Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Six Degrees of Separation

I officiated a funeral yesterday for Allen Ilasewich, the chief of enforcement for Canada Customs at Pearson International Airport (now called the CBSA - Canadian Border Services Agency – how is anyone going to remember that?). It was a fairly large funeral and a few hundred customs officers were there as well as family and friends of the deceased. My neighbour works for Canada Customs (or the CBSA) and I have a friend who works at the airport in pre-board screening (those are the people who operate the metal detectors that everyone has to pass through). I thought that one or maybe both would be at the funeral – but neither were. Nor was anyone else knew there. I have been involved in a fairly diverse set of circumstances during my time living and working and studying in Toronto and so I often expect to meet someone I know at various events that I attend – even at the funeral of someone I have never met before. I only met the family of the deceased because I was referred by a friend of mine - one of the funeral directors who works for the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries.

That made me start thinking about the concept of six degrees of separation. Wikipedia describes it this way. Six degrees of separation refers to the idea that, if a person is one "step" away from each person he or she knows and two "steps" away from each person who is known by one of the people he or she knows, then everyone is no more than six "steps" away from each person on Earth. Several studies, such as Milgram's small world experiment have been conducted to measure this connectedness. While the exact number of links between people differs depending on the population measured, it is generally found to be relatively small. Hence, six degrees of separation is somewhat synonymous with the idea of the “small world.”

One would think that a larger population would increase the degrees of separation. That might be true except for the fact that we have developed such an exception communication network in our world. This vast advancement in communication ability actually connects people more closely to one another in a world of six billion than in a more primitive world where there may only have been one billion inhabitants. Hence the term “It’s a small world after all” (with apologies to Walt Disney).

In 1929, a Hungarian author named Frigyes Karinthy published a book of short stories that suggested this concept. In particular, Karinthy believed that the modern world was shrinking due to the ever-increasing connectedness of human beings. Due to technological advances in communications and travel, friendship networks could grow larger and span even greater distances. Karinthy posited that despite great physical distances between the globe's individuals, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance far smaller.

I have had a number of conversations with people that suggest that each of us in the Western world are probably less than six handshakes away from the president of the United States. Personally I think I am only two handshakes away. I have a friend (a guy I befriended in my days at Stone Church) who is a colleague of a guy who is a spiritual advisor to George W. Bush. So even if you are reading this in Hong Kong or India or South America you are only an email (or a comment posted on this blog) away. Kind of amazing isn’t it?

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