URSABLOG: Human Networking

The human brain is an astounding organ. There is nothing close to it in the animal kingdom in terms of size, power and utility. There is also nothing close to it in terms of man-made substitutes, although it could be argued that at least the super-computer Frontier, the latest leader in the pack, is predictable and doesn’t dither over choosing what wine to have with dinner. But I don’t imagine that Frontier would be a particularly charming dinner companion anyway. 

The average human brain has around 85 billion neurons. An average three year old child has a brain with one quadrillion (that’s 10 to the power of 15) synapses, the pathways that neurons use to connect with each other and power everything we do. To put it into context, there are more neurons in the human brain than stars in the Milky Way, and certainly more than the grains of sand on your average beach. Think how wonderful that is as you are reading this and the currents of electricity are zipping down the various pathways inside your head. They never stop, even when you are looking at cute cat videos on TikTok.

In contrast to this, according to recent paper in Science, the global economy consists of around 300 million firms, connected through an estimated 13 billion supply links, that produce most goods and services. The paper proposes that an alliance should be built to analyse the world economy at firm level, and further to map the intricate supply chain networks that connect them. This seems therefore a relatively easy task compared with mapping the human brain, and perhaps a more worthwhile endeavour than trying to create programs that can write your university essays for you. 

During the pandemic, the phrase ‘supply chain bottlenecks’ was continually used to explain the scarcity and cost of things that suddenly became very important, from medicines and medical equipment, to webcams, to food, right down to those items that were bought in the heat of the moment as essential Covid purchases that to this day are gathering dust in the less visited parts of our homes. For a while the shipping industry – and ships themselves – came into the limelight as their role in keeping the world connected, a role that they performed very well despite the inability of many nation states to consider the crew onboard as human beings, let alone as essential workers. Then the grounding of the Ever Given, the inspiration of a huge number of memes, and ridiculous solutions from armchair experts, brought home to many how important the industry is. 

The authors of the paper repeat the assertion that supply disruptions caused an estimated loss of 2% to global GDP, and contributed to higher inflation. I am not convinced. I think the pandemic itself caused most of the GDP disruption by people behaving and spending differently. And in my view higher inflation was not caused by the increased cost of moving stuff around; freight rates – on ships at least – are a remarkably small proportion of the total delivered cost. I think that the huge amount of money being thrown around and pumped into the system – fiscally and monetarily – had more to do with increasing inflation, not to mention the ability of certain companies to milk increased demand. I point you again towards those stupid Covid-era online purchases. 

The paper in Science makes a passionate call for the global supply network to be mapped at a granular level. The benefits they espouse for policy makers range from ensuring compliance with tax laws, human rights and environmental standards. It does not say much about the benefit to businesses and consumers however. 

The collection of data – the authors assume it is free, and if not it should be and shared freely by those that own it – is one of the keystones to the success of Big Tech. Amazon has long used any data it can get its hands on to optimise its business and close down others. Facebook and their peers have been mining our data to strengthen their position in the market place without much regard to the human condition. Ask any parent of teenage children how they view the social media world, and they will usually reply with concern. 

You may say that this is the nature of business, the stronger and fitter – the more adaptable – will succeed, whilst the outdated and smaller will fade away. But I would argue that new and fresh blood in all walks of life is essential for the whole to succeed and adapt. A few big fish in a pond where all the smaller ones have been eaten is not a healthy ecosystem, especially for the big fish. This is true in nature, in business, in economics and in local and geopolitics. 

Using VAT data, the researchers mapped virtually all domestic trades between firms in countries as diverse as Belgium, Chile, Kenya, Turkey, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Uganda opening a window onto the microstructure of buyer-customer relationships. These datasets showed that individual firms can have tens of thousands of suppliers, which themselves are connected to a vast network of supply linkages. But because firms can only observe their direct suppliers and customers, it is very difficult for them to reconstruct the upper tiers of their supply chains. Instead, they suggest, using already collected tax data could [my emphasis] provide an extensive picture. They do not say what the picture would be used for by businesses and why. 

This is possible on a national level, but becomes more complicated on an international level let alone global scale. The EU is already doing some of this: firm-level trade of goods between member states is collected by the individual countries and then reported to the EU Intrastat system. The researchers suggest that if the EU were to extend these data to all goods and services and merge them with the domestic VAT data, this could[my emphasis] result in the first comprehensive multi-country firm-level supply network. Then again it could just be another data gathering exercise by a newly formed EU agency. 

Anyway, would this data be shared further by the EU to say China, Russia, or even the US? The cynic in me says ‘no’. Recent activity in the Black Sea and elsewhere, as well as China’s opaque (and according to the late Li Keqiang ‘man-made’) data, where the data is used to control rather than inform the economy, would suggest that this is unachievable. In the case of unreliable data it would do more harm than good. And – as the paper, to be fair, points out – “supply chain data can be weaponised if they get into the wrong hands”. In this geopolitical climate, the wrong hands are China and the US, and vice versa, and more. 

However, my biggest concern with this proposal is that apart from being practically and politically unworkable, and also having a smell of a solution in search of a problem about it, is that it seems to ignore the role of the human brain. What decisions are behind all these supply network connections? Decisions about business, which involves not just pure profit but so many other considerations, ethical and behavioural, cultural and intellectual, clever and stupid. And decisions are made by human brains; it’s called making your mind up.

Those without access to the daily business of making money make assumptions of how business works, ignoring the factor that the human brain, in the form of what Adam Smith would have called enterprise, will have its own ideas on how to mind its business. The human brain, and all that it contains, including the mind, is a wonderful thing, creating beautiful and terrible things, almost in equal measure. 

One such brain, belonging to George Eliot, an English author, created a masterpiece of literature in the mid nineteenth century: the novel Middlemarch. In it, Dorothea Brooke, a beautiful and intelligent nineteen year old marries Edward Casaubon, a forty five year old clergyman and scholar. She is attracted to his intellect, and his work – the key to all mythologies – where he attempts to connect all theologies together. But this work turns out to be pointless, and as she realises this, and the complete lack of any other connection between them – he does not wish her to assist him with his research – the marriage rapidly becomes an unhappy one, one in which she is trapped by process, convention, a pointless life goal and a lack of love. 

This is one of the many stories which weave their narratives through the novel, connecting characters and influencing different lives, with different results. The novel is set in Middlemarch, a fictional small midlands city apparently based on Coventry, where I was born. That such a book, which has much to tell us about life, can be set in a small place where the relationships are infinite, and connect in so many ways, and was created in one mind, one brain driving that industrious pen, still astounds me. But the story of Casaubon and his unhappy and ultimately futile quest to link – you could say map – the human race via its mythologies, and the damage it does to him and others in the meantime came to my mind whilst writing this.

The desire to make sense of our world and what links it together comes with a desire to control it. Who has that control? What will they use it for? Global supply networks are not simple switches and connections that connect inputs and outputs, they are the conduits between businesses that are in turn producing goods and providing services for others. All of which contain humans. If the human brain is so powerful and complicated, and the human mind so wonderful and terrible, I wonder whether the desire to map it in its entirety will turn out to be futile, and not provide the solutions that people expect. That the world is so interconnected, in an astoundingly infinite way, and can change so quickly and fundamentally due to one thing changing in one place is a cause for wonder. That it all starts in the human brain, should also be a cause for humility.

Simon Ward