When I picked up Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet, by William Davidow, I almost put it back down. Given the title, I thought it might be just another in a line of books talking about the effects of Web content on our brains and attention spans, and the pros and cons of being "always on." It isn't, and I'm glad I didn't put it down.
Overconnected isn't about what's delivered over the Web. It isn't about cellphones, texting, blogging, mobile apps or social media. It's about the connective tissue that, yes, enables and facilitates not just those things, but also, and more importantly, plays an integral role in far-reaching socioeconomic crises. It's about the mostly detrimental impact and yet misunderstood and largely unknown (until now) effect of the systemic connectivity itself.
Overconnected is a thoughtful, insightful examination by someone who has been at the heart of Silicon Valley as both a venture capitalist and senior Intel executive responsible for designing the microchip that proved Moore’s Law of computing power rates.
Overconnected had a certain Gladwellian affect on me, and I couldn't help but think that if Malcolm Gladwell were writing The Tipping Point today, the critical "Connector" element in "The Law of the Few" would be not a person, but a thing: the Internet. And William Davidow's work in Overconnected would be the primary resource informing the narrative.
I eventually put the book down, but not until I had read it cover to cover in one sitting. I ended up being, as U.C. Berkeley's former U.S. Congressman and business school dean Tom Campbell puts it, "frightened and enlightened."
While the miraculous success of the Internet has afforded us certain efficiencies, it has produced an omnipresent risk to our socioeconomic lives by overconnecting us in hazardous ways that tend to produce "positive feedback loops" in which seemingly good things spread and intensify quickly, yet with unintended and ultimately devastating consequences.
Davidow's original goal was to enlighten policy makers who he knew had no idea about the true impact of the Internet, so that they could be more effective. During his writing process, he discovered that very few people understand much about the power of the Internet and the effects of increased connectivity. His goal expanded into a book not just for policy makers, but businesspeople, economists, social scientists and the general public.
These five questions and answers by the author highlight the most important points.
Q: You write that you've gone from being overly optimistic to deeply concerned about the growth of the Internet. Why?
A: Because I've observed how markets have become more volatile, financial innovations mushroom in size and become dangerous, computer viruses and junk email are beyond control, identity theft is rampant, And I believe social networking has the potential to cause big problems, some of which we are beginning to see already. Change and growth race ahead of governance, regulation and social control. So what you have is things like the 2008 Financial Crisis, massive amounts of cybercrime and the meltdown of the Icelandic economy. The Internet, the world's most powerful interconnection technology facilitates all of this.
Q: If I argued that you're just making the Internet the scapegoat for larger or deeper issues, how would you respond?
A: The Internet does not in and of itself cause these things to happen, but it definitely facilitates them. It is an unindicted co-conspirator. It makes problems larger and it makes them crop up at a much faster rate than we are equipped to handle. The Internet did not cause the failure of Lehman Brothers, but as one former Lehman employee told me, these could not have happened without the Internet. What she meant was the Internet made it larger and more virulent.
In the case of Lehman, at the time of their bankruptcy, they had 930,000 derivative contracts they were a party to. How could they have exchanged documents, kept track of changes in the market in order to engage in offsetting transactions or created the documentation required to support these transactions without the Internet?
Q: Most of your examples are of catastrophic proportion... whole economies and societies negatively impacted by the Internet. You were an early pioneer in the Internet, so how does that make you feel?
A: I am deeply troubled when technology and scientific advances are misused and abused. How can anyone feel good about computer viruses, junk email, cyber-bullying and financial abuses made possible by the Internet? But I would argue the Internet is in many respects no different than genetic engineering, oil drilling, or even automobiles. Every powerful new technology can be subject to misuse and abuse. The challenge for society is to use technology responsibly so that society benefits and side effects are minimized.
Q: Do you believe the positive aspects of our overconnected society still outweigh the negative aspects?
We are currently living in an overconnected society. As I define overconnectivity, it is a bad thing. An overconnected society is populated with dysfunctional institutions and situations driven to extremes. It is accident and contagion prone. There is little good one can say about overconnectivity. The challenge is to take our overconnected society and make changes to our institutions and governance systems so they function effectively in highly connected environments. We have to redesign most of our systems to be compatible with very high levels of connectivity. We can do this if we have the will.
Q: I get a sense that you don't believe we're already so overconnected that we can’t turn things around, so what would it take to weaken the positive feedback loops that you blame for creating the overconnectedness that now exists?
A: Of course we can turn things around, and the sooner the better. There are lots of things one can do to reduce the levels of positive feedback in the system. Rational regulation will help. You can tax certain activity like financial transactions. You can break interconnections and not create some in the first place. You can design systems from day one with less feedback. You can build more slack into the system by having the proper level of reserves. None of this is rocket science, but it will require some very uncomfortable compromises.
Q: That sounds complex and difficult at the very least. What's the first step?
A: Step one is to learn what the real problem is, which is why I wrote Connected in the first place. My hope is that people begin to debate the issue.
As a systems thinker, I enjoyed Davidow's treatment of positive feedback loops (pp. 24-28), which he explains vividly:
"When most people here the term 'positive feedback,' they tend to think...happy results (dog rolls over on command, receives praise and treat) and that negative feedback means just the opposite--unhappy results (kid gets scolded for a bad grade, kicks the innocent dog, goes to his room, and slams the door). But those are actually examples of positive and negative reinforcement. I am using feedback in the sense that engineers--and I confess to being one--use it, the term 'positive' referring to the fact that change reinforces or adds to change, rather than the desirability of the outcome.
"Most of us who have listened to anyone with a microphone and an amplifier have experienced an annoying by-product of positive feedback: the audio system stops amplifying the speaker's words and instead produces an ever-shriller, high-pitched shriek or low-pitched buzz, steadily increasing in volume until somebody turns down the volume or pulls the plug. When this happens, sound is bouncing off the walls and being fed back into the microphone. If the amplification is set just a little too high, say 10 percent, the system runs away and you hear an ear-shattering screech...in no time at all the initial sound is amplified a thousandfold."
Those who like well-reasoned positions backed by deep scientific research that yield fascinating and counterintuitive insights will love this book. If you're a fan of books like The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds and Freakonomics, you'll love this one!
What People are Saying:
“As has been his wont in the past, Bill Davidow has once again put his finger squarely on the most salient risk in contemporary economic life. Then it was the rise of the virtual corporation (an idea Bill surfaced over 20 years ago), now it is overconnectedness and all the issues of contagion it implies. Many big vision books are bunk. Bill’s is the real deal. Let his thoughtfulness deepen your own.” Geoffrey Moore, author, Crossing the Chasm