The role of information networks in the evolution of social complexity

Pedro C. Marijuán


SAMCA (CPS-I3A) Professorship, University of Zaragoza

1. The evolution of societies toward complexityOne of the themes most discussed in the social sciences pertains to thesources and evolution of social complexity. Here, we will explore howcurrent studies of networks and certain discussions around the constructof information are opening new conceptual avenues toward theunderstanding of social complexity, including knowledge structures, whichwe ought to research in detail. By the way, it may be a sign of our timesthat there is an even greater interest in the “collapse” of societies than intheir complexity per se (Tainter, 1989, was one of its pioneers).If we take the work of Diamond (1996) as a starting point in regards to thesocial, it affords us a dense table that provides support for the argumentof the adaptive nature of social complexity. This table details variousfeatures invariably shown by societies as they increase in complexity. Itconsists of a series of social elaborations and institutions of great variety(kinship systems, labour divisions, exchanges, codes and norms, numbers,writing, religions, knowledge systems, legal systems, administrative andpolitical bureaucracies, et cetera,) many of which were clearly“informational.”Rather than associating them with a hypothetical “progress” of the socialorder, such elaborations must be understood as adaptations of the socialstructure to the possibilities offered by the environment. And one of theoriginal factors that historically allowed mankind to go beyond their basicgroup size and structure—the hunting-gathering bands of about onehundred members—was the acquisition of knowledge toward the creationof artificial ecosystems: The domestication of plants and animals(agriculture and stockbreeding.) The development of very different sets offoods, singularly marked by continental axes (“the axes of history”) is whatdefined the relative strength of each of the geographical areas devoted tothe production of food and the distribution of the corresponding humanpopulations, along with their genes, cultures, languages—and even theirgerms! (Diamond, 1996).When classical anthropology approached the discussion of the evolutionof the successive organisational stages (of “progress”) in terms of bands,tribes, f iefs and states or empires, or when more recently it adopted anewer perspective based on adaptation, it is worth noting that eachorganisational stage or gradation of the social system brought an increaseof at least one order of magnitude: from tens or hundreds, to thousands,tends of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of individuals. This is crucial in terms of networks. We could argue that each organisationalstage brings forth a linear increase of the diameter (the logarithm of size)and a geometric increase of the crossing speed (the time associated to thediameter), both essential factors for the effective interaction of individualswithin their corresponding social network.The above would offer a new approach to understanding the correlationsof social complexity. The emergence of new societies of higher complexityand organisation requires the development of informational systems forcommunication between individuals capable of covering the new socialdiameters, which are comparatively much larger, at substantially highercrossing speeds. Furthermore, these new relational tools would enable theemergence of multiple networks and sub-networks overlaying the basicfabric of social relationships, of variable complexity (harder to regimenthierarchically) and of equally variable duration, no longer limited strictly tothe “strong” or permanent quality of family and kinship bondscharacteristic of tribal groups.In other words, the great informational and communications inventionsthat mark history—the alphabet, codes, seafaring, digits, the printingpress, modern science, the steam engine, motor vehicles, computers—canalso be seen as abstract tools for the articulation of multiple socialnetworks and coalitions of a new kind, which partake in thedeconstruction and reconstruction process of the existing social order bymeans of the heterogeneous types of “weak” ties that they foster,paradoxically with higher efficiency and with a broader range of actionthan the former so-called “strong” ties. Historically, what we here label asweak ties are constituted as authentic “bonds of civility” (Ikegami, 2005).Would the industrial revolution have been possible without thecollaborative networks of modern science? Or the scientific revolutionwithout the communication afforded by books and other printed materials”Or the current process of globalisation without computers and theInternet?The concept of the network is directly tied to the concept of information.Though some studies have already researched experimentally the role ofinformation and of communication networks (particularly electronic ones)in the complex world of social bonds and ties, analysing the resilience,diversity and complexity of its emerging structures (Bohannon, 2006), thisdirection hardly seems sufficient. For many reasons, some of which wewill present momentarily, the informational study of societies is in a mostrudimentary stage (Howard and Schiffman, 1998; Marijuán, 2002), despitethe fact that we are living in the Information Age.2. What information is conveyed through communication networks?A historical review of what was communicated in the Sumerian tablets,the Greek and Roman papyruses, or in much more modern media, wouldreveal an interesting coincidence. In any age, the unfathomable blend of“the human” is what permeates the social communications media.As McLuhan posited (1964), “the medium is the message”. Media exist to contribute content to each other, to feed one another, starting from thebasis of oral communication (though this is not their only source).Consequently, we cannot escape the problem of the “meaning” of all thiscirculating information, generated verbally and transmitted by the media,as McLuhan pointed out as well. We need a new conceptualisation ortheory, beyond Shannon’s physico-theoretical information and the logicsystems of artificial intelligence, one allowing the analysis of the“signification”, the “meaning” of information as generator and vehicle ofsocial relations, at the levels of both the individual and society.