Six degrees of connection

    Six degrees of separation? Try 4.74.

    That’s the latest conclusion from scientists at Facebook and the University of Milan on the average number of acquaintances separating any two people on the planet.

    As online social networks multiply, not only does our interconnectedness increase, but a glut of cyberworld data become available to see if Stanley Milgram and others, who decades ago first asserted this beguiling supposition, were right.

    Turns out we’re closer than even they imagined, according to this recent research project that, as the Los Angeles Times reports, took a month and “examined all 721 million active Facebook users (more than 10% of the global population), with 69 billion friendships among them.”

    As suggestive as this finding might be, it raises a number of thorny issues. Some of them are definitional. For example, what counts for an acquaintance—let alone a friend—anymore? By merely “befriending” someone, have we really broken through the yawning barriers of isolation? Are we really any closer?

    No one at Facebook is claiming that we are all soul mates, bosom buddies, or even best friends.  But undeniably there are new ties, and those ties are increasingly three-dimensional, connecting me to people I would never have met otherwise. There are, as the sociological jargon puts it, “weak ties” and “strong ties,” but even the slenderest of weak ties can connect us under the right circumstances.

    There is the famous case of Malcolm Gladwell pooh-poohing the potential impact of social media on social change three months before the Arab Spring got rolling, when he asserted that the weak ties of Twitter and Facebook would never play a key role in social transformation.

    I would be the last to claim that social media were the primary engines for the events in Tunisia and Egypt—or in the Tar Sands struggle or the Occupy movement—but it is clear that they have played an enormous role in all of these grassroots initiatives. These social networking synapses that are growing at an exponential rate have already helped us glimpse—and, in some cases, experience—the power of this web of linkages for social change.

    But the regime of proliferating weak ties is not enough.

    The emergent connectivity all around us is only the palest hint of our true unity. Social media can be fruitfully understood as a metaphor—an image representing the less tangible but much more primordial vision and experience of oneness. We came out of oneness—from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, from the plains of Africa since then—and, in spite of the fratricidal violence we inflict on one another, this experience of oneness is actually growing and expanding, if Jeremy Rifkin’s research is right in his book, The Empathic Civilization. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Rifkin charts a growth in empathy in the human species as its social organization has systematically expanded its notion of family and belonging: from tribes to religious communities to nation-states. (Here is a video summary of Rifkins’ book.)

    We are on the threshold of potentially expanding this circle of care and concern once more, as will ultimately be required if we have any chance of tackling and resolving the monumental challenges facing our societies and Planet Earth.

    The tricky word in that last sentence is “potentially.” There is no guarantee that we will make this leap. Contrary to the tenets of social Darwinism, our genes don’t fate us to apocalyptic violence, but neither is there a nonviolent determinism. Instead, there is a choice. We have a choice to gamble that we are all connected, and that our survival actually depends on one another, even those people who, empathic tendencies aside, we don’t like very much.

    When I read that I am connected by 4.74 links to virtually any one on the planet, the evanescent smoke of mystical concepts like “oneness” and “interdependence” suddenly vanishes: we are one crew living in one house (“The World House,” as Dr. King wrote in his last days). We are related to all, including enemies, strangers, those from whom we are estranged—those who have rejected us or whom we have rejected—as well as family, friends and our dearest loved ones.

    Being one family doesn’t automatically mean that we love each other or even like each other—there is irrefutable evidence of this, and more of it piles up everyday—but this connection can be a basis for choosing a more effective way.

    The greatest violence is the act of denying this connectedness. However, no matter how vicious or extensive, no act of denial can extinguish the prior foundational reality of our relatedness. Under no circumstance is relationality ever extinguished. It is primordial, thoroughgoing, and at the heart of all that is. Were relatedness to cease, all life would cease.

    So this brings me to the University of California at Davis Police pepper-spraying a line of nonviolent Occupiers on UCD campus last week. This traumatic incident got me thinking about my own experience of my being tear-gassed at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, where the Seattle police also used pepper-spray.

    I am quite certain that I did not have the theory of “six degrees of separation” in my head as I sat linking arms with my fellow anti-globalization advocates as an unremitting cloud of tear gas bore down on us, leaving us momentarily blind and unable to breathe.

    But there was a part of me that intuited this radical indivisibility of all life. It was why I was sitting there in the first place—this web connects the sweatshop worker in Indonesia with the thousands of us sitting in the street in downtown Seattle.

    But there was also this irreducibly foundational connection with those firing rubber bullets into the crowd and lobbing the latest round of tear-gas canisters at us. What, I might ask, were the degrees of connection to them? I was born in Seattle—perhaps three, perhaps two. Hey, maybe even one.

    To own up to our deepest connection is not to condone the violence of our “sibling.” This foundational interconnectedness, instead, offers a sturdy place (sociological but also biological and existential) from which to nonviolently resist such violence with every fiber of my being—but to do so with the knowledge that I do so to strengthen, not weaken, the strongest tie of all.

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