Who Loves Ya, Baby?

In his classic novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut explains how the world is divided into two types of social organizations: the karass and the granfalloon. A karass is a spontaneously forming group, joined by unpredictable links, that actually gets stuff done. A granfalloon, on the other hand, is a “false karass,” a bureaucratic structure that looks like a team but is “meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done.”

For most of the past 50 years, computers have been on the side of the granfalloons, good at maintaining bureaucratic structures and blind to more nuanced social interactions. But a new kind of software called social-network mapping promises to change all that. Instead of polishing up the org chart, the new social maps are designed to locate karasses wherever they emerge. Mapping social networks turns out to be one of those computational problems- like factoring pi out to a hundred decimal points or rendering complex light patterns on a 3-D shape- that computers can do effortlessly if you give them the right data.

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