Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:28 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:28 | SYDNEY



Fergus Hanson


9 June 2009 16:07

This Thursday, the Lowy Institute will be holding its annual New Voices conference. The theme is networks, and the more I've been reading about the subject the more interested I've become. Back in the 60s and 70s, people like Stanley Milgram and Mark Granovetter were making some intriguing findings about networks. Milgram's works led to the 'six degrees of separation' theory and Granovetter's that you were more likely to get a job via an acquaintance than your close friends.

But it seems it was the internet that re-energised network theory and sparked a wave of new thinking in the field. Albert-László Barabási from Notre Dame University has done some particularly interesting work. His book Linked is an excellent introduction — my colleague Anthony Bubalo has already given it a strong review.

The book shows just how far network theory has come. If you want to understand electricity grid failures (NB: NSW Government), how to protect the internet, cellular biology, economics, social behaviours or basically any complex system, then chances are, network theory can help. Annamaria Talas has put together an interesting documentary about network science called, instructively enough, 'How Kevin Bacon cured cancer'.

The conference will be taking a broad look at networks. Speakers will cover the use of mobile phones as leapfrog technologies in the developing world and as drivers of new social networks in the developed world.

Others will look at how governments are using new networking opportunities — particularly those thrown open by the internet. And of course there is the downside to these new networks, with the potential for terrorists and criminals to misuse them.

Network theory presents some interesting challenges to a lot of different sectors. How do governments conduct their foreign affairs in an environment where there are so many information sources available to almost everyone which make policy so easily contestable from both within and outside the bureaucracy? Which new technologies should politicians and government agencies be adopting — do we need Tweets from the DFAT Secretary? 

How do we protect critical networked infrastructure like the internet and electricity grids from failure and attacks? How do technologies like mobile phones — where people living in remote areas can get instant price updates for their cash crops or do their banking — change the way aid agencies go about the business of development? How does the internet change the way individuals give aid? (Try this NGO for an insight.) How do businesses build a profile online or protect their reputations in a virtual world? (Here's one attempt using Twitter). How can we use networks or Google to tackle the spread of epidemics and the flu? 

If you've got a good network story to contribute, we'd love to hear from you over the coming days.

Photo by Flickr user Nimages DR, used under a Creative Commons license.