Published 17-April-2020

Six degrees of connection & some early learning from COVID-19.

Most will have come across six degrees of separation (), maybe described as the 6 handshake rule or the Kevin Bacon game. It is the idea that all people are connected to each other by six, or fewer, social connections. Research shows that this is more than a theory with social media platforms and lInked In itself working on that very basis.

However, we are looking at it the wrong way.  It should really be renamed Six degrees of Connection. Rather than focusing on what separates us we should be looking at what connects us.

Focusing on what separates us gives easily leads to the (false) perception of being isolated, individual and distinct from others. In its extreme expression, feelings of detachment and separateness lead to cruelty and are at the root of sociopathic behaviour.

However, we are actually very connected. Not just by human to human relationships but by actions and their consequences. This isn’t new. As John Donne wrote in 1624:

'No Man is an Island'

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Seuerall Steps in mySicknes - Meditation XVII
John Donne 1572-1631

Thinking in terms of Six degrees of Connection isn’t the subtle shift it appears to be. It is 180 degree change in conceptualisation of our ‘individual’ relationship with the world.

What we do ‘individually’ isn’t unique. Each ‘individual’ action is mirrored by millions of others each acting ‘independently, such that those actions can be looked at collectively, categorised and examined. That is why inhibiting small individual behaviours has an exponential effect. What is commonly known as the Butterfly Effect , where a small action leads to a much larger consequence.

It emerged out of attempts to improve the modelling of Chaotic weather systems Edward Lorenz described the ‘Lorenz attractor’, a modelling of a weather system where small changes give rise to large effects.

In 1963, Edward Lorenz, presented a paper to the New York Academy of Sciences and in it he wrote: "One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever."

This developed in later speeches and papers by Lorenz into a Butterfly, giving rise to the term ‘the butterfly effect’. It is possible that the expression butterfly effect is derived from 'A Sound of Thunder', written by Ray Bradbury in 1952. In it a time traveller changes his future for ever by accidentally stepping on a butterfly. The Weather is a Chaotic system, a concept and term coined in 1975 Professor James A Yorke, in a paper entitled 'Period Three Implies Chaos'.

Human behaviours are like the weather, connected in a chaotic system and like all chaotic systems subject to the butterfly effect. What happened in a wet market in China has to date (17 April 2020) effected over 1.3 million people across the world in 209 countries in 4 months.

We already knew from Environmental damage is the aggregate effect of individual behaviour and with the Corona Virus pandemic, we now can see how connected we all are.

It is clear we need to refocus our thinking not to what separates us but to what connects us.

If we do, something positive can result from this global crisis that enables us to build a better world post COVID-19 than we would have had without it.

However, this also gives us something we can use right now to help us get through this crisis: The need to understand connections and to connect more.

It is clear that to combat the virus and release the world from lockdown requires understanding. We need to collect the data to connect the dots, to identify who has COVID-19, who has had it, who is most at risk, who needs help and what measures are really needed to contain it until we can defeat it. Collecting and connecting ‘all’ the data available is the only way we can fully understand it and take the best decisions. Not enough data is being collected and without it there are degrees of chaos filled by guess work and speculation. When lives are on the line, chaos must be minimised.

This is the same for business. The effect on the business world is the ‘collateral’ damage of trying to save as many lives as possible. Business is being put into intensive care, some are dying, few are minimising effects, most are trying to survive in isolation, commercially distanced from customers and revenue.

What business can do at this time is to identify, collect and connect data in real time, both internal and external. Collect everything that is needed to optimise understanding and take better faster decisions as the pandemic and the new world it is ushering in evolve. That also means connecting people with data and with each other. Joining up the dots is the only way to get the true picture.

From now on, for some of us, maybe most of us, the future is less about profit and competition than it is about collaboration, mutual value and benefit.

Thanks for reading. I wish you well

Connected Intelligence - Connecting you to Smarter

- James Bryant