The Power of Networks

Big data and (global) networks dominate modern society. Mobile phones, tablets, e-Readers, laptops, they all connect sooner or later to some big network. Commerce, Learning, Health Care, and many other social activities get an "e" in front, and if it is not an "e", it is "smart", which both mean that they use data, sensors, and artificial intelligence and this is typically shared with many other users. We are all users, voluntarily or not, of one or more of these tools every day and we are gradually becoming an extra devise plugged into the Internet of Everything, providing and extracting information, voluntarily or not. Obviously these tools do not come about spontaneously and they require a lot of engineering and of course also mathematics to control the massive stream of information and data that has to be transported. The authors of this book are both electrical engineers and they produced a book that explains for the layperson how some of the mechanisms underlying all these phenomena operate. They avoid all political and ethical aspects, but concentrate on the technical ones. That means they explain the basic principles but avoid all "difficult and boring details". Thus if you are interested in for example the mathematics of the rating of Netflix movies or the fine tuning of Google's PageRank algorithm, you may be disappointed since you will only get some general idea, but the details and the proper mathematics are not found here.

Nevertheless, it is most interesting to read about why and how things work as they do. There are tools most people may take for granted, and some are unreasonably effective, but the underlying mechanisms are far from obvious. Some of the things that are explained in this book are: the difference between a cell phone network and a wifi network, how network providers can compute the price you will have to pay for their services, how Google computes the price for advertising in their search result pages or how it orders the search results for you (their famous PageRank algorithm), how products are ranked on Amazon, or how Netflix chooses what movies to recommend for you, how MOOCS operate, or why some YouTube videos go viral, how Facebook and Twitter can influence people, what is network topology and what kind of routing problems have to be solved on the World Wide Web and how to prevent congestion. In fact the material of the book has been used for a MOOC and a lot of additional information can be found on the book's website There is clearly a lot of graph theory, linear algebra, machine learning, data mining, and statistics behind all this, and for the communication channels also electrical engineering. Some of the problems to be solved are specific for these situations and among certain circles of engineers and mathematicians big data and all the related problems are still a hype. If you are not familiar with all these terms, the present book may be a good starting point for you.

All the definitions and concepts are illustrated with examples that are very familiar to most of the average readers, even though they have perhaps no idea why certain effects happen and why computers behave as they do. Also the way companies compute their price setting using different models is interesting to read. Moreover there is also a bit of history included. How companies like Netflix or Google started and grew exponentially. This is worked out in particular when the communication channels are discussed, i.e., how mobile networks evolved from the simplest form (0G) to the current 4G network and how it moves on to proposals for 5G which is already within reach. Also in the last chapters we learn how the Internet actually came about. It has grown more rapidly than anyone had expected. That is why internet protocol version 4 (IPv4) in use since 1982 has to be replaced by IPv6, deployed since in 2012. The main reason is that the addressing space reserved in IPv4 to assign an address to all devices plugged in is approaching exhaustion and it is certainly insufficient when we evolve to an IoT (Internet of Things) or even an IoE (Internet of Everything).

There are also 4 interviews included with people who were responsible for all this to be realized: Dennis Strigl, former COO of Verizon Communications (the largest wireless communication service provider in the U.S.); Eric Smidt, former CEO of Google, now executive chair of Alphabet (which is the reorganized Google); Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, both considered fathers of the Internet who conceived the TCP/IP protocol. All of them give first hand testimony on why certain choices were made in the past and they give their opinion about what can be expected for the future.

In summary, if you are interested in the mathematical challenges behind all these problems, you will be disappointed. If you are unfamiliar with all the buzz words, this may be an excellent start to read about what they mean. You will get some idea not only about their meaning and importance but also about the engineering and plumbing needed to make it all happen and keep up with an exponentially growing scale. The making of the digital revolution thanks to communication via an intensive use of networks: all you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask deterred by too difficult technical stuff. Here you will find it at a generally accessible level.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is a How-Stuff-Works kind of book that explains several aspects that allow the many world-wide networks to function. That includes for example how your voice or the information you are now reading is transported over different communication channels, how web pages are ranked or how movies, books or music are rated, what mechanisms are behind a YouTube video going viral, and how networks are used in instruction and education such as MOOCs. This is an introduction for a broad audience avoiding all the technicalities.

Author:  Publisher: 
9780691170718 (hbk)
£24.95 (hbk)