Networks Everywhere – The Global Brain

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

It turns out that networks are NOT a relatively recent "invention," something that has to do only with computers. They've always been around; even before we humans came on the scene. Howard Bloom's book: "The Global Brain" explains everything. And it’s enlightening to think of networks this way.

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Check out, August 2005

I'll bet you think networks are a relatively recent "invention," something that has to do only with computers. Well, it turns out networks have always been around; even before we humans came on the scene. And it’s enlightening to think of networks this way.

Every living thing networks: birds, bees, ants, and even bacteria. The whole network develops like a "society" and learns from its mistakes as it develops. It's a lot slower than today's computer networks, but still very effective.

Take bacteria: When they invade a carcass to feed on, they seem to "communicate," and their networking helps them adapt to changing needs. When the food is depleted, the news gets around. Some of the bacteria change their behavior and go off to look for more food. And when they do find another source of nutrition, the message comes back for others to follow. Now, that's networking.

You probably know how ants communicate. Place a few grains of sugar in some clean, remote place, and before long the ants arrive. How do they do it? Well, the scouts go everywhere, and when they find food, they leave a trail for others to follow. When the food is gone, another message is networked, "Hey, no more food, let's look elsewhere." And they disband. Slow, but very effective.

Mesh networks

There’s been a lot of discussion recently on mesh networks, the latest “disruptive” technology. A mesh network is a local area network that employs one of two connection arrangements, full mesh topology or partial mesh topology. In the full mesh topology, each node (computer or other device) is connected directly to each of the others. In partial mesh topology, some nodes are connected to all the others, but some of the nodes are connected only to those other nodes with which they exchange information.

Mesh networks are reliable because they offer redundancy. If one node can no longer operate, all the rest can still communicate with each other, directly or through one or more intermediate nodes. Mesh networks work well when the nodes are located at scattered points that do not lie near a common line.

The thing about mesh networks is that the individual nodes are not “smart” – they may have limited memory and processing intelligence. But the complete network has vastly superior intelligence (more than the sum of the parts), and is significantly more robust – there is no single mechanism of failure.

Well, think about this – ants and bees use mesh network topology to transmit their information, “Hey, there’s some sugar in this direction”. If a few nodes fail (for whatever reason) the other nodes still communicate; the overall communication is robust – it never fails.

In old days, long before the age of electronics communications, humans networked slowly, but very effectively – with mesh-network topology. Traders explored far away lands and came back, often years later, with stories of new and wonderful things. Then others followed. It took years and years, but that's how trade routes developed.

Wide-area networks – the Internet

You may remember the more recent days, before computer networks were commonplace. There was "sneaker-net." You copied a file onto a floppy disk, and ran it over to your buddy. That's how a lot of bootlegged files gained distribution. These days you can have a 1 gigabyte memory-stick as your sneaker-net.

Of course, local-area networks (LAN) made sneaker-net obsolete – no one needed the portable memory to transfer files any more. You simply connected to a network and could transfer files to any other computer on that network.

Then wide-area-networks (WAN) arrived and suddenly, everyone was connected to everyone else. Although Internet topologies are client-server, the complete system operates effectively as peer-to-peer and mesh networks in that it is not dependent on any particular servers and clients for information to be transmitted to a final destination. The complete data package is broken down into smaller packets, each of which seeks a transmission path from the source, and the total message is re-assembled at the destination.

Within just the past decade, world-wide high-speed communications and the ubiquitous Internet drastically reduced most trading and technology advantages for advanced economies. The stories (and knowledge) from distant lands that previously took years to learn, were transferred much more rapidly. And so, within a very short time, global competition developed. The step forward was indeed disruptive.

Wireless networks – the pervasive Internet

With the arrival of Wi-Fi, WiMax, Zigbee and other wireless network standards, the effectiveness of the Internet surged significantly. This was not just because more mobile laptops could also be connected very conveniently, but also palm-tops and cell phones and a host of other devices. But the real revolution is beyond just human networking – it’s the pervasive networking of products.

Wireless sensor networks will soon become as important as the Internet. Just as the Internet allows access to digital information anywhere, sensor networks will provide vast arrays of real-time, remote interaction with the physical world. It is estimated that while just one billion humans are linked to the Internet, literally tens of billions of sensors and controls will be connected on line within the next decade. The industrial automation business can be generating significant growth in this new arena.

Smart, wireless networked sensors will soon be everywhere around us, collecting and processing vast amounts data – from air quality and traffic conditions, to weather conditions and tidal flows. And this means not just monitoring a few isolated sensors, but literally tens of thousands of intelligent sensor nodes which provide not merely local measurements, but overall patterns of change.

The decades old science fiction vision of "smart things" is finally coming to fruition. Within the next few years, literally billions of Internet-enabled microprocessors will provide digital intelligence and connectivity for almost every commercial and industrial product and appliance, extending the Internet into most aspects of our lives.

During this next era of connectivity – product connectivity – manufacturers and service companies will communicate with their products without any real involvement on the part of the end-user. This will bring significant benefits for suppliers and their customers, and cause a major business inflection point.

Self-organizing systems

The Internet revolution burst suddenly into significant through Metcalf’s Law: “The "value" or "power" of a network increases in proportion to the square of the number of nodes on the network.” This brought the realization that network intelligence is indeed vastly more than that of individual nodes.

When a very large number of nodes are connected, experts theorize that a system can achieve “critical complexity” and becomes self-organizing. This reaches the realm of Chaos Theory and Complexity Science – the subjects Dick Morley had been discussing at his Santa Fe Chaos conferences for several years.

The general view of “self-organization” is that a system (a collection of communicating nodes) changes its basic structure as a function of its experience and environment. The concept of self-organization is central to the description of biological systems, from the sub-cellular to the ecosystem level. There are also examples of "self-organizing" behavior found in many other disciplines. And self-organization has also been observed in mathematical systems such as cellular automata.

The connection of vast arrays of distributed intelligence (not only people, but also products and sensors) will generate self-organizing capabilities and emergent behavior. Indeed, this synthesis is what some have call “symbiotic” – the synthesis of biology and technology.

Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain”

Can one book explain everything? I just finished reading a book that explains more about life and self-organizing network systems than any single book I’ve ever read. And, I keep reading and re-reading sections again and again to help me digest some of the answers it provides about networking, communications theory, adaptive systems, and a whole lot of other things.

The book is “Global Brain: The evolution of mass mind from the big bang to the 21st. century” by Howard Bloom. This is an exciting tour of evolution, showing networks between living things have always existed from original bacterial networks to modern Internet communications – all the things we’ve discussed.

Bloom shows how the rules for self-organizing and adaptive systems are universal and apply equally to ancient civilizations and modern times. For the first time, I feel I truly understand the fundamental causes and effects of a lot of human behavior—it's wired into our genes.

Bloom explains how networks are not only inevitable, but essential for survival. His grand scale of thinking, yet clear and entertaining discussions, makes this very significant writing.

I highly recommend this book. In fact, it comes with my Pinto guarantee: If you buy it and don't like it, just send me the used copy and I'll refund your money.

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA