"The network is the computer". So went the slogan from Sun
Computers. What they meant was "don't look at the objects on the
end of the links, look at the links". The potential benefits of
networked computing were in the linkages between computers, not in the
And so they were. Witness the Internet. The benefits of connected
computers are obvious to all.
Looking at the relationships between things, not at the things
themselves, is a sound principle for more things than computers. Take
the current 'robust discussions' between Tony Abbott, Australian
Workplace Relations Minister, and Mark Latham, Australian Labour
frontbencher on so-called 'family values'. Both are actually arguing for
the benefit of relationships, which might form the basis for a more
productive discussion if only they would realise it, and politicking
didn't intervene. What both are saying is what E. M. Forster said many
years ago-in a much more succinct fashion: "Only connect".
Only connect. The relationship is much more important than the
objects being 'related'. Now, there's a sound principle for foreign
policy, mediation, marriage, 'community consultation', and more besides.
Psychologists tell us that women spend more time than men on
maintaining relationships, and tend to view relationships as primary,
and individual people as secondary. Men view individuals as primary and
their relationships as secondary (apparently). The world is weaved into
a web-its relationships maintained-by the women-folk. Maintaining
relationships is all-important to Aboriginal negotiators, who would
prefer to spend more time reaching an agreement while maintaining
relationships, than going for the 'quick deal' which severs relations
between the dealing parties. Have you noticed how Aboriginal speakers
introduce themselves at a conference or speech : "I am X, and I am
from Y, and my people are Z'. Placing themselves in a network of links.
The network is the computer.
Memory and learning are like that. We remember and learn better when
we can build a 'scaffold' of categories, a network of concepts that we
can slot new facts into. As a child develops, its network of
categorisation grows, and new knowledge can be incorporated more
quickly. Ancient mnemonic systems emphasising the telling of a story to
retain memory of presented items rely on this principle. The network is
the computer. Stories maintain networks, preserve the relations between
things, between people, between ages.
Everywhere we can hear people lamenting the passing of 'civil
society': the breakdown in the 'bonds' that, in the past, held us
together as communities, states, nations. The research of Professor
Robert Putnam (collected in his seminal article, "Bowling
Alone") showed that civic participation in America and worldwide is
declining, has declined markedly over the past three or four decades.
Putnam's research showed that 'social capital'-the bonds of trust and
reciprocity between community members that allows community will to be
translated into community and individual action-underlies and underpins
the economic success of a region or state. Social capital underpins
economic capital; relationships, even ones that seem unrelated to
economic success, matter. Putnam showed that one measure of the (social
and economic) health of an Italian region was the number of choirs it
contained. Only connect.
An extra 10 minutes of commuting time cuts all forms of civic
participation by 10%. So says the report of The Saguaro Seminar
("Better Together", www.bettertogether.com), an extraordinary
seminar in America held in seven separate sessions, attended by civic
leaders of all persuasions, hosted by Harvard University. The
determination to connect can easily be disrupted by modern-day
inconveniences, like traffic jams, commuting, and administrative queues.
There are lessons here for many organisations who talk of 'relationship
marketing': The banks, governments.
Only connect. The world and language of computers has other metaphors
that can give us pointers to the world of social and civic
relationships: "peer-to-peer networking",
"handshaking", "secure connection", "trusted
host". All these terms have analogues in the world of social
Concerned, as we are, with connection in the human and social worlds,
we find ourselves tripping over the notion of "trust"-after
all, social capital consist of bonds of "reciprocity and
trust". What leads us to trust one another? The computer world
provides protocols for 'handshaking' that allow computers to decide when
to trust each other-what is the human equivalent?
It turns out that "trust" in humans has some six or seven
components, such as predictability, reliability, familiarity,
understandability, explication of intention, and usefulness. That is,
when we judge someone, or some agency, to be predictable, reliable, we
understand their intentions, and we are familiar with them or it, we
tend to "trust".