling alive or lively it is often because we are disconnected, cut off in some way--from other people, from the natural world, from our selves (feelings, bodies, values), from power or a sense of purpose. (See the UK's recent move, incidentally, to appoint a Minister of Loneliness to address the multiple ills stemming from growing social isolation). Life thrives on connection.
For a non-human example of the enlivening potential of connection on a larger scale, consider the story of what happened recently to the Great South Bay between Fire Island and Long Island's South Shore. The bay has long been impacted by runoff containing fertilizers and herbicides. Brown tides and blooms of algae led to the collapse of that ecosystem and what had been a thriving clamming industry. Then four years ago a storm surge from Hurricane Sandy created a breach that opened a passage between the ocean and the bay. While it was initially considered a blight and a concern, that breach breathed life into the bay, bringing in a flow of fresh ocean water. According to a scientist quoted in a New York Times article, "The life just flowed into the bay--fish, seals and sea turtles. It's been an unqualified boon and has shown us what the Great South Bay once was, and what it could be again."
A network lens shows us how we can create a variety of capabilities and benefits through weaving and strengthening connections of various kinds. Increasingly, social technologies are helping us to see what can happen when previously isolated people, things, and ideas are brought into relationship. Consider how networks such as GODAN and the Honey Bee Network promote open data and story sharing so that farmers have timely access to information and innovations around sustainable and resilient agricultural practices. Consider how quickly Occupy Sandy, as a decentralized network, was able to mobilize local disaster relief efforts compared to traditional and more centralized responses, or a how a network of dedicated friends and their extended networks defied statistical odds and mobilized thousands of bone marrow drives to help save lives of those in the South Asian community diagnosed with leukemia.
With our heightened ability to connect digitally, experience is showing that we also need to be mindful of the quality and quantity of connections. We need to develop awareness of the difference between and benefits of deeper and more superficial (or loose) connections. At what point are we trying to maintain too many connections? This is all a part of the growing importance of what Finnish sociologist Esko Kilpi calls "interactive competence"--the ability to connect with other people and information, in different ways, when needed.
"What we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others in relational networks reaching far and wide."
-John Edward Terrell, Termeh Shafie and Mark Golitko, "The Networks Revolution"
In stories emerging from a diversity of fields including neuroscience, public and environmental health, evolutionary biology, and economics, we see how connection changes something about what is connected. And this figures centrally in education and learning, as the work of intentionally connecting people more deeply and/or broadly to people, ideas, and other resources can yield new knowledge, insights, access, and opportunity.
My friend and colleague at the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics, Sally J. Goerner, who studies what are called the energy network sciences (flows of energy and resources in different kinds of networked systems), has observed that:
"Long-term prosperity is primarily a function of healthy human webs."
Here prosperity is not simply about wealth, but health, justice, and learnedness. In particular, Goerner says that healthy webs are characterized by optimal degrees of diversity (of elements), intricacy (of connections), and robustness (of resource flows). Her core message is that tending to the pattern and quality of connections and flows matters centrally to the well-being of individuals as well as to systems of which they are a part. This would seem to be of interest to, well, everybody, and especially those working for pro-social and environmental change.
All of this to say that networks are not simply a "so that," a tactic or a strategic means to an end. We live and breathe in and by virtue of networks. Therefore, ongoing attention to connections and flows at different levels (individual, group, institutional, larger systems) is central to resilience and development.
Furthermore, networks are not all about mass movement. Making small moves and gestures can have big impacts (network effects; more on that coming in another post). A wonderful articulation of this was made by long-time Detroit-based community activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs:
"We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it's never a question of 'critical mass.' It's always about critical connections."
So the invitation, before leaping into action, is to let the fundamental nature of interconnectedness sink in.
How do you know and observe the power of connection in your work and life?
Where might poor connection, disconnection, and diminished or lacking flows be contributing to undesirable dynamics and outcomes?
How might the intentional fashioning and feeding of critical connections support what you are trying to create as an educator?