02 March 2017

The Power of Networks: Six Principles That Connect Our Lives

Christopher Brinton and Mung Chiang
2016, Princeton University Press, 328 pages,
ISBN 978-0691170718

Reviewer: Mark Cleary, Kinetic Economics

Prior to reading this book, I expected it would provide an insight into the new and powerful economic networks and theories surrounding the new economy. After a few pages I realised that it might not be as promising as I first thought.

In the main body of the text the authors look at how organisations harvest data and use  network  tools to support or help achieve an  organisations objectives. These objectives may be sales and ultimately profit or various not-for-profit outcomes such an enrichment of learning outcomes. Particular networks and models the authors explore revolve around the power of crowds, the knowledge of crowds, the failure of crowds and the importance of social media and social interaction in an informed applied and interesting way.

The authors are keen on theory as well as practice and look in depth at how specific companies such as Netflix use these various networks to recommend ‘suitable’ content for their customers. This is insightful but consists of pretty much standard Customer Relationship Management software ideas.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the chapter on ‘Learning Socially’. This chapter looks towards alternative ways networks can be used in education to support learners. They look mainly at the use of Massive Open Learning Courses. These courses are mostly online courses provided for free by top tier universities, largely in the US. The authors illustrate how educators can design social networks within these courses and other courses   so that learners can support each other.  They show how social interactions can improve educational experiences and explain how the failure of individuals to interact socially within the educational environment can help identify those who need more support.

This book is bound to prove a useful introduction for the uninitiated reader to how platforms and organisations harness data and construct networks.  The authors’ pedagogy is interesting and stimulating. Diagrams and cartoons pack the book and ultimately help to stimulate the reader’s interest and support the understanding of some challenging concepts. However, although for the most part this a very well constructed read, it is bookended by history and theory that seems to be superfluous to the core of the argument and the claims the authors make.

What was disappointing? Ultimately, not because of any inherent faults, but because it is a book for engineers rather than economists and an introductory text at that. In fact it soon becomes apparent that the book was a text for the authors’ own online course and so is of course a  textbook, although an easily digestible and interesting one.