Recently I have been thinking about the network of connections between people. I’ve really not been wanting to participate in social media lately but a while ago I spent a lot of time using the Twitter API and an app I wrote which mainly consisted of various snippets of Python code to get a shed load of data on my social network from the platform. My motivation for doing this partly came from discussions with my dad about living systems and how they related to social systems and partly, it must be said, from a desire to get a lot of user data to create tailored audiences for ads. I’m a musician and I have to get the word out about my stuff somehow don’t I? In the process of doing this I managed to get over a hundred thousand individual User ID’s that were connected to me through mutual follows on Twitter, which is how I defined the basic relationship between people in the social network. I also got some network visualisation software and started rather laboriously entering in the data, which of course is almost instantaneously out of date because so many people follow and unfollow each other all the time. But the main point I was trying to get at was the fact that we all as people have multiple connections, or relationships, that we share with other people: family, friends, work colleagues, people with mutual interests, etc. A social network like Twitter might mirror these relationships in a way that has tangible data which can be analysed but it is only a particular representation, and as I say it changes and can go out of date quickly.
Another way of looking at this is if one was to imagine that each person was like a tree in the forest. Each tree appears to be an individual entity with its own set of roots and branches that sustain it by drawing up water and photosynthesising light. But there is another completely unseen set of connections between the trees in a wood which you only get small glimpses of when you see a mushroom popping up here and there. The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi that spread like a fine web of connections all through the forest floor and do a remarkable amount of work distributing nutrients to the trees with which they are associated in a symbiotic relationship. Without this network there would be much less resources for the growth of the trees and their health would suffer but it is all unseen and goes on below the surface. This is the same as the sustaining relationships which go on between people. They cannot be seen in obvious ways but they could be mapped out just as I tried to map out the Twitter connections. It would take a lot of insight and insider knowledge to do this though and in the past various cultures had people which took on specialised roles to safeguard this knowledge.
In Gaelic cultures it was the Bards who would have the whole societal structure kept inside their heads based on genealogies as well as fostering relationships that acted as bonds between large extended families. An example of this can be seen in the Museum of Scotland where the scribbles of a bard in the Black Book of Clanranald holds lists of genealogies in the old Gaelic script. Nowadays there are still people very much into this kind of genealogical info and how it relates to our society including the Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland for instance, or websites like Ancestry.com. But for most people the most obvious manifestation for this knowledge of societal relationships presently are the various social media platforms. Companies like Facebook and Twitter hold vast amounts of data on our relationships and preferences which they mostly use to their own advantage in order to sell tailored advertising to businesses. Companies themselves are really just collections of people all with formally established relationships between them based on a collective desire to make money, either for their own personal gain as an employee or as a worker to generate income for the business. It is all still about relationships though, that is, who is the boss, who is the employee, which team do you belong to and how do the teams interact with each other to contribute to the overall goal of the business. All of these connections and relationships are invisible although they have to be understood intimately by certain people. In the business parlance this is the realm of human resources.
Every tree has multiple layers of connections and relationships, just as with people, to the other trees in the wood, some of these being particularly important to nourish the tree and allow them to thrive. Even when a tree has reached the end of its life it still continues to act as a resource for all the other trees living in its immediate vicinity. Different forms of fungi move in to break down the nutrients locked up in the remnants of the tree, again the only sign of these being the fruiting bodies, often bracket fungi. The slow process of rot and decay allows the physical material of the dead tree to be redistributed to the living trees around it. This may be seen in our lives too where a loved one who has passed away, maybe even many generations before, continues to define the relationships between living members of the same family. My McNaughton Grandfather and Grandmother, for example, although no longer living have ten living descendants. My own daughter and my four nephews are the youngest generation. All of us are bound together through family ties and we have still more connections as each of the children of the younger generation have many living relatives who are not confined to this small group. The number of relationships between us all is immense but not clearly obvious, existing below the surface.
The biggest challenge that I see for us today is to continue to nourish and retain all those connections because as they are unseen they are not recognised and very often torn up without our really thinking about what we may be losing. If we lose our connections then we may lose what nourishes us. Our lives will wither and we will find it an increasing struggle to live. Resources are finite and nature does a really good job of making best use of them so nothing is wasted. Every organism plays its role but if we are blind to what its role is we may lose a sense of its value and its life may be thrown away needlessly. Knowledge of and the cultivation of positive relationships is what we have to strive for continuously in order for life to flourish.