EMBRACE THE SWARM

Count on more being different.

A handful of sand grains will never form an avalanche no matter how hard one tries to do it. Indeed one could study a single grain of sand for a hundred years and never conclude that sand can avalanche. To form avalanches you need millions of grains. In systems, more is different. A network with a million nodes acts significantly different from one with hundreds. The two networks are like separate species–a whale and an ant, or perhaps more accurately, a hive and an ant. Twenty million steel hammers swinging in unison is still 20 million steel hammers. But 20 million computers in a swarm is much, much more than 20 million individual computers.

Do what you can to make “more.” In a network the chicken-and-egg problem can hinder growth at first–there’s no audience because there is no content, and there is no content because there is no audience. Thus, the first efforts at connecting everything to everything sometimes yield thin fruit. At first, smart cards look no different from credit cards–just more inconvenient. But more is different; 20 million smart cards is a vastly different beast than 20 million credit cards.

It’s the small things that change the most in value as they become “more.” A tiny capsule that beeps and displays a number, multiplied by millions: the pager system. What if all the Gameboys or Playstations in the world could talk to one another? What if all the residential electric meters in a city were connected together into a large swarm? If all the outdoor thermometers were connected, we would have a picture of our climate a thousand times better than we have ever had before.

The ants have shown us that there is almost nothing so small in the world that it can’t be made larger by embedding a bit of interaction in many copies of it, and then connecting them all together.

The game in the network economy will be to find the overlooked small and figure out the best way to have them embrace the swarm.

 

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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK