The Seventh Sense - Joshua Cooper Ramo
An ex-competitive aerobics pilot and current board member of FedEx and Starbucks, Joshua Cooper Ramo's career doesn't stand out as particularly qualified in today's world of Zuckerbergs and Musks to write as consequential book as this - consider the heading of the book: 'Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks'. Nonetheless, he writes presciently, approachably, and most importantly accurately on the power of networks in 'The Seventh Sense'.
In brief, he defines the Seventh Sense (after Nietzsche's suggestion of a Sixth Sense, which referred to an ability to understand and survive the Industrial Revolution) to refer to one's intuition* to understand the far more consequential implications of today's Network/Information Revolution.
The intuition he refers to is a gut feeling he explored and cultivated initially after spending time with Nan Huai-Chin, a now deceased spiritual leader of contemporary China. Ramo describes the machinations of the Seventh Sense by explaining how famously confusing Eastern puzzles such as "What is the the sound of one hand clapping" are puzzles that can never be tackled by reason alone. Instead, such puzzles require a reliance on a well-honed instinct. He insists the same goes for the Seventh Sense, an ability to see networks and know how to use them (i.e. network effects).
"An entrepreneur with the Seventh Sense looks at a spare bedroom and sees the possibility of a network to unseat hotels" (e.g. AirBnB)
In this ~300-page book with annoying footnotes that are difficult to follow, Ramo first draws out the unique situation our hyper-connected society is in and some of the consequences (a neuro/physiological perspective of this with regards to the rewiring of our brains is explored excellently in Nicholas Carr's 'The Shallows' (notes here)) of this in topics such as American national security (cyber), today's mega-elite...
Some quick themes / quotes to contextualize the thesis of the book:
"A major state can lose many battles, but the only loss that is always fatal is to be defeated in strategy" - well strategy today involves building a data moat and exploiting network effects. Previously monopolies or hegemons might have their position eroded over decades (e.g. AT&T / pre-WW2-Germany) but tomorrow's goliaths emerge far faster.
Nation states came into being as huge constructs of power because of their monopolistic control of violence, who will control networks?
Manuel Castells, a social philosopher who studies networks: " The network society represents a qualitative change in the human experience." (100)
"If connection changes the nature of an object, it also elevates those who control that connection to a level of rare power and influence… Knowing them too is an element of the Seventh Sense." (176-8)
Andrew Ng (one of the cofounders of Coursera), "When building machine learning systems, making good decisions is a strategic skill. Every day you wake up and you are in some totally unique situation that no one on the planet has been in before. It's not a fact, there's no procedure." (179)
"The New Caste [those who have mastered the power of networks to their advantage] has an admirable conviction, near to faith, that their products are truly universal. They are absolute technological determinists. Watching their services and influence expand, one often senses that strange aura of an irresistible force taking on an immovable object. They believe that their black boxes will bulldoze concerns of politics of history. And soon." (184) -- sound like anybody? Zuckerberg maybe?
Machine + Gun transformed the 20th century, what will Fast, Ubiquitous Networks + The New Caste mean for the 21st?
"In our connected world, the act of drawing lines between points is also an act of drawing a line around those points." (235) -- echo chambers on social media?
"If the traditional aim of American foreign policy was to prevent the emergence of a challenger that threatened the country or to stop nations that aspired to isolate and manipulate Asia or Europe against Washington, the concern now is different. It is the mastery of network destiny." (257) -- i.e. to be the gatekeeper and not the gatekept.
We live in a networked world, that's a fact. Remember 6 degrees of separation, the idea that every human can be connected to every other by at most to any other by at most six steps of "friend of friend" connections, well Facebook released that in 2016 the average distance for any of Facebook's active users (at the time 1.6B, now 2B) was 3.57.
What does that mean? What do networks mean? First consider network effects: the reason everyone uses Google and Bing died. Network effects are the phenomenon where a product/service gains additional value as more people use it. Imagine a phone book with only one business, not very useful right. What about every business that pays to list themselves in it? (what YellowPages were) What about every business that signs up on Facebook/Google? Which is more valuable?
Ramo concludes succinctly: "To be excluded from a database of cancer genetics when it has a million members, is probably not such a painful problem; to be locked out of the chance to compare your genes with those of a billion others might be fatal." (245)
The most important discussion that arises from this book is to do with the so-called New Caste and the incredible 'gatekeeping' powers they hold, however, it isn't explored thoroughly here.