The Transformative Powers of Interactive Networks

In the early 1970s while working at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young man named L. Allen Parker approached me pretty much out of the blue and invited me to join his ad hoc Center on Technology and Society (CTS) discussion group.  Allen used his 1971 Ph.D. thesis, Interactive Networks For Innovation Champions: A Mechanism For Decentralized Educational Change (I still have my copy) as the catalyst for the group’s explorations of innovations which simultaneously address technological, societal and individual concerns. It was the first serious examination of networks and networking that I had ever read and has been a major influence in my life and work. 

What made Allen’s thesis particularly compelling for me was the wide variety of networks he researched in his quest to discover the common properties responsible for their capacity to facilitate change. One example of the latent transformative powers of networks he cites really struck a chord:

NASA and its contractors still tend to date events in terms of ‘before the fire’ and ‘after the fire’. Before the fire there had been the usual run-ins between NASA and its contractors over schedules, performances and costs. Suddenly everything changed . . . From this analysis emerged virtually a new organization, new state of mind, new approaches. NASA Administrator Webb and his administrators came to realize that relationships with the contractors were defective and that the inter-communication they had fought so hard to obtain was not working as well as they thought it was. The result was an intimate new sociology of space, a new kind of government-industrial complex in which each interpenetrated the other so much that it is hard to tell which is which. Frequently now the government and corporate participants in Apollo display an emotional – at times almost mystical – comradeship that seems unique in industrial life.  (“The Unexpected Payoff of Project Apollo” by Tom Alexander. Fortune. July 1969.)