Social Network Dreamtime

by Jay Cross on August 2, 2008

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This aboriginal painting in Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane, Australia, stopped me in my tracks. The label said the artist’s intent was a bit murky. The circles on the left-hand side represent places where wisdom is found. The lines between them are paths. The ripples on the right may be desert sands; no one knows. I saw something else.

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What leaped out at me was a network. You needn’t look too hard to see the nodes and connectors. But this network picture was rich with feeling and variations that you don’t find in a typical network diagram.
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“Lines and nodes? That’s it?” I once asked Mark Granovetter. “Yes,” he said, “that’s about it.”

In Australia, I’d been spending a lot of time contemplating networks. My workshops in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne covered things like nodes and connectors, link density and cycle time, weak connections and strong, the breakdown of hierarchy, the impact of toxic nodes, and organizational network analysis. The dot-and-line model didn’t speak to me; the Aborigine painting did.

The artist’s nodes are places to receive wisdom. They are simultaneously people and ideas. Unlike the standard nodes and connections diagram, each node in the painting is different. Each connection is different, too. The connections are surrounded by a meaningful context, not a void. In real life, external things are always messing with transmission.

The nodes are villages. (Wisdom takes a village.) If nodes are villages, connectors are pathways. The pathways are a reminder that gaining wisdom is a journey. Just because things are connected doesn’t mean people or ideas travel them instantly or without effort. No one travels precisely the same path. There’s live in the villages, but there’s life along the journey, too. There’s life alongside the paths. As in nature, life expands to fill all available space.

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Now the meaning of the ripples comes into focus. The ripples are the sands of time. Inevitably, the dunes drift over the villages, the pathways, and their surroundings. Wisdom is fleeting. Old ways fade. The old pathways no longer take people anywhere meaningful.

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The artist has chosen to depict disruptive change. The incoming sands don’t blend into the villages and paths; they cover them over completely. When the old ways go, they go for good. The ripples don’t even hint at the villages and paths to come. It’s a phase change. You can’t see the old and the new at once.

The painting might be a general map of how change takes place, but I think it’s more likely a specific description of the obliteration of the Dreaming of the Aborigine people.

American settlers were brutal and cruel toward the indigenous peoples, but they communed and their cultures bled into one another. In Australia, the native people were treated as sub-human. The two cultures remained entirely separate. Most of the time, this meant that Aborigine culture was simply wiped out. The ripples covered over the sources of wisdom. All but 20 of the 200+ indigenous languages are endangered.

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