Six Degrees Now, Less Degrees Later, Perhaps More Degrees Tomorrow

It is astonishing how the existence of networks could be so prevalent, and yet so obscure from people’s awareness for such a long time. Indeed, perhaps we live in a great time as the explosion of data and computational power paved way for a deeper look into the connectedness of things and how such networks could allow us to make sense of how the world works. I think the time is ripe for network science to be fleshed out and mature, given how the connections brought about by rapid travel and communications extremely shrunk the world in the 21st century. When I learned of the “six degrees of separation” from documentary, I felt unfazed as it is something I found highly plausible given the pervasiveness of the internet and mobile technology nowadays. However if I learned of it a few years back when no one in the neighborhood even had a computer, I am sure that I would have been really amazed like how Tjaden, Watts, and Strogatz had been when they studied the Oracle of Kevin Bacon.

The documentary made me ponder how unlike now, centuries ago the world was bigger with many small communities separated by mountains or oceans. Over time we had explorers that bridged continents and eventually we had technology that bridged both time and space for people. The documentary felt lacking on exploring how the passage of time affects the growth of networks. While it may be true that networks grow by nodes attaching to more connected nodes, what drives the nodes to explore outside their communities and connect to other nodes in the first place? Does the passage of time command the necessity for movement/action? What would the future be like if the growth of networks over time is indeed inevitable and path lengths virtually vanish? While we now know thanks to Barabasi that we can strategically attack hubs to destroy networks, what if networks just continue to grow until it has no more space to grow? Would there be a saturation point at which the mega-network would collapse from its own density like a dying star turning into a black hole? What happens once all ~8 billion people on Earth becomes a clique? Will the clique collapse and restart back to extremely sparsely connected nodes? What network science concepts capture how external forces (such as technological advancements) catalyze the linking of networks to create larger networks?

The documentary left me with more questions than answers as network science appears to me as a very curious field. It is amusing how possibly the most efficient way for us to answer more questions about networks is to network great minds from seemingly unrelated fields of genetics, computer science, sociology, pathology, energy industry, among others, like how these fields are also connected by the commonality of how network theory could be applied to all of them.

This essay was a requirement under the Network Science class where they were asked to watch Connected: The Power of Six Degrees directed by Annamaria Talas and react to it. This essay has been published with permission from the author, one of my MSDS students. - Prof. E