Book review: ‘The Power of Networks’ by Christopher G Brinton and Mung Chiang

From keeping you in touch on the move to getting useful movie recommendations, this accessible introduction shows how network theory enables a host of things that many people would find it hard to do without.

Networking theory is an aspect of technology most of us encounter repeatedly in our daily lives without realising how essential it has become. Using a smartphone (or even making an old-fashioned mobile voice call), logging in to free Wi-Fi in a busy airport, picking up a book or movie recommendation based on what people with similar tastes have bought, even getting exactly the website we want as the top result in a Google search.

Networks are everywhere and ‘The Power of Networks: Six Principles That Connect Our Lives’ by Christopher G Brinton & Mung Chiang (Princeton University Press, £24.95, ISBN 9780691170718) shows not only how they work but why understanding them is useful.

Brinton and Chiang both have backgrounds in electrical engineering, which combined with experience of topics like big data analytics allows them to strike an authoritative but accessible tone. The book has partly evolved from massive open online courses the pair have developed over the past few years that have introduced hundreds of thousands of people to the science behind networking. It isn’t a complete beginner’s guide, but is pitched perfectly at the reader with a background in technology who’s interested in finding out more about the principles that underpin so much of daily life.

Key to this is using simple metaphors to help visualise concepts that at a practical level are very complex but aren’t that hard to understand.  The idea of conversation at a busy cocktail party is a recurring theme. Once you realise that the ‘carrier sense multiple access’ that allows multiple devices to share a Wi-Fi network is a ‘courtesy procedure’ similar to the conventions that allow a group of people to mingle in a room, starting up chats, taking turns and moving  on without ending up just trying to shout over each other, the technical implementation is much easier to grasp.  The same analogy illustrates the contrast between time-division and code-division multiple access in a way that a layperson put off by the TDMA and CDMA abbreviations will find simple to understand.

Herds of livestock play a part too. The economic principle of the tragedy of the commons, in which increasing numbers of herdsmen add to their respective cattle grazing on shared land, makes a handy simile for the delicate balance between flat-rate and pay-as-you-go mobile data plans, while a 1906 auction in Plymouth introduces the ‘wisdom of crowds’ principle that underpins all those recommendations of content you might like based on other users’ preferences. (Statistician Sir Francis Galton found that although hundreds of guesses of the weight of an ox varied wildly, the average was within 0.1 per cent of the correct  figure.)

This isn’t a superficial book though, and the easily grasped comparisons lead on to an in-depth treatment, though without the maths of a full-blown text book. One nice touch is the first-person accounts from big names in the industry like Eric Schmidt and Vinton Cerf of how the technology described has been applied in the real world.

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