Saturday, September 23, 2006

How Big is the World?

I find myself asking that question upon re-affirming something I realized several years ago, but find hard to believe. I ran across this article about Bob Dylan's "oldest friend." I first heard about this guy from someone I knew who worked with him at KFIZ radio. Astoundingly, this means I have a legitimate third degree separation from Bob Dylan. This also means that everyone I know has at least a fourth degree separation from Dylan. It also means that I have a fourth degree separation that everyone Dylan knows or knew, including the Beatles, Allen Ginsburg, Eric Clapton, Andy Warhol, and dozens of others. Through Dylan, I think it is safe to say that any famous or elite person in America fits snugly within my six degrees of separation. If not for the Dylan connection, it is quite likely that I still would be able to claim this, since one of my former bosses is the son of a guy who was a former CEO of CBS/Viacom, is the current head of Sirius satellite radio, and is a close friend of Howard Stern.

Bear in mind I'm not talking about celebrity encounters---I once touched someone who touched Krist Novaselic, but I wouldn't use that as evidence of a third-degree connection to Kurt Cobain. I'm using legitimate acquaintanceship as a standard for degree of separation.

This most recent re-affirmation of my connection to Dylan led me to Wikipedia's page on the Six Degrees of Separation. Apparently, the beginnings of this theory were pretty unscientific--someone in Hungary wrote a fictional short story in 1924 that suggested it. Since then, it has been both proven and disproven by scientific studies and mathematical models.

No matter what science tells us, it is indisputable that this theory holds some fascination in popular culture. From the Kevin Bacon game to the defunct social networking site to a movie by the name to an upcoming Fall TV series based on the concept, something about the proposed phenomena catches our fancy.

I suppose on one level it could be an attempt to impose order on chaos. Some people extend the six degrees theory beyond social networking and extend it to data sets in general. If that is the case, potentially overwhelming loads of information can be tamed, and at least in theory, made subject to patterns of organization.

On another level, the six degrees theory plays to a common desire for not independence, but interdependence. Although we've had a smattering of existential artists and philosophers in modern times who celebrate individual independence and make claims like "hell is other people," for the most part our societies are built on assumptions of collectivism and co-operation. The six degrees theory can also serve to minimize or elide class differences, which people from all classes are often eager to do in theory (though upper classes resist doing in practice).

In short, the six-degrees theory stries me as highly wishful thinking. However, this does not necessarily make it false, and my own experiences would seem to validate it. Given the recent prominence of facebook and myspace, we can now see that the six degrees social networking website was clearly ahead of its time. I think that if the six-degree theory is ever proven, it will be the result of a brave new world, perhaps not too far away, when technology will reveal humanity as a large web, and allow us to see the strand we occupy, and allow us to discern at an instant how near or how far any other strand may be.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

My mom knows the parents of a top ten contestant on Canadian Idol, so I am connected to winner Melissa O'Neil (and Josh Palmer nudge nudge Heidi) in three steps.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i like to stalk people.

ps. good job on the last two posts. the fastball one: i actually read! but this one, i didn't read it all, but it was interesting what i did read. im glad you are (inadvertly probably) noticing my needs for simple ideas. thank you. seriously.

-you know who

12:37 PM  

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