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Applying network science to history

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

My new book, Birth of the Geopolitical Age, operates on several registers: as a history of multiple lives whose arcs crossed and crisscrossed through time; at the level of discourse about empire and frontiers. We live in a world created from the outside in, where state-making processes took place on the frontiers. The peripheries became the testing places for the expansion of interventionist state policies. Network theories have gained favor in recent years with the rise of social media. What Facebook and Twitter make visible, however, are the connections that were always present, just as global travel existed long before the invention of trains and airplanes and the adoption of fossil-fuel based economies and trade connected far corners of the world well before people came up with the concept of globalization.

Around the year 2000, in the first wave of research on the internet, researchers discovered something interesting and unexpected about the world wide web and its connections: it was not spread out evenly but rather clustered around a few nodes. The internet apparently worked in the same fashion as the underground connections between trees in the whimsically dubbed world wood web. The underground fungal connections, a means of communication between trees, were not evenly spread out. Instead, a few old-growth anchor trees functioned as important hubs for an entire forested area. The mysteries of human history and the circulation of knowledge mimic the ways of subterranean mycelial networks. I have adapted these insights from network and mushroom science to a historical narrative to break away from a purely chronological narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each chapter is based on the concept of a hub – points in time and space, both physical and conceptual, at which an entangled web of individual lives and events intersected and then diverged. Chapter 1, for examples, begins with the year 1852, a date that does not seem to occupy any place of prominence for historians but was a point of intersection for a variety of figures from Commodore Perry and Horace Capron in the United States to Zuo Zongtang in China. By the mid-nineteenth century, the forces of capitalism had penetrated to the far corners of the world and underlay growing global turmoil.

Additional Readings:

Albert-Laszlo Barabsi, Linked: How everything is connected to everything else and what it means for business, science, and everyday life (Basic Books, 2004).

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015).

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life (New York: Random House, 2020).

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