We live enmeshed in networks. The internet, a society, a body, an ant colony, a tumour: they are all networks of interactions, among people, ants or cells – aggregates of nodes or locations linked by some relation. The power of networks is in their local connections. All networks grow, shrink, merge or split, link by link. How they function and change depends on what forms, or disrupts, the connections between nodes. The internet dominates our lives, not because it is huge, but because each of us can make so many local links. Its size is the result, not the cause, of its impact on our communication.
Nowhere is the decisive influence of local interactions easier to see than in ants, which I study. The local is all an ant knows. A colony operates without central control, based on a network of simple interactions among ants. These are local by necessity, because an ant cannot detect anything very far away. Most ant species can’t see, and all of them rely on smell, which they do with their antennae. The important interactions are when ants touch antennae, smelling each other, or the ground, smelling chemicals deposited by other ants.
Meteorologists warned of a coming “bomb cyclone.” Satellite images showed a giant, hurricane-like weather system barreling towards land. Words like “exploding” and “slamming” and “tearing” peppered the news reports. It was enough to conjure images of The Day After Tomorrow, the 2004 environmental thriller about a superstorm that brings on a new Ice Age. Americans are highly dependent on weather forecasts. Today, most of us rely on modern technology for predictions about the weather—forecasts based on readings of countless measuring tools, fed into computer models, then analyzed and broadcast or sent straight to our smartphones. But I had other tools of weather prediction, small enough to fit in my backpack: two farmers almanacs. They’ve been around hundreds of years, since before the Civil War, and have survived the advent of modern technology.
The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act, and as in every creative act the materials employed lose in the process their individual nature: they become part of something different, something that encompasses and at the same time transforms them. In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels.
Reckoning with the ongoing demands of reciprocity in human affairs requires facing up to art’s and storytelling’s insufficiency with respect to that effort. For the modern humanities, then, the “rise and fall of Adam and Eve” matters as a searing reminder of unmet needs for mutuality. A memento of paradise lost, after stories and visions of paradise step to the side.