On Story, Personal

From Spotted Owls to Memes

Wireless networks. Social networks. Network TV. Neural networks. Some of us think of networks every day; while others just think about them when we look up our neighbor’s wireless network names. Networked thinking, however, according to Brett Friedman, adjunct professor for the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program and Chief Creative Officer at Rainspark Labs, is more than just thinking about the hardware and physicality of connections. Mastering our behavior, in terms of networked thinking, will be essential to professional success, and making sense of our world.

As an undergrad in New Orleans, LA, studying the ecological sciences, discussions of connectivity in natural systems was par for the course. I still recall a professor commenting on the hullabaloo created by the logging industry and various opponents to proposed logging restrictions within the habitat of the Northwest Spotted Owl. “It’s not about a single species, but the complex set of interactions, both micro and macro, that a single species represents.” According to the tenets of ecology, enormous organic variability springs forth from a fixed set of rules, a hunt to peel away structure from the seemingly unstructured.

I find it serendipitous then, under the shadow of some of the same trees populated by the Spotted Owl, to discuss today’s evolution of communication in terms of networked relationships. Friedman quotes Kevin Kelley, in New Rules to the New Economy, in defining a network as organic behavior in a technical matrix.  Our communication networks, an extension of physical relationships (and as produced by living humans, biological) theoretically operate according to principles that govern networked biological behavior.  Within the seemingly endless variety of content we produce, proponents of network theory argue that success in this realm, or the ability to be “seen” by others en masse, depends on mastering this information flow.

While the search for this “Google Maps” of the Universe, or universal structure, is nothing new, the enormous amounts of data generated by our connected world has unleashed tremendous new insight into the dynamics of systems and human relationships. This potential power of networks is animated brilliantly in this production by Manuel Lima of Cognitive Media, a fellow at RSA (The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce).

I’m still trying to determine where I stand with network theory providing a unifying theory of structure; It’s odd for me to equate nutrient cycling with, let’s say, how open letters to Miley Cyrus circulate on the web. Yet, I like the implications of this line of thought. Taking this back once again to our relationship with our natural environment, much of the popular face of the environmental movement has historically focused on preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving nature. This has evolved to preserving natural systems for the sake of preserving ourselves. I’d like to fantasize this Miley nutrient cycling brings us one step closer to a “post-environmental world”, one where we view all human behavior as fully governed by natural systems, fundamentally interconnected on all levels, from fluffy viral pop culture memes, to biological connections that foster conservation.

Will our love and obsession with creating, consuming, and distributing media lead us to look deeper into systems overall, or just become more of a distraction? Of course participation in a system doesn’t necessarily generate insight applicable to a wider world, in the way depositing money at my bank doesn’t do much to help me understand financial systems. But understanding how a meme spreads between populations, for example, and its associated network behavior could help change-makers better in building campaigns that lead to more lasting change. The Spotted Owls of today and tomorrow might thank us for it.

If you have any thoughts on how modern communication resemble natural systems, or could benefit conservation, I’d love to hear them!


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