Yesterday’s event was horrendous, but also a sign of the UK’s strength.
My reaction to yesterday’s event was probably echoed across much of the country. I thought about someone I knew who may have been affected. In my case, my thoughts were on my daughter who works in Westminster. My brain told me I was being irrational, but you are not being human if you don’t worry about things like that. It took her about an hour to get a text off to me to say she was safe, and that was an irrational relief, I can tell you.
I think Facebook, for all the flak it has come under in recent months, deals with situations like this well. My daughter was able to put a status up saying she was safe – Facebook introduced a Facebook safety check feature related to the ‘Westminster Attack.’
My heart goes out to all people and their friends and family who lost their lives or who were badly injured because of this event.
I do think it is important that we see what worked yesterday.
Security forces reacted incredibly quickly – seconds.
And yet the media, looking for a scoop, try to find evidence of errors that could have been avoided.
On this occasion, this was inappropriate.
The UK is an open country, its system of democracy works by making it accessible to the people – school trips, for example, or the press – the public are allowed into Westminster.
This cannot change, and that means there is always a vulnerability.
That’s one of the lessons from yesterday.
The network is so hard to defeat
As I write, I know nothing about the identity of the person behind the attack. But I do know that he was a node, a node in a network, held together by ideas.
I have a general point to make about networks.
The characteristics of networks apply in many circumstances, terrorism among them.
Studies show that what we call ‘small world networks’ exist everywhere. A small world network is made up of nodes which in some way are connected to each other, but some of the nodes have more connections than others – they are called hubs. Then you get super-hubs, which connect to an exceptionally high number of nodes. The distribution of the nodes and hubs follows a logarithmic pattern – hubs are not slightly more connected than ordinary nodes, their degree of connectivity is an order of magnitude greater than that of a node, and super-hubs are an order of magnitude more connected than ordinary hubs.
Such networks describe the way the neurons in the brain are arranged, eco systems in the natural world, the spread of ideas, the spread of disease, the internet and terrorist organisations.
The concept of six degrees of separation applies to small world networks – because of the way they are structured, each node in a network is separated from any other node in that network by a small number of links.
Small world networks are very robust. The internet was born after ARPANET wanted to create a network of switching technologies that would be impervious to attack by nuclear weapons.
Such networks can only be knocked out by destruction of most of the hubs, pretty much at the same time. As major events, that affect millions of people very deeply can create a new network of ideas, they can destroy an existing network.
The network and terrorism
When Osama bin Laden was killed, it did not mean the end of Al Qaeda, because members of the organisation were linked to each other following a small world network model. Bin Laden was a super hub within that network, but to destroy a network, you need to do more than wipe put a super hub.
Broader lesson of networks
Facebook is robust and in such a position of strength because it is defined by a small world network.
It is very hard to change someone’s mind, because the various reasons why we hold an opinion are linked together by a network of ideas – there is not one reason why we are anti or pro capital punishment, Labour or Conservative, pro or anti the right to bear arms.
Behind our core ideals stands a network of beliefs. And such networks can form very quickly. Take last year’s US election. Before the FBI re-opened its investigation into Mrs Clinton’s email, opinion polls showed she was in a commanding lead. Very rapidly, a network of ideas formed around this in the minds of many voters. And when, ten days or so later, the FBI closed its investigation, people did not change their minds – as the network that had formed had also formed multiple hubs, and the FBI investigation was just one of them.
To defeat networks
Defeating a network is incredibly hard, but it can be done.
Facebook would only lose its position of strength if a new medium emerged that was superior in most respects.
You cannot defeat terrorism by using its own weapons.
The biggest danger to democracy lies in letting terrorism change us, disrupt the networks that define us.
Osama bin Laden’s motivation behind 9/11 was to create massive overreaction in the west, to unite the Muslim world against the west, and to ultimately bankrupt the west.
It is essential that we don’t succumb by letting the network that defines western openness and tolerance for alternative views and opinions crumble.