Networks and Social Capital, 6/6
Advantages and Disadvantages
members of Gen Z aren’t just digital natives. They are “network natives” who get, implicitly and explicitly, the power of connection. Far from being passive and isolated, they lead lives characterized by participation and community. They know that social media lets them share their voices directly with the world even as it situates them in vast but tightly woven networks of their peers.
. . .These days, who you know is what you know, how you’re known, and who you become.
. . .Without a strong network, you can easily get crushed as the waves of change roll in. With a strong network, you surf them.
Should we be happy about increasing the role of networks as solutions to the problem of building social capital? Should your social status be assured on the basis of your formal credentials, or should it depend on your informal relationships, that is by who you know and how you’re known?
If you go back and re-read the early chapters of The Best and the Brightest, you will see how a network operated in foreign policy circles in the post-WWII period. The Eastern Establishment functioned as a network. President Kennedy’s top foreign policy posts were filled by a network of men who knew one another, mostly from the upper reaches of the investment banking world. They could agree on who was sound and who was not. And they got us deep into war in Vietnam without having any first-hand understanding of the place on which to base policy. Even their knowledge of the United States was limited to its most elite social circles.
In any area where you want excellent people to rise to the top, you can think of two ways to do that. One way is to have a set of rules, procedures, and norms that filter out weaker candidates and bubble up stronger candidates. Call that the formal method. The other way is to have people get ahead on the basis of connections. Call that the informal method.
Note that Niall Ferguson, among others, likes to distinguish networks from hierarchies. Maybe what I am calling formal he would call a hierarchy and what I am calling informal he would call a network.
The Internet seems to be tilting our society away from hierarchical institutions and toward networks. As Yuval Levin and others have pointed out, the institutions of journalism, higher education, and political parties all seem to have weakened in recent years.
To me, it seems as though the formal methods for cultivating talent have become corrupted. The selection systems have been gamed, and our cultural institutions reward conformity rather than excellence. When I propose a network-based university, I am suggesting that our society can find its most dedicated and capable young minds by using an informal approach rather than the more formal methods.
The fact that formal institutions are doing poorly does not necessarily mean that informal networks will do better. Informal networks tend to make a few key people arbitrarily powerful, as The Best and the Brightest seems to illustrate.
Still, I favor experimenting with informal approaches to the problem of identifying and nurturing talent. Let’s see if we can figure out how to take advantage of the strengths of the informal approach without succumbing to its weaknesses.
"To me, it seems as though the formal methods for cultivating talent have become corrupted. The selection systems have been gamed, and our cultural institutions reward conformity rather than excellence. "
I disagree. Our institutions are still selecting for excellence, but their criteria for what they select for based on excellence has changed. They select excellent ideological devotees. The selection systems have not been gamed, but those doing the selection have simply changed what they select for.
If we lived in a world with competition and death among institutions that wouldn't necessarily be a problem. If some private universities wanted to select for ideology A, others for ideology B, and others for, say, actually teaching students something useful, we could let the market figure that out as people pick what they want. As it stands, universities are funded both by the state directly and indirectly through heavily subsidized tuition, while supply via entry is limited, all while many jobs legally require a college degree, and as such we have no real market because there can be no failure that causes colleges to go out of business. Colleges could select for excellence in speaking Klingon and it wouldn't affect their position so long as the state supports stay in place.
indicate a growth of informal networks of very divergent people, which can be very productive. Probably few of these people have ever meet in real life and knowing just a couple and reputations of others about the only thing in common is they are all very numerate.