Where be dragons? In the network…

The power of networks is that they can amplify one person's actions greatly. The rail network gave individuals power over thousands of travellers. How much more powerful is the internet?

I was delayed by over two hours yesterday – and the network effect was to blame. As I dashed to lead a workshop for some journalism students, I couldn’t help but think about how the network I was using had amplified one person’s actions to the point where they impacted on me, on the person whom I was meant to be meeting, but had to rearrange, and to the 20 students whose visiting lecturer was running late.

What happened? Well, some poor soul threw themselves under a train at a station called Horley – and ended up essentially closing down one of the main rail routes into London. The line that runs south through Gatwick airport to Brighton, as well as points east and west from there, was closed while the authorities dealt with that poor soul’s remains. Those of us who had to get to London had to seek one of the limited alternative routes that didn’t pass through Horley.

Anyone’s suicide is a tragedy, and ripples out to have an effect on all those who knew them. But because there was a network involved here – the railway network – the impact is magnified. Tens of thousands of people, counting the commuters alone, were impacted by this action. The people they were going to meet were impacted. Given that there was a major international airport on the route, who knows how far the ripples went? Did people miss meetings or connections internationally? Almost certainly.

One person’s actions can be magnified through the power of the network. When it happens positively, we hear this called viral spread. One person’s piece of creative work can reach a massively expanded audience if the network spreads it far enough. At one end you have Gangnam Style, which turned an obscure KPop star into a global celebrity. At the other, you have the Star Wars kid whose pilfered antics saw the world laughing at him – and which had serious consequences for his life. (He’s doing OK for himself now, though).

It’s easy to get blasé about the power of the internet. We’ve all become accustomed to its ability to publish something to the whole word instantly surprisingly quickly, given that only 20 years ago that was unimaginable to the majority of the population. Many of us in the digital world are more concerned these days with seeking attention in a noisy online world, than the consequences of something going unexpectedly viral – or even of it just being public and accessible to anyone. Relatives or friends of that person who died yesterday could find this post, just by virtue of Googling the circumstances of their loved one’s death. That possibility informs the way I write this.

The internet has a little more resilience than the main southern rail line into London. It’s designed from the ground up to be able to route around bottlenecks like the incident yesterday. It would be much harder for one person to cause the same degree of closure to the internet (although things like that have happened – in fact, one woman cut off an entire country). But we have created a huge, global network on an unprecedented scale. How much power have we given one person’s actions over the good – or ill – of the world?

Here be dragons.

Photo by Bruno Girin and used under a Creative Commons licence