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Monday, January 31, 2005

Troubled attractions....

I finally got around to completing the Barabasi book, Linked, and my reaction to it remains pretty positive, although I am also a bit disturbed by its proselytizing tone. There are points, particularly at the end, where the author gets a bit too self-referential and self-congratulatory. Barabasi is clearly a key actor in the development of the network paradigm emerging from the study of complexity, and his writing skills and insights are a real plus for the reader. And it could be that there is no better or more qualified author to take on the subject. Yet there were times during my reading that I wished for a more "objective", third-party perspective, closer to the science reportage found in other works (e.g. M. Mitchell Waldrop’s 1992. Complexity). I suspect that my reservations have more to do with an aversion to proselytizing and a tendency to favor critical analysis. But even with those suspicions in place, I have to give Barabasi's book high marks.

There is a critical dimension to Barabasi's arguments, notably his assessment of a common obsession with focusing on the particulars of structures and objects in the sciences (both physical and social). He is explicit on this point in the following passage from the original concluding chapter (an afterword was added for the paperback edition):

To look at the networks behind such complex systems as the cell or the society, we concealed all the details. By seeing only nodes and links, we were privileged to observe the architecture of complexity. By distancing ourselves from the particulars, we glimpsed the universal organizing principles behind these complex systems. Concealment [of the particulars] revealed the fundamental laws that govern the evolution of the weblike world around us and helped us understand how this tangled architecture affects everything from democracy to curing cancer.

An interesting choice of words, and that particular paragraph generated both excitement and anxiety for me. On the positive side was the idea that here we might have a truly fruitful paradigm to deal with many of the issues and phenomena we study in governance. In earlier blogs. I noted the contrast between Barabasi's perspective and the widely accepted view of networks applied to governance by Slaughter and others. I believe the adoption of Barabasi's perspective would radically alter the current analyses by focusing attention on the dynamics of network complexity rather than on (as he puts it) the nodes and links.

I am also concerned with the idea of adopting any perspective that makes claims to universality and "fundamental laws that govern" anything. For decades, critical analysts have been attempting to "unmask" the patterns of social life concealed behind widely accepted paradigms and ideologies. And here we have someone advocating for imposing a new mask -- concealment of the particulars -- so that we can better understand the world around us. Very troublesome....

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