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Connections Theory

It’s been nearly a year since I first distilled down what I’ve come to think of as “Connections Theory”.  I’ve expounded on the subject in many different ways, sometimes without using the same words, as a way of thinking this out in public.  Many of you have responded with insightful comments and a few questions on the side – what is that guy going on about?  I’d like to nail this down into a simple, direct statement.

First of all, the detailed explanation of Connections Theory can be found in this series of five posts entitled “Systemic Connections”.  Follow the link to see them all.  It’s about 4k words in total, making it a bit of a slog to read.  But I hope it’s worth it.

Connections Theory can be summed up easily:  The connections between people and each other, or from people to ideas, are far more powerful than any person or idea on its own.  All of the connections of our world eventually make up a network that is far too complicated to understand on its own.  All of the individual pieces that are connected, whether they are people, institutions, or ideas, do not tell us much about how dynamic that network is.  Evaluating how all the pieces are connected is the best shot we have for making real sense of our world.

Think of each person or institution or idea as nothing more than a place where connections come together.  Call it a “node”.   This is just one part of a giant structure like a geodesic sphere made out of Tinkertoy connections.  If you were to whack that node with some kind of stress, such as a death or job loss, it does not absorb the shock on its own – it transfers it along the connections it has to other nodes, which respond in their own way.  If the connections are inadequate or too rigid, they may be brittle and break from a hard shock, but most disturbances are absorbed by the network and propagate along, changing a bit as they pass through a node.

There’s a fundamental concept here known as “Degrees of Freedom”.  The more ways that any one node can transfer its stress, the stronger it will be.  You can also consider separate Tinkertoy balls of connections for people, ideas, and institutions all nestled inside of each other as additional degrees of freedom, too.

Let’s get back to reality for a moment.  No one lives a completely isolated life – we all have connections.  What happens to us affects everyone around us in ways that we can’t always predict based simply on who they are as people.  The strength of how we are connected to other people and the number of those connections are what make all the difference when things get bad.

Ideas, in their own ball of connections, are often the same way.  No one ever has a completely original thought that comes out of nowhere – every idea came from other ideas connected together. Technologies are made up of little bits that are connected in ways that they were not before, making something new – the items are rarely new, but the connections are what make it an advance.  It takes people communicating with each other in a meaningful way to make any of those connections, however.

New ways of exchanging ideas have a huge effect on how we create new connections.  The internet may have created a huge volume of new connections, but if these are particularly weak links between people or introduce ideas that are untrue to the idea sphere, it’s not doing much good.  Until we figure out how to use this advance well it’s hard to tell what kind of use it will be.

Connections Theory gives us a much better window onto our world as it is – and likely will be in the future than simply trying to add up the skills and value of all of the various nodes.  The more connected any one node is, the more it is useful to the whole network.  We can also use the way any node is connected in to predict how all of the shocks of a changing world might come out the other side.

In short, Connections Theory states that our world is not made up of individuals and specialized skills, but of connections that form an intricate network.  The strength of the network that defines our world is directly related to how strong the connections are, not necessarily how strong the individuals are.  This tells us not only how we’ll be able to muddle through our own lives, but how we’ll be able to innovate and adapt to new conditions.

It’s a powerful theory, once you get the images in your head.  I hope this helps.  But I’d like your comments first.

17 thoughts on “Connections Theory

  1. That is a beautiful explanation of what you have been talking about! The images help a lot. I think you are on to something very important.

    Did you ever think of writing a book on this? I know other people have wanted you to. I think it could be very influential.

  2. You are right on when you talk about connections, but I’m not sure this is a stand-alone theory. Other people write about this kind of thing in different ways. Your main contribution is to make it more abstract which might make it more powerful or just more confusing.

    I see what you mean here, or at least I think I do. It’s the antidote to individualism run wild. But I think it needs to be a bit more specific to “connect” with people.

  3. Thanks. I’m still not doing a good job of explaining how useful this is. It is quite abstract, but the goal is indeed to get beyond the individualism that has a kind of cult following in the USofA right now.

    People don’t want to hear about how they fit into little boxes of race or gender, and that’s great. People don’t necessarily want to be defined by the institutions that they belong to, either, such as their profession or party – and all of that is in incredible flux no matter what.

    So what do we have left? It’s not a bunch of individuals completely isolated. We all have connections, just as our ideas and our gizmos and gadgets do. These can be flexible in ways that go far beyond identity politics and membership in some institution.

    But we, and all the things around us, are connected. We’re a social animal. A changing world doesn’t mean we lose that fundamental part of our nature.

    So how are we – and all the things around us – connected? How does that make up a network? How strong and vibrant is that network? It all comes down to understanding how we are connected – which I don’t think can be denied by anyone.

  4. I see a weakness here and it would be lack of metrics. Maybe you could have an indicator species like they do in ecology. As always I mean this in the best way.

  5. Actually metrics like this probably exist in public health. But in tying it together I need some help too.

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