Starting a GSS Reading List

When some time ago I asked Ralph Dum what he considered a good example of a global system, he said: “The Internet”. That answer made a lot of sense to me and is one of the reasons I engaged with GSS.

There is a rather famous paper by Papadimitriou called “Algorithms, Games and the Internet” claiming that to understand the Internet we need “a fusion of algorithmic ideas with concepts and techniques from Mathematical Economics and Game Theory”. Again, that makes a lot of sense to me. The reason being that “The Internet has arguably surpassed the von Neumann computer as the most complex computational artifact (if you can call it that) of our time”. It “is unique among all computer systems in that it is built, operated, and used by a multitude of diverse economic interests, in varying relationships of collaboration and competition with each other.” And for sure this multitude of interests cuts across nations to span the whole globe. So that paper looks like a good start for a GSS reading list. And for those who like less technical stuff, here is a gentle introduction to “The Price of Anarchy”, a subject presently studied with the tools suggested by Papadimitriou. Remarkably, the Internet community engages in this analysis because it wants to pay that price, while understandably preferring to keep it low.

I’ll start a very preliminary GSS reading list by adding some references based on conversations with Sander van der Leeuw about readings for the worksop: “GSS – territorial versus functional patterns” (Arizona State, February 25/26).

Consider the beautyful Internet meme: “We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code” (it started at, p. 543). That pretty much captures the spirit of the professional networks that are increasingly shaping the technologies humankind lives with. These networks are an important example of what sociologists call the functional differentiation of society – as distinct from the segmentation practiced by our ancestors in the couple of hundred thousand years before they settled down, but also from the hierarchical differentiation that became paramount in the territorially based ways of life that shaped the past couple of millennia. Some background on this is provided in a pretty influential paper on Social Differentiation.

One reason functional networks are important in today’s world is that they provide people with identities that generate bonds crossing the boundaries set by national identities. Amartya Sen has argued that this kind of multiple identities is what we need to reduce the risks of violence in a globalized world. We better think hard about these risks as they may well become, in Churchill’s words, “A Gathering Storm“.

A key topic to consider when looking at the relation between global functional networks like the world of computer scientists, programmers, etc. and the territorial structures of nation states is the dynamics of global urbanization. Cities are places where a multitude of functional networks intersect. Sander has already begun to spell out how the GSS research program might look at worldwide urbanization (see his post “Towards a Global Systems Science of Urbanization”). To get a sense of how this fits with the broader scope of GSS as a whole, see his “Lessons from the Distant Past”. And when thinking about a GSS research program, we can build on the agenda for scientific research that Young et al. have designed with regards to “The Globalization of Socio-Ecological Systems”.

A key practical challenge with regards to that globalization is how to develop a reasonable “Governance of Finance”. How daunting this challenge might be becomes clear when looking at the “Global Network of Corporate Control”. As the global financial crisis of 2007 has shown, the state of the art in economics is hardly sufficient to deal with these networks. The fusion of algorithmic ideas and game theory advocated in the first paper on our list, therefore, is best seen not as refining existing ideas here and there, but as the kind of intellectual adventure that opens truly new horizons. “Shaking an Invisible Hand” offers an entry to that journey.

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