The Seventh Sense, written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, is an urgent reminder to conform and adapt to the latest societal trend taking place: the age of networks. Power, which once resided solely in institutions, has manifested in networks, creating events thought previously impossible without a leading entity, like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. Without a clear strategy, it’s impossible to predict and control how networks will influence people as more connections to more networks every day. Networks, however, are not solely technologically based, but technology has accelerated the power of networks. I highly recommend reading this book slowly and thoroughly; the theses presented aren’t derived from numbers and statistics, but from philosophy.
To be clear, Ramo doesn’t give a solution to any specific problem with networks. The book is written in an anecdotal manner; stories are introduced in the beginning of the chapter, lessons are extrapolated, and a final point is made at the end. The issue that Ramo addresses is the way people approach networks, much like how the “Sixth Sense” is the “historical sense” defined by Nietzsche (the ability to quickly guess the rank order of the valuations that a people, a society, an individual has lived by). There are 6 main points listed by 2/3rds of the book:
1. Networks distribute power in ways that are new in human history (i.e. connection changes the nature of an object)
2. Networks are made up of many complicated pieces, but in their essence they are complex
3. They possess historic amounts of power at their cores
4. There is a new caste who dominate and control many of the systems we depend on
5. Topologies – new and invisible set of landscapes (Physical world can be reshaped by the virtual)
6. Networks were created for the compression of time (and, derivatively, distance)
Ramo spends a lot of time on these 6 points because they seem disjointed and unclear as standalone points. For example, there is a distinct difference between “complicated” and “complex” (namely, something that is complicated is still predictable). Only after these points are internalized are we supposed to feel an urgency to understand networks and act.
The last third of the book focuses on how the power consolidated around networks is, in many ways, very restrictive. While it seems like networks contribute to an increasingly diversified lifestyle, where access to information and data is convenient, the truth is more complicated. In some ways, networks have corralled us into gated communities (for lack of a better analogy). As sinister as it sounds, these gated areas weren’t designed necessarily for exclusion. Being within the gated, there is trust in every interaction, which leads to faster transfer of information, reasonable security, and other benefits. A good example: the ease of two iPhones interacting rather than an iPhone and a Google phone. Herein lies the power of exclusion, and subsequently, the ability to influence using networks.
After reading the book, it’s hard to internalize what is being said. Throughout history, we were taught how power consolidated around a clear entity, an institution or a leader, and how influence is limited to how far each entity can reach. On the other hand, networks are platforms that seemingly are led by ideas and philosophies rather than a necessary end-goal, with power that is both consolidated and distributed. Suffice to say, this is the type of thinking Ramo is trying to change.
I would be remiss to not mention an article that recently came out on the Economist titled “Reweaving the Web.” It discusses new startups that are attempting to break away from the centralized Internet (i.e. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon) and have information stored all over rather than a centralized location or entity. This trend is influenced by Bitcoin, which showed the possibility of a de-centralized currency. Whether this trend will continue to gather steam is unclear, but it’s worth having in mind when reading The Seventh Sense.