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Category Archives: Wired


A revolution in the science of social networks began with a stash of old papers found in a storeroom in Framingham, Massachusetts. They were the personal records of 5,124 male and female subjects from the Framingham Heart Study. Started in 1948, the ongoing project has revealed many of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, including smoking and hypertension.

In 2003, Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and internist at Harvard, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UC San Diego, began searching through the Framingham data. But they didn’t care about LDL cholesterol or enlarged left ventricles. Rather, they were drawn to a clerical quirk: the original Framingham researchers had decided to note each participant’s close friends, colleagues and family members.

“They asked for follow- up purposes,” Christakis says. “If someone moved away, the researchers would call their friends and try to track them down that way.”

Christakis and Fowler realised that this obsolete list of references could be transformed into a detailed map of human relationships. Because two-thirds of all Framingham adults participated in the first phase of the study, and their children and children’s children in subsequent phases, almost the entire social network of the community was chronicled on these handwritten pages. It took almost five years to extract the data but the scientists eventually constructed a detailed atlas of associations in which every connection was quantified.

The two researchers thought the Framingham social network might demonstrate how relationships directly influence behaviour and thus health and happiness. Since the study had tracked its subjects’ weight for decades, Christakis and Fowler first analysed obesity. Clicking through the years, they watched the condition spread to nearly 40 per cent of the population. Fowler shows me an animation of their study – 30 years of data reduced to 108 seconds of shifting circles and lines. Each circle represents an individual. Size is proportional to body mass index; yellow indicates obesity. “This woman is about to get big,” Fowler says. “Look at this cluster: they gain weight at about the same time.”

By studying Framingham as an interconnected network rather than a mass of individuals, Christakis and Fowler made a remarkable discovery: obesity spread like a virus. Weight gain had a stunning infection rate. If one person became obese, the likelihood that his friend would follow suit increased by 171 per cent. (This means that the network is far more predictive of obesity than the presence of genes associated with the condition.) By the time the animation is finished, the screen is full of swollen yellow beads, like blobs of fat in pea soup.

The data exposed not only the contagious nature of obesity but the power of social networks to influence individual behaviour. This effect extends over great distances – a fact revealed by tracking original subjects who moved away from Framingham. “Your friends who live far away have just as big an impact on your behaviour as friends next door,” Fowler says. “Even if you see a friend only once a year, that friend will still change your sense of what’s appropriate. And that new norm will influence what you do.” An obese sibling hundreds of miles away can cause us to eat more. The individual is a romantic myth; indeed, John Donne was right: no man is an island.

In September, Christakis and Fowler published their first book for a general audience, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Although their research is filled with abstruse equations, the two seem most excited when describing the grand sweep of their work. “The story of modern science is the story of studying ever smaller bits of nature, like atoms and neurons,” Christakis says. “But people aren’t just the sum of their parts. I see this research as an attempt to put human beings back together again.”

Once upon a time, social interaction was bounded by space; we met only in person. But then communication became mediated by technology. From telephone to email to Twitter, each innovation fed the same anxieties, as people worried that traditional forms of community were being destroyed. The telephone was ruining family life; we’re neglecting our real friends for our so-called friends on Facebook.

But does technology actually change the nature of the social network? Or does it simply extend it? It has long been recognised, for instance, that the human capacity for close friendship is remarkably consistent. People from cultures throughout the world report between four and seven bosom buddies. “The properties of our social networks are byproducts of evolution,” Christakis says. “The assumption has been that our mind can handle only so many other people.”

On Facebook, though, the average user has approximately 110 “friends”, which has led some scientists to speculate that the web is altering the very nature of human networks. But Christakis and Fowler were sceptical of such claims. They persuaded a university to let them analyse the Facebook pages of its students, devising a clever way to distinguish between casual friends and deeper emotional connections. Close friends, they hypothesised, would post pictures of one another on their Facebook pages, since the relationship wasn’t purely virtual.

After analysing thousands of photos, the scientists found that, on average, each student had 6.6 close friends in their online network. In short, nothing had changed; even fervent Facebook users maintain only a limited circle of intimates. “On Facebook, you’ve got a few close friends and lots of people you barely know,” Fowler says.

Although the scientists are fascinated by the online world, their central research tool remains those handwritten papers salvaged from the Framingham Heart Study. In the four years since Christakis and Fowler built their first social map, they’ve published several groundbreaking papers documenting the network’s influence on everything from cigarette addiction to happiness. In some cases, they’ve found that the impact of networks disappears abruptly after three degrees of separation. (In other words, if a friend of a friend of a friend stops smoking, then we are much more likely to quit. But more distant relationships have no effect; they’re beyond the “social frontier”.)

Christakis and Fowler have begun to study the variables, such as genetics, that determine a person’s place within a social network – whether in the centre or on the fringe – but they emphasise that there’s no ideal social location. During a flu epidemic, the periphery is the safest place, since people with fewer connections are less exposed to the virus. But being on the fringe also reduces access to resources, which radiate from the centre. Networks transmit the stuff of life – from happiness to HIV – so evolution has generated a diversity of personality traits, which take advantage of different positions within the group. According to Christakis and Fowler, there is no single solution to the problem of other people. Individual variation is a crucial element of every stable community, from the Aboriginal people of Australia to the avatars of Second Life.

And because we’re social primates, such communities are essential. When we’re cut off from our network, we slip into a spiral of loneliness and despair, which severely affects our health. “Your friends might make you sick and cause you to gain weight,” Christakis says, “but they’re also a source of tremendous happiness. When it comes to social networks, the positives outweigh the negatives. That’s why networks are everywhere.” People, in other words, need people: we are the glue holding ourselves together.

From Wired



When rumours of the project later revealed to the world as the Segway personal transporter first surfaced, back in 2001 – in the days when the curious had little more to go on than inventor Dean Kamen’s reputation, and the cryptic codename “Ginger” – one of the tantalising titbits of information that emerged was Steve Jobs’s reported reaction: “If enough people see the machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It will just happen.”

“Architect cities around it”: now that fired the imagination. What innovation could possibly be so fundamental that it would compel us to rethink something so deeply entrenched in culture, and so hard to alter, as the way we make cities? Speculation regarding the machine and its nature went on for months. Had Kamen come up with an ultra-efficient power source? Some breakthrough in materials science? No one knew. Lying just underneath, though, were more important questions, especially to anyone who’d grown up on Blade RunnerJudge Dredd and Angus McKie book jackets. If people really did come to devise cities around Kamen’s machine, what would those cities be like?

Whatever heights the imagination may have scaled in these months, we know how the story ended. Already suffering from impossibly inflated expectations, the Segway launched into a world still reeling from September 11, and in no mood for overscaled flourishes of dotcom-era technotriumphalism; to say it has not been widely adopted in the years since would be generous. It’s had no appreciable effect on the cities of humanity at all, beyond the occasional column of tourists doing their best to sightsee while tilted forward at a 10° angle. But the potent set of expectations that surrounded the Jobs pronouncement – that technological innovation would reshape the way we collectively make and understand cities, that we would see it happen in our lifetimes, and maybe even play a role in its outcomes – this possibility lingered.

Over the last decade a great number of people on Earth have embraced the digital mediation of everyday life. Without considering the matter with any particular care, as individuals or societies, we have installed devices in our clothing, our buildings, our vehicles and our tools which register, collect and transmit extraordinary volumes of data, and which share this data with the global network in real time.

Under such circumstances, it is only natural that a great many of these systems will be used in the planning and management of cities. In the interest of managing traffic and, ostensibly, enhancing public safety, our streets are ringed with networked cameras, salted with embedded sensor grids. We traverse urban space in networked vehicles that are GPS-tracked and leased to us as hourly services like Vélib’ and Bicing and City CarShare, or tap our way on to mass transit with RFID-enabled payment cards like London’s Oyster.

The data sheeting off these systems can show us where muggings and assaults happen, when and where the worst traffic arises… or simply if there are any nearby Vietnamese restaurants open. These things are a fait accompli, well on their way to being unremarkable. Never mind that this kind of god’s-eye perspective on the city was impossible just a few years ago: cheap, ubiquitous, networked information processing has reshaped urban potential as dramatically as the car did the cities of the last century. And all of it in the absence of top-down guidance or orchestration: you won’t have to convince them to “architect cities around it”. It will just happen.

But as is so often the case, there’s a catch: the technologies that the networked city relies upon remain opaque, even to those exposed to them daily. In fact, it’s hard to be critical and make sound choices in a world where we don’t understand the objects around us. Understanding networked urbanism on its own terms requires an investment of time and effort beyond the reach of most. (“I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original,” said the great 20th-century architectural critic Reyner Banham, and the systems we’re talking about are orders of magnitude more complex than mere cars and roads.)

In the networked city, therefore, the pressing need is for translators: people capable of opening up these occult systems, explaining their implications to the people whose neighbourhoods, choices and lives are increasingly conditioned by them. This will be a primary occupation for urbanists. If we’re reaching the point where it makes sense to consider the city as a fabric of addressable, queryable, even scriptable objects and surfaces – to reimagine its pavements, building façades and parking meters as network resources – this raises an order of questions never before confronted, ethical as much as practical: who has the right of access to these resources, or the ability to set their permissions?

All of this will be messy and contentious. It will make for a less satisfying narrative than the heroic genius singlehandedly reshaping cities with his wondercart. But it’s the work we have cut out for us, it is profoundly worth doing and the rewards will pay out in increments of better quality of life and a deeper engagement with the places and people that surround us.

From Wired