The wisdom of clouds

Cities_at_night_ii I rattled back to Connecticut from MIT on the train, struggling to think some more about the cloudiness notion.  

Here’s what I came up with as a first proposition. (There are three altogether. Watch this space.)

Cloudiness Proposition 1:

there are more people, objects and ideas in the world

1.1 There Are More People

That there are more people in the world is incontrovertible. In 1970, there were 3,969,000,000 of us on the planet. There are now 6,577,587,970.

We don’t care much about this fact these days. Ever since Erlhich’s “population bomb” failed to explode, we have concerned ourselves with other things. But I think “more people” has some interesting implications for the cloudiness proposition.

The good news is that even as the world gets larger, the mediating technologies grow apace, stretching further and sorting more nimbly. The world may be expanding but we remain the beneficiaries of what Granovetter calls the strong effects of weak ties. Cost-free communication and networking sites like LinkedIn let us navigate these expanding social worlds pretty well.

Still, even as the world gets cloudier in the good sense, it gets cloudier in the bad sense. That is to say, even as it gets larger and richer, it grows opaque and difficult to navigate.

Here’s how this works for me. (I am keenly interested in how it works for you.  Please do comment.) I have around 3000 names in my Outlook Contacts database. In a perfect world, these names would be the cloud would be a constant source of interest and utility. This would be the network I call upon to find someone to read a manuscript, answer a question, or rescue a niece stranded in Shanghai.

The trouble is some years ago my world lost its redundancy and it’s ability to stack. I have changed cities, countries, professions and industries often, and with each of these changes a section of my network goes dark. I am left staring at a card in Contacts that I can’t quite reconstruct the connection for.

Consider: Yoshimitsu Kaji.

Ok. Now, is this a guy I interviewed for an ethnography? Did he enroll as an executive at HBS? Did I meet him while consulting for Coke in Japan?  Did I correspond with him about some academic matter? Is he part of the museum world? Did he hire me for a speaking engagement? Is this some guy who offered to translate one of my books? Twelve years after the fact, it’s hard to be sure. Hard to be sure? Let’s be fair, I don’t have a clue. (For the record, my guess is that he worked for The Coca-Cola Company in Japan. Yoshimitsu, please, good sir, phone home.)

If I were a Korean teenager, this would not be a problem. Over the years, I would have sent Yoshimitsu a tiny bursts of information, mostly photos, that served a phatic purpose, that said, effectively: “I’m here, I’m fine,You’re it.” If I were a Korean teenager, Yoshimitsu would have visited my webpage on Cyworld, and he would have reciprocated with a flood of small communications of his own. The link between us would not be if not active, at least “lit.” Chances are, I would now remember who Yoshimitsu is.

But the problem is not just that I am not Korean. (Though this is a very real problem.) No, the problem is that my life is cloudy. It has reconfigured so many times that I no longer have data arrays that help to confirm one another in life and in memory. You know what I mean. Normally, we are surrounded by confirmatory events that return things from passive to active memory. We see a guy at Starbucks we went to school with, and he reminds us of 3 or 4 acquaintances who are once more make vivid.

The trouble is, and I am pretty sure this is not just my problem, there are several paradigmatic regimes, or let’s call them, cultural arrays, floating around in my life.  In each of these, things change: who I am to people, how and why I connect to people, how often and in what ways I connect to people, are different. This world is swirling and yes cloud like. I could have a conversation with someone from the museum world but it would take a moment to restore the underlying assumptions that museum people share. More to the point, it doesn’t matter how interesting or useful it would be to stay in touch with Lindsay Sharp and Charles Saumerez Smith, both of them forces in the English museum world, I am so utterly claimed by each stop along the biographical railroad that I don’t just fall “out of touch,” they actually (and utterly) fall out of sight.   I can’t stay in touch because I now live, or feel I live, in an entirely different world.

It’s a three-legged race. The world gets larger, technology unfurls to keep pace, but my biographical, um, churn destroys the possibility of network integrity. Sections fall dark. Nodes die. Links detach. A cloud of potential contacts occludes. The next generation of network technologies needs to make me a series of “flight simulators” from within which I can see all the parties to whom I was connected even as I am reminded of the topics, assumptions and interests we have in common. Periodically, I can climb into one of these simulators (acting now as the husk of a former self) and ask myself, “ok, who do I know that can help me solve the problem I have right now.” The simulator will actually help me negotiate the paradigmatic regimes or cultural arrays. It will help me traverse bodies of assumptions. It will build in a new mobility as I move between what Martin Jay called “scopic regimes.”

But this is merely the retrospective version of the management of cloudiness. Despite my dismal failure to manage my existing networks, I am still keen for these to grow. I am still keen on meeting new and interesting people. And I am, as we all are, in possession of pretty good linking skills. 

I am sure someone wishing to get to know my great great grandfather would have had to grow up in the same small town in Scotland, and even then it would take years of careful scrutiny, hours of careful silence, and several pints of bitter before even tiny revelations would be risked.  (“Ay, football”  that’s an entire conversation in some circles.)  We are all so good at cloudiness management, it takes us very little time to decide whether we want to make contact, what we have in common, and how to turn this commonality to mutual advantage in the ignition of a lively conversation and frank exchange of views. Indeed, in the 3 hours it takes to get from Stamford to Boston, I had a great conversation with an architect in which I learned something about parenting. Pretty personal, pretty complicated, pretty delicate. But for postmodern fellas like the two of us, pretty easy

Thanks to the new technologies, I have new and privileged access to what James Surowiecki calls the wisdom of crowds. Stumbleupon and Delicious are great way of putting to work the intelligence of strangers I will never know face to face, will never link up with in link in.  On a nearer horizon, I have access to the networking effects of what we might call the intellectual impresarios, Andrew Zolli, Piers Fawkes, Richard Saul Wurman, Russell Davies. 

What I don’t have access to someone who can do virtually all the sorting for me, rendering a connection to the 20 people in the world I just have to know.  No, not the most powerful people in the world.  The people who are for the own reasons and purposes, wrestling with the same processes.  The people with whom you can just sit down and start talking.  You know the sensation.  It’s like being airlifted into a world of perfect familiarity.  And it is fantastically productive.

Before his death, Hargurchet Bhabra electrified intellectual circles in Toronto by fashioning just these connections.  He created so much value for each of us in this homemake networks, handmade nodes, that it is a wonder that we didn’t pay him handsomely for his effort.  And we should have.  It was merely a failure of the imagination.  And of course he would have been embarrassed by the gesture.  But there is no calculating what this blog owes Bhabra’s example and intelligence.  Something more than my friendship should have gone his way.  The question is  when we will come to our senses and build the business model.  It’s a little like executive recruiting, for which there is a very clear business model. Except that the recruiter makes his or her choices for a client not a corporation. 

Enough, already.  The point I wish to make that when we are thinking about the cloudiness of contemporary selves, corporations, and networks, we must grapple with the fact that there are more people, more objects and more ideas.  I know this sounds simplistic but I trying to stick to elementary propositions and build up as I go. 

Tomorrow, I will contemplate the implications of the fact that there are more objects in the world. 



Last note:

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3 thoughts on “The wisdom of clouds

  1. LK

    Any thoughts about re-thinking the Dunbar number aka the rule of 150…”the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”.

    But what about not necesssarily unstable relationships but differently structured relationships? What does it mean to ‘know’ someone now? I am often stunned by how quickly someone wants go get ‘linked in’ with me…hey, are we really at that point in the relationship already? I have found (and excuse me if this is a generalization) that for people born in the late 70s/early 80s, one encounter at one event or one meeting qualifies you for linked in status. How utterly unthinkable this would have been to the great grandparents in the old country, some of whom may have only met a few hundred people over the course of their lifetime.

    Note: British sociologist David Morley has done quite a bit of work in this area of geographies of the new and the impact of media and technology on identities.

  2. Peter

    Fascinating (as usual), Grant.

    Reminds me of a discussion I had in 1991 with people in a publishing company client of mine about how many people each of us would meet over the course of our entire life. Defining “to meet” as “to exchange names”, my clients thought they would each meet fewer than 1000 people over the course of their life. My estimate for myself was 20,000 people. Since then, and the growth of the Internet, my own estimate has risen considerably. Plenitude rules, OK!

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