Archive | June, 2013

Everything Is Connected

14 Jun

networksBack in April, I had the opportunity to visit (twice) Boston’s Museum of Fine Art (MFA). It is an incredible collection (over 450,000 pieces) of artwork – from ancient Egyptian sculpture to impressionist painting; any form of artistic expression from musical instruments, furniture, housewares, and even postcards.

A quick look at the floor plan and everything appears perfectly organized (Art of the Ancient World, Art of the Americas, Art of Europe, Contemporary Art) and compartmentalized (Early American Colonial, French Impressionists, Bauhaus). What occurred to me (read more about the subconscious in Incognito by David Eagleman) as I wondered from room to room, and read the biographies of the artists and historical background of the periods is: Everything Is Connected. Social, political, religious, psychological and scientific movements and revolutions merge and mingle with artistic expression in a wonderful tapestry of life.

Consider the story Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, as related by Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern:

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius – a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

The copying and translation of this ancient book fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson – who helped establish a nation built on individual freedom, and allowed for the continuation of artistic expression (and the creation of the MFA in 1876).

Let me take “connectedness” a step further. After having my epiphany in at the MFA, I started to research the idea further – to see what others had written on the subject (if anything). It just so happened that there is a book by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi titled Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. In the opening chapter, Barabasi explores the concept of connectedness through graph theory. A paper written by Leonhard Euler on the Seven Bridges of Königsberg and published in 1736 is regarded as the first paper in the history of graph theory. The introduction of probabilistic methods in graph theory, especially in the studies of Paul Erdős and Alfréd Rényi of the asymptotic probability of graph connectivity, gave rise to yet another branch, known as random graph theory, which has been a fruitful source of graph-theoretic results. I had studied Erdős and graph theory as an Operations Research student in Monterey CA in the late 1990s. So I was already familiar with “connectedness” but it took a visit to the MFA for me to make the connection between, well, everything.

What does this have to do with business or economics? Our personal interactions (what some have termed “bumps”) serve as a catalyst for new ideas and products, or new uses for old ideas and products – stimulating innovation and creating new business. An excellent read on the creation of ideas is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – which I referenced in a previous blog post.