How Influence Spreads Through Human Interactions — Recommended Readings

Centola, Damon. How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Ferguson, Niall. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

How do networks work?  How does influence spread amongst people, through human interactions?

Historian Niall Ferguson digs into the archives, exploring how people have spread influence for thousands of years.  “Social networks have always been much more important in history than most historians, fixated as they have been on hierarchical organizations such as states, have allowed–but never more so than in two periods.  The first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century.  The second–our own time–dates from the 1970s, though I argue that the technological revolution we associate with Silicon Valley was more a consequence than a cause of a crisis of hierarchical institutions.  The intervening period, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, saw the opposite trend: hierarchical institutions re-established their control and successfully shot down or co-opted networks.  The zenith of hierarchically organized power was in fact the mid-twentieth century—the era of totalitarian regimes and total war” (p xxv).  Professor Ferguson explores why different forms of human interaction are just different forms of networks–an arrangement of interrelated people.

Communications researcher Damon Centola explores the dynamics of how behaviors spread through social networks, mapping the pathways of network diffusion to accelerate social change.  “Diffusion, like schooling, is a collective social process that unfolds through the complex interactions of many independent actors” (p4).  The network dynamics that are required are quite different than what most people think: who is in the network, how they are connected, and how their influence flows, sustainably.

Do You Extract Value, Create It, or Release Its Potential? — Part 1 — A Historical Evolutionary Perspective

When you look at the resources around you, whether they are food, friends, or colleagues, do you want to extract all of the value you can out of them, work with them to create more value in them, or see how to release and catalyze the potential within them?

It might depend on the agreements you are in.  (Sociologists refer to these “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior,” or structures of social order, as “institutions” [Huntington, Samuel P. (1965). “Political Development and Political Decay”, World Politics 17 (3): 386–430].

Political institutions come in two phases, evolving from limited access, centralization of value extracting institutions to open access, inclusive, pluralistic, decentralization of value creating institutions, suggests Harvard historian Niall Ferguson (The Great Degeneration Penguin 2013), citing Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (Violence and Social Orders Cambridge 2009).

Professor Ferguson finds consensus amongst historians and cultural anthropologists that where you find the political power in the hands of a few elites, you find value-extraction political institutions.  Where you find inclusive participation, you find value-creation political institutions.  From an ecosynomics perspective, we take this one step further (based on our survey research in 93 countries and our field research in 9 countries) to suggest that where you find collaboration, you find value-release political institutions.

 Fig 1 070615a


Value-extraction institutions focus on how to appropriate the most value from a given amount of resource. There is only so much sweat in our workforce. How do we get the most we can out of it?  Once the resource is mined, it is done, thus requiring the institution to find another resource to deplete. This focus is preferred historically by groups that centralize power by…, such as the Spanish colonial empire.

Value-creation institutions focus on how to create more resource by managing the net effect of the inflows and outflows of connected resources. People create more resource value by finding more efficient ways to transform them, and more ways to use them, such as through continuous training, where people can continuously develop new capacities. This focus is preferred historically by groups that decentralize power to multiple perspectives in inclusive, pluralistic structures and processes, such as democracies and markets.

Value-release institutions focus on generating new resources and new ways of sustaining existing resources by seeing new possibilities and pathways for manifesting them over time.  Since we invite you to contribute your unique gifts to our community, we are continuously in the process of seeing your future possibilities and choosing with you how to develop them and the contribution they will make.  This focus is preferred historically by groups of people uniting their unique contributions to a shared higher purpose, such as value networks and social entrepreneurs.

If this observation amongst historians and cultural anthropologists holds, then there is a strong correlation between who holds the power to decide (type of nomics) and the relationship with resources (type of political institution).  Which relationship do you want to the resources around you?  Extractive, creative, or potential-releasing?  Do you prefer centralized control, inclusive and pluralist process, or collaborative contributions of unique gifts?  Maybe one comes with the other, and maybe you can choose.