[Apologies for the barrage of posts – I’m trying to be more disciplined about spending a couple hours writing in the morning, and, well, I generate a lot of verbiage. The editing part still needs work obviously. But you’ll have to suck it up. Or just skip it.]
In the previous post, I suggested a definition of powerful, as it relates to art and ideas, as being that which connects people. But being the contrary person I am, I’m immediately going to offer another viewpoint. Last night while thinking about what the value of a network of ideas was versus an individual idea, I wondered if I could tie this whole discussion into the science of networks, as described in Six Degrees. Perhaps in the tipping point phenomenon. I mentioned in my first cognitive subroutines post how I occasionally have flashes of insight, where ideas realign into a new pattern. Is that a tipping point in my neural net? Do different people have different threshold levels of evidence, such that some generalize quickly, and others need a preponderance of evidence?
Then another thought struck me. The thing that makes the small world phenomenon work is the unanticipated links between disparate parts of the network. The small world phenomenon doesn’t work if people only know their local friends. It’s only when a few people (not many at all according to Watts) can link their local set of friends to a set of friends far away. The far links are the powerful ones that make the entire network “small”.
Once I thought of it that way, the extension to ideas was obvious – ideas that connect wildly disparate modes of thought are powerful, because they link up different areas of the idea network. The most powerful ideas are the ones that cross disciplines, connecting things that nobody thought were even related. Maxwell unifying electricity and magnetism. The electron shell theory providing a basis for the chemical periodic table. I like this perspective because it makes the connection to the science of networks explicit. We can think about how the different idea networks interrelate, and how to construct links between them that will make the idea network as a whole more compact.
So this is a different definition of powerful than the one in the previous post. That previous post started with art and moved to ideas; can I do the reverse and apply this new definition to art? It’s unclear. What does it mean to connect different areas of art? To take one example, music that breaks barriers is often seen as revolutionary. Rock and roll built off of the blues, but brought it into the mainstream. I suspect the same is true in art, but I’m not sure I know my art history well enough to come up with any examples. Perhaps Gauguin’s incorporation of Pacific Island art into his work.
Now we have two definitions of powerful. One is about the effect something has on us personally, and our connections with each other. The other is about the effect something has on the network, growing the capabilities of the network by providing more links, where the advancement of the field is perceived as being a good in its own right. Is one definition “better” than the other? It’s hard to say. But I find it interesting that my speculation on art as a web has opened up into this whole separate discussion on value and power. Down the rabbit hole we go.