HOW MANY DEGREES OF SEPARATION?
by Marylaine Block
There's a new project to reinvestigate the 6 Degrees of Separation research done by Stanley Milgram in the 1960's. It's called the Small World Research Project http://smallworld.sociology.columbia.edu/, and they're soliciting volunteers.
My guess, and maybe theirs as well, is that for people who are on the internet, the chain connecting us to anybody else on the net may be no more than 3 or 4 links long. Consider web sites like mine, and listservs, for example, which serve as connecting nodes between people of wildly varying interests who hold just one interest in common.
I don't know that much about the visitors to my web site -- just the pages they visit, the countries they come from, and the search engine queries that brought them to me. But I know a good deal about my 2600 subscribers, and you come from every imaginable group of people. You lack theme.
Yes, many of you are librarians, but you work for elementary schools, NASA, Harvard Business School, military bases, magazines, law firms, museums, OCLC, foundations, community colleges, medical schools, library systems, newspapers, the IRS, elite prep schools, state governments, and public libraries. You are catalogers, reference librarians, library support staff, library school students, and library directors. Most of you are Americans, but many of you come from Australia, France, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Macedonia, Israel, Argentina, and sixty other countries.
A lot of you aren't librarians at all. My list includes professors, doctors, winemakers, entrepreneurs, freelance writers, booksellers, and journalists. Many of you are sysadmins, programmers, web designers, and information architects. I know for a fact that 400 of you are readers of Wired.
What that means is that with one click of the Send button, I can plant an idea in thousands of different venues. What I say on Friday, if it's sufficiently interesting, may be a topic of discussion on Monday in a military base in Okinawa, the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, a Louisiana courtroom, the Patent office, a classroom at MIT, the offices of Newsweek, or the BBC. My essay might be linked in by various blogs, reprinted in magazines, or even used as required reading in library schools.
Why should that matter to all of you? Because it's a vivid illustration of the power of our web presence. Our web sites and listservs give us the opportunity to plant and spread our ideas and values, within our communities and in a wider world whose dimensions we barely grasp. Every single person we connect with is connected to hundreds, even thousands, of others.
Here's an exercise to test that power. Perhaps you are aware that the governor of the state of Washington, Gary Locke, is about to commit stupidity. Faced with the real need to slash spending, he has decided to eliminate one entire department -- the state library. It's so much easier, after all, to whack one big budget item with a meat ax than it is to take a scalpel to hundreds of smaller budget items. The approach is rather like that of the computer my friends and I once programmed to select 57 and a half minutes of music at a time for a radio station; the computer developed a passion pieces that were 57 minutes long, treating us to a steady diet of Brahms, Mahler, and, in one memorable afternoon, four renditions in a row of The Planets.
Governor Locke's rationale is that, after all, nobody goes to a state library, and besides, people can get all the information they need on the internet. He has apparently never bothered to inquire who puts information on the net, and therefore hasn't noticed how much of it is placed there by state libraries. He doesn't seem to know that his state library preserves the history of Washington's government, administers federal grants to libraries, and negotiates massive database contracts so that libraries throughout the state can provide citizens with access to copyrighted articles from magazines, newspapers and journals. The governor is proof that people who know nothing about the internet and libraries should not be given power over either. For more about what the state library does, I refer you to these articles from the Seattle Times:
- "Reading the Library Its Last Rites"
- "Cutting State Library Not Sound Budget Policy"
Now, you can contact Governor Gary Locke at http://www.governor.wa.gov/contact/contact.htm, but you'll notice that he says he'll only respond to Washington state residents.
So the degrees of separation challenge is this: forward this article and the Seattle Times articles to somebody in the state of Washington and ask them to go to the web site and send Governor Locke a message.
Quantity might do the trick. But so might quality, because after all, some animals are more equal than others. I know that I'm only two degrees away from Bill Gates, for instance, a citizen of Washington whose views tend to get the attention of politicians.
Want to take the challenge?
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Most of all we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds. That way we can keep open all the options, as we have in the past.
. . .
Joined together, the great mass of human minds around the earth seem to behave like a coherent living system. The trouble is that the flow of information is mostly one-way. We are all obsessed by the need to feed information in as fast as we can, but we lack sensing mechanisms for getting anything much back.
Lewis Thomas. Lives of a Cell
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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