The network effect

And what it means for policy

Economics assumes that individuals operate autonomously, isolated from the direct influences of others. But today’s social and economic worlds are not like this. The choices people make are directly influenced by others through "social networks" – not merely Facebook but, more importantly, real-life social networks such as family, friends and colleagues.

Network effects have been pervasive throughout history. Humans, whether Hittite potters three and a half millennia ago or traders in financial markets today, have a propensity to copy the behaviour of others around them. On the financial markets, this herd mentality can lead all too easily to the booms and crashes we have experienced in recent years.

Networks are especially important in finance. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, it precipitated a crisis that almost led to a total collapse of the global economy, and it was precisely because Lehman was connected into a network of other banks that the situation was so serious. Incredibly, neither the system of financial regulation that was in place, nor the thinking of mainstream economics that influenced policy so strongly, took any account of the possibility of such a network effect. Ironically, policy makers and the financial establishment thought that risk could be mitigated by spreading it across the system. They misunderstood completely the dynamics of financial networks and the possibility that such networks might not reduce risk but could create upheaval.

A world in which network effects drive behaviour is completely different from the world of conventional economics. Network effects require policy makers to have a markedly different view of how the world operates. They make successful policy much harder to implement but they also help explain many policy failures.

The intellectual underpinning of the burgeoning activity of the state has been provided by mainstream economics. Paradoxically, a theoretical construct that purports to establish the efficiency of the free market has been used to justify an enormously enhanced role for the state. The concept of "market failure", at first sight a critique of free market economics, has provided powerful backing to state intervention. When markets have not functioned in the real world as the theory suggests they should, then regulation, taxes, incentives of all shapes and forms have been used in an attempt to make the imperfect world conform to more closely to the perfect one of economic theory.

We have now had over sixty years of this vision. Yet the stark fact is that the combination of large- scale state activity and a mechanistic intellectual approach to policy-making has not delivered anything like the success hoped for. Deep social and economic problems remain. For example, the average unemployment rate in the UK in the six decades before the Second World War was 5.5 per cent – virtually identical to the average rate for the six decades since. Rational planning and clever regulation did not prevent the biggest economic recession since the 1930s from taking place in 2008/9.

It is time for mainstream economics to adopt a model of the world that more closely approximates the reality of networks.  A fundamental feature of any system in which network effects are important is that it is ‘robust yet fragile’. Most of the time, the system is stable and resilient to shocks. But every so often a particular shock can have a dramatic effect and the behaviour of individuals across the network will be altered. These events are extremely difficult to anticipate, and hard to control when they do occur.

But the network view highlights the importance of social norms in determining the success of legislation. When network effects are present, the most effective policies are unlikely to be generic changes to incentives, as per the mainstream view. Careful analysis and targeting become the order of the day. Fewer resources used more intelligently can potentially lead to much more effective strategies. The silver bullet of this approach is that there are no silver bullets. Instead, we need to rely much more on the processes of experimentation and discovery.

The focus of policy needs to shift away from prediction and control. We can never predict the unpredictable. Instead we need systems that exhibit resilience and robustness on the one hand, and the ability to adapt and respond well to unpredictable future events on the other.

Paul Ormerod is an economist and author of Positive Linking: How networks and nudges can revolutionise the world.

This is an edited version of a chapter from IPPR’s forthcoming book, Complex New World: translating new economic thinking into public policy. For more see http://bit.ly/IPPR9499

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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