The Trouble with Connectedness as a Force for Good


In the 2000’s remake of the Science Fiction TV series Battlestar Galactica, a fleet of humans flee through space, having escaped the near total nuclear annihilation of their home worlds by the hands of the robotic Cylons. With their worlds all but destroyed, their mission is to attempt to find another planet supposedly inhabited by people —a mythical world called Earth.

This is an admittedly dispiriting starting point for the narrative, as it focuses on a fleet which is deeply diminished and a painful left-over of a once-grand civilization. And it’s a sobering reminder of the darker side of connectedness.

In Battlestar Galactica, the secret of the Cylons’ success was their ability to disable the human defenses by infecting their systems. As all human vessels and systems were networked, their entire civilization was rendered totally defenseless. Nothing would fly, shoot or compute any longer. Those that survived did so because they inhabited a small number of offline space vessels that were undergoing maintenance just before the attack. And as a result, it wasn’t connectedness that enabled them to survive, but isolation.

As a result, in the world of Battlestar Galactica, this became a mandatory directive. None of the systems and ships were allowed to link up to any network. In a particular episode, the commanding officer is forced to direct all vessels to briefly come online as he faces a near-insurmountable threat. And yet this mere act of connectedness ends up being near-fatal as the Cylons take advantage of it. By the end of the episode, all ships are taken offline and isolation is once again the norm.

This fictitious future is a far cry from modern day reality here on Earth, where over the past decades, Net Optimism has been the norm. The quintessential Net Tech Optimist does not necessarily believe technology is the solution to everything, but they do promote the idea that ubiquitous networks of devices and systems provide a uniquely powerful platform for technological, economic and societal progress.

This isn’t an idle dream. The promise of interconnectedness has already been realized in many different ways. Access to information and knowledge, for instance, is now near-instantaneous, ubiquitous, and transcends physical and geographical boundaries. Networks and networked organizations have allowed people to collaborate more effectively, without being constrained by time and location. And it has allowed for the empowerment of increasing numbers of people as it provides access to information and influence in unprecedented ways.

These innovations aren’t limited to the flow of information though. Interconnected “smart” energy grids produce and provide energy within distributed systems that are making a break from inefficient and fragile centralized power production. These cumbersome dinosaurs of energy production and supply result in up to 40% of power being lost by the time electricity has been transmitted from its point of origin to your front door. Beyond energy, the network revolution is enabling real-time telemedicine that is more effective and less costly than traditional medical care. And it’s vastly accelerating the synergies between the devices we use, the data we generate, the ways we live our lives, and the innovation that occurs at the nexus of all three.

Net-Optimism, together with evidence that connectedness can, indeed, improve key performance indicators, has already convinced many that networked organizations are by definition more robust. There’s a growing reliance on networked pathway redundancy, together with a reduced dependency on any type of ‘central control’ within organizations and operations. This goes hand in hand with a belief that empowering every node in a network – including the individuals who make up the network – is going to provide “networked humanity” with a degree of resilience that will, by definition, render networked organization design superior to any other mode of organization. It’s a wave of networked optimism that celebrates the Art of Connectedness, with connectedness being an unquestioned force for good that translates directly into more resilient communities, practices and individuals.

Yet, just as connectedness was the Achilles Heel of humanity in Battlestar Galactica, it behooves us to question the wisdom of uncritical and unthinking net optimism, lest in our quest to become ever-more connected, we lose the resilience we need as a species to thrive as we face the future.

When considering resilience, a Vietnamese saying comes to mind: “when there is a great storm, one can either bend flexibly like grass or burst like bamboo.” Resilience is frequently used in the domain of environmentalism, where it often refers to the ability to adapt and respond flexibly and successfully to circumstances that may be beyond our control—a large flood for instance, a devastating famine, or an infectious virus. Resiliency in this sense is an ability to survive and even thrive in the face of change.

This concept of resiliency is used well beyond the sphere of the environment. We talk about resilient communities, resilient organizations, and resilient digital networks. In these and many other cases, connectedness is often regarded as the central ingredient for building and ensuring resilience. For example, distributed intelligence in networks allows for cyber threats to be identified at the first line of defense. And connectedness in a given community allows for a networked response to localized physical threats, broader access to education, and inclusive access to information, services and jobs.

Yet while connectivity is undoubtedly a force for good in such examples—and a critical component of resilience—this same connectivity may also jeopardize the very systems and resilience it supports. During the Arab spring, oppressive authorities used the connectedness of the demonstrators with a vigor that would have made the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica proud—to great success.

Connectedness feeds the mechanism and tools of the police state that China is at increasing risk of becoming. It also underpins the growing trend in predictive policing in the United States and elsewhere. Connectedness may prove to be the undoing of our energy grids if malicious agents distribute a virus that propagates through the system and knocks it out. In fact, much of modern society has become so dependent on connectedness that many of us will not be able to obtain food if there was a catastrophic network failure. Most of our transactions are cashless, and food supply networks are highly dependent on finely tuned networks and just-in-time supply chains to operate at all, never mind operating effectively. And it’s sobering to realize that younger generations born after Year Zero A.G. (After Google) may no longer know how to live without the ubiquitous networks they are immersed in—they simply lack the knowledge and tools.

As a result, connectedness, for all its promise and power, has left humanity more dependent than ever on systems that may be more fragile than we care to admit, and more vulnerable as a result. And this is where the relationship between connectedness and resilience becomes a complex and paradoxical one. Connectivity on the one hand enables humanity to become more resilient. On the other hand, more individual and collective resilience is needed in a world that has become more volatile, unpredictable and dangerous as a result of that same connectedness.

How, then, do we tread the fine line  right between connectedness and, in the language of Battlestar Galactica, isolation? In abstract terms, we can only achieve this through striking the right balance between connectedness and isolation. In practical terms we can learn from how we deal with infections, both internally within our bodies and externally within society.

Experts dealing with the outbreak of a dangerous virus – Ebola for instance – systematically need to alternate between connectedness that supports, for instance, aid, information, analysis, and community briefings, with isolation—quarantining a village or a hospital for instance, or sequestering infected individuals so that the infection cannot spread. Our bodies, when infected with something harmful, respond quickly because of connected biological systems, while isolating the infection where possible.

Applying this dynamic relationship between connectedness and isolation within our complex technological world will become increasingly important if we are to become less vulnerable and more resilient. Our cars, for instance, are becoming ever-more connected. Yet as we design our mobility systems of the future, we will need to ensure all components are able to continue in isolation from each other. Energy grids are benefitting from becoming ever more connected, yet we need to be preparing now for designs that allow for local energy production and provisioning that can operate in isolation when needed. Underlining this, the recent fire hazard-related power cuts in California demonstrate the vulnerabilities of systems that are too dependent on their connectedness.

The bottom line is that there needs to be dynamic compromise. Neither Net Optimism nor a Battlestar Galactica-like embrace of isolation will equip us to be resilient in the digital future we are creating. Rather, we need to develop adaptive systems that can work equally well in isolation as they do when connected, and the agility to move between the two states as needed to ensure we avoid becoming vulnerable to too much connectedness, or too little. We can organize ourselves accordingly. The question is, will we?


Co-Author Andrew Maynard, is Author of Films from the Future and Director of the Arizona State University Risk Innovation Lab


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