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Networking Diseases

Speculations towards the development of cures and preventive measures

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Printed in Transnational Associations, 30, 1978, 11, pp. 486-490.
The speculations may now also be interpreted for the case of virtual organizations and networks
Subsequently adapted as: Memetic and Information Diseases in a Knowledge Society:
Speculations towards the development of cures and preventive measures

Previous approaches

Despite widespread exposure to organizations and organizational systems in various states of growth, health and decay, it would appear that there is no convenient checklist of the malfunctions to which organizations are subject. The matter is of course normally broached through the various kinds of management problem, and the measures required to "get an ailing organization on its feet again". But the range of possible malfunctions is not identified as such, particularly for the kinds of structures - like networks - which are supposed neither to require, nor to lend themselves to, management.

In order to focus thinking more clearly on the malfunctions to which networks may be subject, some guidelines are required to provoke recognition of unforeseen possibilities which might otherwise go unrecognized. tn passing one may note the effort by Michael Haas (ref. 1, see Table 1) to identify the different kinds of  "asymmetry" to which systems may be subject. However he defines asymmetry as "an attribute of a system which may vary over time, space, and other such dimensions". Such asymmetry may or may not be viewed as associated with some kind of malfunction.

For a deliberately humorous attempt to identify how systems fail, a recently published book on "systemantics" merits attention (2; see also book review). The humour does not detract from an underlying profundity.

An attempt to categorize different kinds of system problems (see table 2) also throws some light on the matter.

An alternative approach

A much more specific range of system malfunctions is effectively represented by the range of diseases - the human organism being that which has attracted most attention and resources. Diseases of the human system have been incorporated into a detailed classification scheme by the World Health Organization (3). To the extent that there is even a faint parallel between the human body and a social organization (as has often been pointed out), such a classification can then be used to provide suggestive pointers to the kinds of things which may go wrong with networks of individuals or groups. (It is indeed possible that a classification of animal or plant diseases might provide some additional insights and it would also be interesting to compare this exercise with an attempt to classify disruptions to environmental ecosystems).

As with our recent experiment in producing a Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential (4), there will be some who consider that the very effort to identity such diseases is misplaced (even unlucky) and likely to invoke what it supposedly aims to guard against. This is however a misguided form of "positive thinking", if it is through the prevalence of such diseases that our efforts to facilitate networking are in fact impeded or undermined. A clearer understanding of the factors resisting the growth of networking is required.

Classification of diseases

The remainder of this article is therefore concerned with identifying the kinds of questions which might be asked concerning the networking diseases associated with each of the major categories in the WHO International Classification of Diseases (3). lt. is for the reader to determine how seriously the results are to be taken particularly if, as a member of a network, he or she recognizes many possible symptoms as being characteristic of that network !

Having identified such diseases, providing they have a basis in reality, the question is then how to move towards devising suitable cures and preventive measures. It may well be that network "health" is associated with the kind of tension which results from the "tensed network" approach advocated elsewhere (5). But many other avenues could be explored.

WHO 000-136: Infective and parasitic diseases

Infective : Can networks became "infected" as a result of the transfer of some viewpoint (micro-organism) from another organization or network, such that once transferred the viewpoint is widely propagated throughout the network thus causing a particular disease ? What are the modes of infection, are there "carriers"; what are the symptoms, what are the appropriate preventive measures, etc. ?

Parasitic: What kinds of  "parasites" can flourish on networks as hosts, being indebted to the latter for their sustenance, though contributing nothing to their welfare? Parasites may be comparatively harmless; or they may, by the mere irritation of their presence or by interference with the bodily functions of the host, give rise to troublesome symptoms: or they may even, by destroying vital parts or forming poisonous substances, lead to the death of the host.

WHO 140-239: Neoplasms (tumours)

Are networks subject to either (a) "benign" growths within their tissue structure, pressing neighbouring parts aside without invading them, or (b) "malignant" (cancerous) growths, spreading quickly, in a disordely manner from point to point throughout the network, invading and destroying surrounding tissues and those in which they arise, tending to recur after apparently complete removal, and being very liable to ulcerate? What might be the causes, symptoms and varieties of such disease?

WHO 240-279: Endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases

Endocrine: Do networks effectively possess certain "organs" whose function is the production of certain kinds of information which play an important part in regard to general network operations and the activities of other organs performing necessary counteracting functions ? Are such organs subject to diseases which can throw the network out of balance ? How many such organs and functions can be distinguished ? What are the symptoms of disease and of imbalance ?

Nutritional: What forms of nutrition (in the form of information) do networks effectively require ? Does an inadequate supply of certain kinds of information stunt the growth and development of a network ? Can the types of information be specifically identified together with the diseases to which their absence may give rise? (Is it possible to design a " healthy diet " for a network ?)

Metabolic: To what extent do networks possess characteristic modes for processing information whereby their structure is maintained and energy is made available for various forms of work ? Are these processes subject to types of disease, whether in connection with the anabolic processes whereby incoming, information is constructively adapted for the use of the network, or with the catabolic processes by which energy is produced from the exploitation of stored information and with the production of waste products ?

WHO 280-289: Diseases of blood and blood-forming organs

Do networks effectively possess some kind of carrier medium which circulates throughout their extent conveying new information to isolated sectors and removing from them the (negative) waste products of networking activity ? To what diseases is the medium subject, and what are their causes and symptoms ?

WHO 290-315: Mental disorders

Networks control their own behaviour and attitudes by the appropriate transmission of information- Are disorders in this process liable to occur because of either predisposing causes (e.g. defects inherited from their progenitors, abnormal disposition or temperament) or exciting causes or stresses (e.g. various diseases, growth stresses during transition phases, deprivation and externally induced stress, anxiety-related stress) ? Do symptoms take the form of abnormal beliefs (delusions, hallucinations) or acts (aggression, auto-destruction, etc.) ? To what varieties of mental disorder may networks be subject (mania, melancholia, paranoia, schizophrenia, confusional states, mental enfeeblement) ?

WHO 320-389: Diseases of the nervous system and sense organs

Are networks subject to diseases with symptoms such as (a) disturbances of information input ability either in the form of loss of receptivity, hypersensitivity or perverted sensitivity, or (b) occurrence of more or less complete paralysis of whole portions of the network (possibly accompanied by spastic activity, whether or not in response to environmental stimuli, or general impairment in the power of coordination) ? What sort of environmental and other factors contribute to such diseases (pace of life, shocks, poisons) ?

WHO 390-458: Diseases of the circulatory system

Given the possibility that networks effectively possess some kind of carrier mediurn for the circulation of information, what extent are networks subject to diseases resulting from the accumulation the medium in particular parts of the network (congestion) or an inadequate supply to other parts ? What are the symptoms and causes of such circulatory problems ? (Is it possible that some networks suffer from "obesity" and lack of  "exercise"?

WHO 460-519: Diseases of the respiratory system

Networks may be conceived as "breathing" information in order to revitalize their various parts. Are networks subject to diseases associated with irregularities in the breathing cycle ? Again what are the symptoms and causes of such respiratory problems ? (Is it possible to design some form of, breathing exercise appropriate to a network ?)

WHO 520-577: Diseases of the digestive system

Networks may be conceived as ingesting facts, which are broken down into a form which enables information to be extracted from them, absorbed and assimilated throughout the network. Is it possible that networks may be subject to diseases associated with these processes ? What would be their symptoms and causes ?

WHO 580-629: Diseases of the genito-urinary system

How do networks discharge the (negative) waste products arising from, or generated by, their activity ? Are there diseases associated with this process ? If networks may be assumed to regenerate or reproduce themselves in some way, is this process linked in any way to the discharge process ? To what diseases might it be subject ?

WHO 630-678: Complications of pregnancy and childbirth

Smaller networks emerge within larger networks and may eventually break away. To what extent can this be viewed as a process of pregnancy and birth ? What disorders are liable to be associated with this process ? How do they affect the parent network and its offspring ? (Should attention be given to some equivalent of midwife skills ?)

WHO 680-709: Diseases of the skin and subcutaneous tissue

As with a system (although probably different in kind), a network may be conceived as being separated from its environment by a boundary. ls it to be expected that such a membrane has functions analogous to those of protection, secretion, heat regulation and respiration ? To what kinds of diseases might such a boundary be subject: disorders of the "secreting apparatus", disorders relating to "growth", "inflarnmatory affections", "nervous disorders", "parasitic affections" ? How would these affect a network's ability to process information and how might they be recognized ?

WHO 710-738: Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue

Do some features of networks perform structural functions analogous to the skeletal system and the associated muscles (whether voluntary or involuntary) ? Is it to be expected that networks are subject to disorders analogous to arthritis or rheumatism ? How are they to be detected ?

WHO 740-759: Congenital abnormalities

Given a formative or birthing process for networks, is it to be expected that the emergent networks are subject to congenital abnormalities, possibly inherited form their progenitors ? What forms might these take and what are the consequences for the viable functioning of the networks ? (Should some networks be considered "handicapped" or "challenged"?)

WHO 760-779: Certain causes of perinatal morbidity and mortality

Clearly the formation of networks is not always without difficulty and is not always successful. What are the kinds of failure to which networks are subject in this early period? What are the symptoms of such problems? What are the causes of failure and stillbirths ?

WHO 780-796: Symptoms and ill-defined conditions

To what other ill-defined disorders are networks subject, analogous to the many vague pains (headache, etc) which may occur within the human body ?

WHO 800-999: Accidents, poisonings and violence

To what kinds of "accidents" are networks subject? How may they be damaged inadvertently or as a result of careless interaction with their environment ? What are the consequences of  "fractures" in vital structural elements or of punctured boundaries ? What kinds of violence can be inflicted upon networks ? (This question is explored separately). How are the effects of such occurrences to be recognized ?

Preliminary conclusions

As stated at the beginning, the text above is designed to provoke an imaginative examination of the current health of networks. A first comment (for which my thanks to Jennifer Otlet) is that in discussing diseases one should take care to avoid engaging in medical "quackery". And indeed some management consultants give the impression of attempting to provide imaginary cures for real organizational ills, or real cures for imaginary ills (cf. the role of the "snake oil" vendor).

In a lengthy discussion with Professor David Horton Smith (Boston College), he suggested that the above diseases would be made more meaningful to the reader by the inclusion of specific examples. Possibilities were identified for each category. (A suggested "congenital abnormality", for example, is the case of a network set up at the instigation of a foundation which only wanted it to appear to function as a network, intending in reality to control its operations by suitable allocation of funds. There was little possibility of repairing the damage thereafter.)

lt. is my impression that such examples should be collected from a variety of sources (stimulated in (different ways by. the above presentation) before relating them to any classification as above. A systematic grouping cases would be premature, at this point.

Although I  recognize the disadvantage to the reader interested in cases rather than speculative open-ended questions, the discussion brought out a number of points:

1. The presence in the human body of various systems (circulatory, respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine) raises interesting difficulties in considering possible examples. One may either assume that several of these should be grouped into one in considering the diseases of networks, or else one may assume that we are not yet sensitive to all the different flows in networks and should therefore avoid collapsing such distinctions.
2. Following from the last point, it may well be that the kinds of networks that are being set up now are very primitive compared to those which will evolve and be functioning in 50 or 100 years time. As such the different systems would be much simpler and less distinct than in the human body. The variety of possible diseases is necessarily a function of the complexity of the network. Networks with 3 or more distinct types of flow between members would be susceptible to diseases more closely analogous to those of the human body than those with only l flow.
3. Again, the above point brings out the basic question of what flows in a network. The above text refers tentatively to a flow of  "information". David Horton Smith suggests: information, money, supplies, personnel, resources in general, rumour, etc. Further reflection is required to sort how these should be handled in relation to the diseases (if the exercise should be taken further).

4. Relating to point 2, David Horton Smith suggests that networks "ingest" nodes and links, namely that the addition of a member involves a "digestive" process. This raises the questions of how the concept of network growth should be conceived in relation to ongoing network processes. Again further reflection is required.


1. Michael Haas. Types of asymmetry in social and political systems. In: General Systems (Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research), 12, 1967,  pp. 69-79.

2. John Gall. Systemantics; how systems work and especially how they fail. Pocket Books, 1977 (also book review)

3. World Health Organization. International Classification of Diseases. Geneva, WHO, 1967

4. Union of International Associations and Mankind 2000. Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential. Brussels, Union of International Associations and Mankind 2000, 1976. [text]

5. Anthony Judge. Tensed networks; balancing and focusing network dynamics in response to networking diseases. Transnational Associations, 30, 1978, 11, pp. 480-485 [text]

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