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The networked mind

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The paper discusses the role of networks in cognition on two levels: on the level of the organization of ideas, and on the level of interpersonal communication. Any interesting system of ideas forms a network: ideas presented in a linear order (the order forced upon us by verbal expression) will necessarily convey a distorted picture of the underlying patterns of thought. Networks of ideas typically consist of a great number of nodes with just a few links, and a small number of hubs with very many links; that is, they are, to employ Albert-László Barabási’s term, “scale-free.” Barabási fits into a specific tradition: Hungarians had an early influence on the philosophy of networks, and on the philosophy of communication as developed at Marshall McLuhan’s Toronto Circle. In fact, this was the circle in which certain Hungarian and Austrian ideas on mediated collective thinking first came together—a telling testimony to the conditions of disturbed communication and idiosyncratic networking typical of East-Central Europe, past and present. The nodes-and-hubs pattern is characteristic, too, of social networks, in particular of scholarly and scientific networks. The paper analyses the role of “invisible colleges”—informal groups of scientific elites through whom the communication of information both within a field and across fields is channelled. By way of conclusion the notion of a new type of personality, the “network individual,” is discussed: the network individual is the person reintegrated, after centuries of relative isolation induced by the printing press, into the collective thinking of society—the individual whose mind is manifestly mediated, once again, by the minds of those forming his/her smaller or larger community.

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  1. 1.

    As Babai writes: “E-mail is capable of creating an ultracompetitive atmosphere on a much grander scale than any medium before.” The e-mailing of important research results “may give unprecedented information advantage to a well chosen, sizable, and consequently extremely powerful elite group. The group of recipients ... may be fully capable of making rapid advances before others would even find out that something was happening. Although such elite groups belong to the very nature of the hierarchy of scientific research ..., their sheer intellectual force combined with the information advantage makes them look from outside like an impenetrable fortress.” (Babai 1990, pp. 11 f.)

  2. 2.

    I have begun using the term “network individual” to designate what I think is a new psychological type—and in a sense also the return to a primordial type of personality—in the early stages of the project communications in the 21st century (cf., see also my preface to the volume Nyíri 2003, p. 16). The network individual is not the uprooted, free-floating being as depicted by Barry Wellman. Wellman uses the term “networked individualism.” His description: “People remain connected, but as individuals rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Individuals switch rapidly between their social networks. Each person separately operates his networks to obtain information, collaboration, orders, support, sociability, and a sense of belonging.” (Wellman 2002)


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Correspondence to Kristóf Nyíri.

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Nyíri, K. The networked mind. Stud East Eur Thought 60, 149–158 (2008).

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  • Intellectual networks
  • Collective thinking
  • Theory of communication
  • Toronto school