Steven Johnson gave an excellent speech on The Urban Web and used the example of John Snow and the 1854 cholera outbreak to illustrate how local information in social networks can lead to powerful results. He noted how the contribution of the Reverend Henry Whitehead had helped to gather the information that John Snow needed to conclude that the source of the cholera outbreak was the water pump at Broad Street.
He showed the relationship to web services where local bloggers are able to provide information more quickly than traditional media and that that this information can be delivered more quickly and more relevantly through the new technologies available to us.
By far the most stimulating talk, amongst a group of eloquent speakers, was Jeremy Keith who gave a speech entitled The System of The World. This explored amongst other things network theory, physics, social theory, cultural theory and philosophy somehow binding this together into a coherent exploration of how networks work and function.
Jeremy showed how networks are reliant on hubs and how the life of a network is largely unpredictable with Black Swans forcing networks to respond as they arrive. It would seem to be relatively easy to apply the ideas of network theory and black swans to pretty much anything - civilisation, the banking system, pop music, governments, or fashion.
Applying this to software development Jeremy showed how Digg had removed a feature that resulted in several of the key members of the site (the hubs) leaving the site. He showed how the rest of the network adapted to this event and new hubs emerged. As the root of networks is generally human behaviour it is not always possible to predict what will happen but it is predictable to see the features of a network namely large hubs and supporting nodes. Nodes support the hubs and can drop in and out regularly. Hubs are what drive the network and change the direction of the network as a whole, but are reliant on nodes to validate them being hubs.
Twitter would be a good example of this where popular publishers draw in nodes of followers who may themselves become hubs by attracting followers. Popular publishers become major hubs and can drive the direction of the network (a recent trivial example might be the Manga avatar craze). The network itself will survive as long as it has major hubs and enough nodes to support the hubs. It doesn’t matter who or what fills the hubs but the hubs must be there. A black swan can occur inside Twitter that will cause the network to be used in an entirely new way. This might be something like Summize that changes the nature of the network. Similarly a black swan can occur outside of the network that may cause the network to die. This might be another service.
Most of all the speakers reminded me of the need to squint and look at the web from outside the myopic view of daily development. Aleks Krotoski showed how we can learn a great deal from gaming, and reminded us that in such a young industry we sometimes forget to look over our shoulders whilst we are careering down our own roller coaster.
The speeches will be made available as a podcast on the dConstruct site so I thoroughly recommend keeping an eye on the site if you didn’t manage to make the conference.
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