It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it: for innovation to thrive on the internet, we must break up the very social networks that the web has made possible.
Previous research has shown that certain patterns of social interaction make radical innovation more likely. Bold ideas are typically incompletely formed when first conceived and easily shot down by criticism. Hence, they emerge more readily in communities in which individuals work mostly in small and relatively isolated groups, giving their ideas time and space to mature.
The problem, says social scientist Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the National University of Singapore, is that today's software developers work in social networks in which everyone is closely linked to everyone else. "The over-abundance of connections through which information travels reduces diversity and keeps radical ideas from taking hold," he suggests.
The over-abundance of connections reduces diversity and keeps radical ideas from taking hold
To restore the kind of aggressive innovation needed to build the next-generation internet will require re-engineering of the social networks of software developers themselves. This could be done, for example, if funding agencies ensured that research projects were carried out by many small, competing groups over longer periods. "To enable innovation it may be necessary to reduce the number of social ties between coders," says Mayer-Schönberger.
This article originally appeared on New Scientist.