Swarm Logic and the Science of Social Networks

By Helding, Lynn | Journal of Singing, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

Swarm Logic and the Science of Social Networks


Helding, Lynn, Journal of Singing


IN A PREVIOUS COLUMN entitled "Ants, NATS, and Swarm Logic," I considered "Emergence Theory," the phenomenon by which a coalesced whole can be greater than the sum of its individual parts.1 Groups evince behavior that is not only explicable by Emergence Theory, but according to the authors of the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, group behavior is also observable, quantifiable-and contagious.2

The debut of Nicholas Christakis's and James Fowler's book was greeted with breathless reviews-"Connected could change your life forever!"3-and deliberately provocative headlines: "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?"4 This particular headline was immediately absorbed into the popular imagination; coauthor Christakis recalled a popular syndicated cartoon that depicted two women in a restaurant ordering lunch, each pointing at the other and simultaneously claiming, "She'll have a small dry salad and a cup of water."5

I read Connected from cover to cover, and while it neither changed my life nor, alas, made me thinner, the authors' rhapsodic case outlining the extent to which our networks exert a profound influence upon our very selves was quite persuasive.

Our connections affect every aspect of our daily lives . . . How we feel, what we know, whom we marry, whether we fall ill, how much money we make, and whether we vote all depend on the ties that bind us. Social networks spread happiness, generosity and love. They are always there, exerting both subtle and dramatic influence over our choices, actions, thoughts, feelings, and even our desires. And our connections do not end with the people we know. Beyond our own social horizons, friends of friends of friends can start chain reactions that eventually reach us, like waves from distant lands that wash up on our shores.6

Most of us already benefit from our social networks, and professional "networking" is nothing new; humans have traded in the currency of connection and influence for about as long as we have been upright. But the digital age has created new conduits for networking that have made acquisition and retention of both social and professional contacts more efficient, faster, and arguably more effective. These new channels not only reach further afield but also feature a depth and complexity that was never before possible. How we can harness social-network science to strengthen our studios, advance professionally, and enrich our discipline as a whole is the subject of this installment of "Mindful Voice."

THE FALLACY OF FREE WILL

The science of social networks considers the myriad ways in which individual humans influence each other's behavior. This is not a remarkable concept on its face, but at its core is a direct assault on the notion that we are all, individually, masters of our own destiny. Updates from the front of the cognitive revolution regularly challenge the presumption of free will by presenting evidence that we are not as free to make up our own minds as we would like to believe.

In his book How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer dissects the mental process of decision making deconstructing a foundational tenet of the Western world. The operating premise holds that humans are rational, or at least capable of being so when motivated. Lehrer throws down the gauntlet by declaring flatly, "There's only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it's wrong. Its not how the brain works."7 Lehrer convincingly demonstrates throughout his book that, despite our belief that a rational thought process guides our choices, in reality a multitude of forces, many outside our sphere of consciousness, shapes our will, influencing everything from our successes to our mistakes. Still, toss this notion out in the midst of your next cocktail party and notice that of all the topics under the cognitive umbrella, the ones that rankle folks most are those that challenge their notions of individuality and free will. …

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