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    The Internet Analyzed as a Complex Adaptive System
    Project: Polytopia
    This is an essay I recently wrote for a class on Fractals, Chaos, and Complex Systems. All comments/criticism are appreciated.

    The Internet Analyzed as a Complex Adaptive System

    The Complex Adaptive System of individuals and computers known as the Internet has fundamentally and irreversibly changed our world, through new methods of communication and interaction which have never existed before in human history. Originally limited to military and academic use on transistor-based computers, the platform of the Internet expanded to personal computing desktops in the 90s, and then to laptops, tablet computers, cell phones, and other multimedia devices in the early 2000s (Leiner, et al. 1997) Currently, over 75% of people in America and 25% of people worldwide have regular access to the internet (Internet World Stats, 2010). The percentages are even higher when one factors in public hubs such as libraries and internet cafes, which are very popular in developing countries. In this day and age, the spread of the internet has been ubiquitous among populations; governments, terrorists, corporations, individuals, the elite, those in developing countries, and everyone in between have integrated the internet into their lives. Individuals are connected to and affect the lives of more people than ever before, leading to the development of social network theory. The nature of the internet and its impact on society can be analyzed by viewing it as a Complex Adaptive System.

    As they have only begun to be studied fairly recently, complex adaptive systems (hereby referred to as CAS) lack an agreed-upon, comprehensive, formal definition. Murray Gell-Mann, one of the pioneers of the field, offers the characterization that, “A complex adaptive system acquires information about its environment and its own interaction with that environment, identifying regularities in that information…into a kind of ‘schema’, and acting in the real world on the basis of that schema” (Gell-Mann, 1994). This can be interpreted to mean that CAS are a product of their surroundings while they simultaneously influence it. Certain properties appear to be inherent to CAS, such as: emergence, co-evolution with their environment, connectivity/feedback, iteration, nesting, and self organization (Freyer). In fact, all of these properties are related to one another in many ways. Emergence can spontaneously occur through self-organization (Peak and Frame, 1994). Feedback loops in the emergent system result in co-evolution, which in turn lead to further iterations of the system. Nested systems, which might be thought of as fractals within the overall system, are self-similar replicas of the system at different scales, thus both changing and being affected by the system. In fact, the fractal dimension of the World Wide Web has been analyzed, and found to have a dimensionality of 4.1 (Kim et al. 2006) The dynamics of the internet can be analyzed through these properties, and the change and influence it has on the physical world can be determined through social network theory.

    Emergence can be stated as the property of a collection of independent systems to combine and form a more complex structure without being designed in such a fashion. A well known reference to emergence describes an object as being “greater than the sum of its parts”. Emergence closely relates to self-organization (which can be considered analogous to a “grassroots” movement), in which a system experiences a reduction in entropy and becomes more organized without external influence (Peak and Frame, 1994). According to Peak and Frame, this can be done without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics as the reduction in entropy only occurs locally, and the system will eventually fall into a disorganized state. Clearly, the internet exhibits both of these traits. The Internet began in the 1960s as a series of connected government and university computers. Without being planned by any “master architect”, its networking slowly evolved until the World Wide Web emerged on the “” server in 1990, which marked the foundation of the “server-client” Internet known today (Berners-Lee, 1996). Over the next two decades, millions of other servers were established; the connection between a server and a client is simple, but the collection of all servers and all clients is massively complex. Self-organization of this “schema” , as Gell-Mann might call it, fueled further growth of the Internet, resulting in e-mail, search engines, social networking sites, image and video indexing, wikis, and the other entities which now comprise the internet.

    The next properties to examine, which are again related, are co-evolution, feedback, and iteration. The internet forms the basis of an entire world which has no corporeal form, but does exist digitally. A computer may physically store little more than a string of zeroes and ones, but this binary information can make up a plethora of objects; it can represent an equation, a bank balance, a text document, or even artificial intelligence. Even though the Internet encapsulates a “world” of its own, from a human frame of reference, it co-exists with the rest of the universe. It functionally changes the “real” world, and therefore, as the Internet evolves and adapts, the environment it resides in changes, causing a cycle of adaptation. Simply put, the internet undergoes co-evolution with human society. Viewed from another angle, this is simply a feedback loop, which results in further and further iterations of the original system; co-evolution, iteration, and feedback are inseparable from each other, and are different “angles” of the same process. Google stands as a prime example of these three properties. As the internet increased in complexity, a new method of indexing the vast number of websites was required, rather than memorizing large numbers of URLs. In response, search engines, which function somewhat like an internet “phone book,” were created. The very existence of search engines are a product of the various characteristics of CAS, and Google soon became the dominant search engine due to its superior algorithms which efficiently and effectively catalog the entire Web for the end user (Asadi). As greater numbers of people began using Google, it went through rapid co-evolution; it began to offer other services, such as email, image searching, digital maps, and more. The company constantly iterated on its services: its search function was offered in dozens of languages, Gmail expanded its storage, image searching expanded to video, digital maps were updated to 3D, and various other miscellaneous services were added (Google). For Google to maintain their status as the world’s foremost information technology company is no small feat. The corporation employs an extremely complex and detailed feedback system to constantly iterate and co-evolve. Google records every piece of pertinent information about its searches: the user’s IP, the search content, the pages that are visited, the time spent between searches, and more. It saves “snapshots” of each page indexed on its engine, and adds another “snapshot” when the site is updated or altered in any way. Not only does Google create data from web pages and user actions, but “it knows everything across time” (Last Psychiatrist). With this mountain of data, AdSense, yet another Google creation, attempts to shape banner advertisements uniquely to each client. Google stands as a landmark in the growth of the internet.

    Nested systems, the final “trait” to be analyzed, essentially consist of systems containing self-similar systems which contain yet more systems. For example, the World Wide Web is a nested system residing within the Internet. The Web contains top-level domains, encompassing second-level domains (websites) which can either include many webpages or be further subdivided into tertiary domains, such as "". (Vixie, 2007). Perhaps the most influential, important nested systems are social networking sites, which have changed the nature of human interaction worldwide. Social networking theory views individuals as “nodes” and their relationship to others as “links”. It turns out that the same power-law logarithmic relationships which govern fractal and chaotic behavior also govern the connection of links to nodes in a social network (Barabasi, 2004). Stated another way, a small percentage of nodes are responsible for the majority of links, and those nodes wield more power and have a higher link growth rate. Sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter allow an individual to communicate directly and instantly with hundreds of other people, and indirectly to anyone with internet access. Services like LinkedIn allow social networking between industries and professional workers, allowing widespread access to potential careers and jobs. As these services continue to be used, more nodes appear, new links appear, and old links strengthen, which hastens the flow of information (Barabasi, 2004, Berners-Lee, 2007). In addition, in some cases they have a profound impact on the lives of many. After the devastating earthquake in early 2010 in Haiti, many thousands of victims were trapped underneath buildings without food or water. Many people sent Twitter messages, stating their location and physical condition, aiding rescue efforts to save them. In one case, Twitter and text messaging helped volunteers deliver supplies to an orphanage which had run out of water (Forrest, 2010). Another man, who was buried under rubble and badly injured, used his iPhone and, “Consulted this app [Pocket First Aid and CPR], while trapped under Hotel Montana in Haiti earthquake, to treat excessive bleeding and shock. Helped me stay alive till I was rescued 64 hours later.” (Chen, 2010) The increased communication from social networking and the Web has undeniably improved the quality of life worldwide, and even saved lives.

    With each passing day, the Internet changes the face of the entire world more and more. In Zanesville, Ohio, in 2008, attorneys representing African-Americans in a lawsuit against the city, alleging discrimination through denial of water, turned to the internet. By using mapping technology, ethnic makeup data, and utility consumption data, they were able to compile a digital map which clearly displayed that the houses with water pipelines were mostly White households, with the pipelines stopping abruptly once reaching the predominantly Black neighborhood, resulting in an over $10 million awarded in damages (Berners-Lee, 2010). Stories like this will become more commonplace as the internet equalizes the playing field by giving everyone equal access to an incredible wealth of information. The world has radically changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 200 before that, due to the complex adaptive system known as the internet. Whether technology is bringing society towards a fixed point, or has it well down the period-doubling route to chaos, only time will tell. Iteration by iteration, the internet continues not only to shape, but to define the world at an ever increasing rate, towards an unknowable future.


    Leiner, Barry, et al. 1997. “A Brief History of the Internet”. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review. Vol 39, Issue 5. Pgs 1-4. 

    Internet World Stats. “Internet Usage Statistics: The Internet Big Picture”. Miniwatts Marketing Group. Last Updated 2010. Accessed 3/14/10., 

    Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and Complex. 1994. Henry Holt and Company. New York. Pg. 17.

    Freyer, Peter. “A brief descriptions of Complex Adaptive Systems and Complexity Theory.” TrojanMice. No creation date. Accessed 3/15/10.

    Peak, David and Frame, Michael. “Chaos Under Control: The Art and Science of Complexity”. W.H. Freeman and Company. New York. Pg. 352-359.

    Kim, J.S. et al. 2006. “Fractality in complex networks: critical and supercritical skeletons”. Physical Review. Edition 75 016110. Pgs 3-5. Accessed 3/15/10.

    Berners-Lee, Tim. “The World Wide Web: Past, Present, Future”. 1996. Accessed 3/14/10.
    “Digital Future of the United States: Part I – The Future of the World Wide Web”. 2007. Accessed 3/14/10. 
    “The Year Open Data Went Worldwide.” Lecture TED Summit 2010.

    Asadi, S and Jamali, H. 2004. “Shifts in Search Engine Development: A Review of Past, Present, and Future Trends in Research on Search Engines”. Webology. Vol 1, No 2. Accessed 3/15/10. 

    Google. “Corporate Information: Google Milestones”. Updated 2010. Accessed 3/12/10. 

    Last Psychiatrist. “What Hath Google Wrought.” Updated 10/07/07. Accessed 3/3/10. 

    Vixie, Paul. 2007. “DNS Complexity.” Association for Computing Machinery. Vol 5, Issue 3. Pgs 24-29. Accessed 3/14/10. 

    Barabasi, Albert-Lazlo. “Linked: The New Science of Networks.” Barabasi’s Science of Networks. Updated 2004. Accessed 3/14/10. 

    Forrest, Brady. “Technology Saves Lives in Haiti.” Published 2/1/10. Accessed 3/14/10. 

    Chen, Brian. “Man Buried in Haiti Rubble Uses iPhone to Treat Wounds, Survive”. Published 1/20/2010. Accessed 3/14/10. 

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