Of predictions and predicaments

It’s that time of year when people write predictions for the year to come. I’ve done that, many times. If predictions for are what you’re looking for, then you’ve been brought here on false pretences. This post is about my predicament.

I’m looking for help. I’m looking for you to tell me people to go listen to, books and articles to read, places to go, things to do, anything that would help me learn more about my predicament.

Let me try and describe it as best I can.

My grandfather said something very depressing to me when I was around 12. He told me that my generation would be the one with peak longevity, that life expectancy would start to decline in years to come, probably for the first time in recorded history.

Friends of mine have been saying something else that’s very depressing. Again, for the first time in recorded history, it would appear that you have to be rich to be thin.

Longevity, health, nutrition, these are some of the ways we set out the problems of our age. Sure, every age has its problems; our ancestors had theirs; our descendants will have theirs. I shall resist the temptation to say “if we have descendants”. Suffice it to say our descendants will have theirs.


Each generation’s problems can appear to be unique, and perhaps they are. Our particular set comprises water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Perhaps they’re not that unique after all.

What’s unique about our generation is that the costs of movement and of communications have dropped precipitously, and continue to drop. Humankind’s propensity to migrate and to connect may have always been there, but that propensity has been constrained by barriers of cost and affordability.

That is less true now. Humans are able to connect, to communicate and to move in ways that our predecessors could only have dreamt of.

These two phenomena affect everything we do, and they’re both accelerating, with exponential growth in their effect. Some people call this “the second half of the chessboard”.

Everything is affected. Everything.

We can’t think of our world in isolation, it’s connected. To other objects in space, not just in our solar system but beyond. We’re slowly learning what that connectedness means. Breakthroughs in our understanding of physics a century ago are helping us do that. And that’s affecting the way we think of ourselves, our origins, our purpose.

We can’t think of the countries we live in in isolation, they’re connected. Which puts a great deal of pressure on our political and economic and financial and social systems. As you would expect, the pressure is telling, and major cracks are showing in all these systems. There’s a natural temptation to “contain the problem”, to introduce greater and greater frictions, to build and extend walls to contain human, intellectual and financial capital within legacy frameworks. Those responses are failing, and there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth as a result. Political, economic and social systems are showing signs of extreme instability, and “failed states” have become more common.

We can’t think of the way we live in isolation, in terms of what we produce and what we consume, when, where and how. We’re connected. Everything we do has consequences that affect others. Water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Here we go again.

We can’t think of our own bodies the way we did, as we learn more about the genome and about the biome. The way we inherit and pass on physical characteristics is something we continue to investigate and refine our understanding of.

We can’t even think of our own minds the way we used to, as we learn more about how ideas form and spread, how values take hold, how we form economic and social systems, how these evolve. Theories of group selection in this context are regaining momentum.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

Much of who we are and what we do is based around the individual. The way we think of ourselves. We use phrases like “no man is an island” and then appear to spend time making us into individual islands. If any part of the fabric of society exhibits group instincts we try and nullify them.

Our ideas of property are based around the individual. Our ideas of employment are based around the individual. Our ideas of happiness are based around the individual. Our ideas of privacy are based around the individual. Our ideas of capability are based around the individual. Our ideas of relationships are based around the individual. Our ideas of trust are based around the individual.

Our ideas of health, education and welfare are all based around the individual.

The internet of <choose the term du jour>.

Our ideas of everything are based around the individual.

And we’re learning that we are actually more connected in every dimension we can think of, and potentially getting more connected every day.

Hmmm. Something has to change.

So I want to learn more about networks and relationships. I want to learn more about what makes them tick. I want to learn about the data that all this throws off. I want to learn about the implications of all this.

That’s why I’m interested in web science.

Because I believe that it represents a possible way for us to deal with the problems of our generation.

And that’s where I need your help. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and each day I realise how little I know. I want to accelerate my learning. You represent an amazing resource. You know things I don’t. Help me learn. I will share what I learn back here.

Have a great 2016.



9 thoughts on “Of predictions and predicaments”

  1. Well, old friend, i can’t help you with all of your predicament – and, no doubt, nor can you with all of mine!; i share your view that we dont yet understand the implictions of “always on hyperconnectedness”. But i have been working a lot on a couple of areas you mention. I started with a project I called ‘Hell is Other People” , after Satre, and i focused on sound – what is an irritating or indeed a damaging level of sound? I had a wondeful meeting at the National Physics Laboratory with the Head of Noise – we got along great until i mentioned low level rumbles – ” ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘that is vibration, you need Room 322″…

    But i soon got interested more in the wider issue of privacy.
    I think that privacy, understood as nested levels of intimacy, is central to the human condition and is what diferentiates us from ‘non-human’, however well they learn to imitate us:

    I gave this talk at the inaugural Alan Turing Institute Finace Summit last month.
    I hope it is a useful addition to your reading list.
    As ever,


  2. AS usual JP thorough stuff;
    The internet as a safety valve for the recognition that established authority is failing?
    Would the world look much different if we had no internet?
    I’m struck by the inability of recognised power being able to deal with mass movements –
    West Germany was presented with the fait accompli of the East Germans effectively saying ‘we are all one country now(like it or not)’.
    The West’s response to the refugee crisis in the ME is , to bomb them even more.
    Neither example being textbook deployments of power.
    I mention the safety valve aspect because to me it seems that previously when populations were presented with at least ineffective if not incompetent government this resulted in uprisings/civil wars/genocide etc.Now we can go online and howl agreement with each other.
    You mention ‘legacy’ institutions – national boundaries/alliances etc.Some time in the nineties there was some discussion of the re-emergence of ‘city-states’ , not that far-fetched -The Ruhr, Northern Italy, UK West Midlands and so on.When people decide to move it’s to places where they can sustain themselves.
    Will , or , is there a a progression towards an electronic electorate – e.g. Who do you believe – The government , or the other members of your facebook group?

    Not helped with your predicament but I may have helped with a different(skewed) view of this emerging landscape.
    Go Well.

  3. Happy Holidays JP. While I was reading this, I was trying to square what you’d said earlier about leaving social media. Confused in Florida perhaps, but wouldn’t you need more connecting to yield greater insights on your predicament?WRT a helpful suggestion, however, you can’t go wrong with a deep dive on SNA.

  4. Hi JP.

    I am a data scientist working on projects for banks and asset managers. We use network models do understand what is going on. Transactions network data is simpler than social network data but full of information. I had assumed this several years ago and thus did my doctorate on that subject. Since that time I have been using transaction networks every day in my professional banking and consulting career. We currently analyse the payments network among corporate loan clients amd also look at asset interconnectedness in wealth management:


  5. JP, I would enjoy talking with you and sharing what knowledge I have. I often look at the differences between networks and communities and have experience in building communities both on and off line. My email is [email protected] and phone number is 312-970-0846. I’m glad my partner shared this post with me as we are understanding that we don’t know everything and are looking to learn ourselves. Look forward to talking with you soon. – Tim

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.