Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Social Change Cause it Makes Me Happy, Well-Being and Social Networking

An interesting article from Seed Magazine, in it Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler discuss networks, and how understanding them is changing everything from evolutionary theories to political campaigns. There’s a lot in the article I didn’t really get. For example scale-free networks, which as I understand it has something to do with networks being built around “nodes” or “hubs” which are units (whether people or cells etc.) which are connected to high numbers of other units. That is to say that in a network, say Facebook, there is not an equal distribution of “friend” connections. Instead there are people who have vastly more “friend” connections than others, in fact there are several “levels” of connectivity, and that some highly connected people tend to have connection in multiple different “communities.” These people are the “nodes” and “hubs” (the only difference I can see is the quantity of different connections, with hubs having significantly more.) One of the interesting things about scale-free networks is that they have found the same structure in a variety of seemingly very different network systems, for example, social networks and cellular networks.

For me, the meet of article was a reference to a study by Fowler and his colleague Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, which found that both behaviors like smoking and obesity and emotions like happiness and loneliness spread through social networks. What this means is that if your friend or family member starts loosing weight or is happy, you are more likely to loose weight or be happy. The really cool thing is that this is not only true for your friends/family but also for their friends/family. Meaning, if your friend’s mom is loosing weight you are more likely to loose weight whether or not you’ve ever met her.

This makes an empirical argument for all sorts of things like social welfare programs, civil rights, economic justice, etc. This is because these are all factors which affect people’s happiness and since our personal happiness is affected by the happiness of people in our social network, it seems fair to assume that as the happiness of our community rises so shall ours.

Of course, the other option is to attempt to keep those who are likely to be unhappy, the poor and oppressed for example, out of our social networks all together. This has, in fact, been the historic practice of the ruling classes and points to the need for connection between classes and communities as a strategy for social change. For example, one of the long standing traditions of the queer/lgbt liberation movements has been “coming out” to friends and family. This then demonstrates to people that they are being negatively affected by homophobia through their social network. Now, of course people didn’t use the language of personal happiness and its connection to social networks. Instead they thought of it as creating visibility and evoking empathy and understanding. However, I would hypothesize that these are based on instinctual understandings of the impact others have on us. Ie. We care about others because we know that they affect our lives (understanding that this is probably a huge oversimplification of why we care about others, but you get my point.)

Image: Wikipedia: Scale-Free Networks

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At 12:31 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

Solid hypothesis if you ask me, and not over-simplified either (as in Occam's razor, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one).
And I would piggy back on your hypothesis by offering some old-fashioned support from my homeboy Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."
We are all connected indeed: through compassion, instinctual it may be, we support one another and thereby survive. Even more, we thrive! Anyway thanks for the thoughts Eli.


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