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How Networking Influences What We Speak

David Singh Grewal, an Eliot Fellow in the Social Sciences at Harvard University, is author of the book Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, in which he explores, among other topics, the relationship between language, networks, and globalization.

In the wake of the recent quorum we ran on this very subject, David has agreed to guest blog here. We are pleased to have him.

How Networking Influences What We Speak

A Guest Post by David Grewal

Anyone who’s read the Nobellist Thomas Schelling‘s classic The Strategy of Conflict will remember his example of Grand Central Station.

Schelling asked what he called an “unscientific sample of respondents” where they would go to meet a lost friend in New York City, without having specified a place in advance and without any way to communicate. A large majority said they’d go to wait at the clock tower in the middle of Grand Central Station — and they added overwhelmingly that they’d do so at exactly twelve noon. Schelling used this and similar examples to illustrate the logic of what he called “tacit coordination” — the way in which we rely on even entirely arbitrary conventions to coordinate our activities with others in the absence of explicit prior agreement.

Schelling’s work got me thinking about other examples of tacit coordination. I began to wonder whether the same logic of meeting up with a lost friend by choosing a prominent landmark couldn’t explain a lot of what we now call “globalization,” especially if you think about what economists call “network effects.”

Take a more complex version of figuring out a rendezvous point without having specified the details in advance: the problem of global linguistic coordination, which was the subject of a recent Freakonomics quorum.

If you picked two people at random off the face of the earth and asked them to pick one language in which to communicate with someone they knew nothing about, which language would each person choose? The language they’d pick would depend on a series of “reciprocal expectations” — best guesses not just about which language you suppose the other person speaks but which language he thinks you suppose he will speak — which depends, in turn, on which one you think he thinks you suppose he will speak. And so on, until your head swims.

In today’s globalizing world, the probability is increasing that two random people would choose English for their best chance at unplanned linguistic coordination. And this isn’t merely a thought experiment: it’s being played out, with more information among the parties, in the decisions of hundreds of millions of people now learning English as a second language.

Is what’s true of English true of other “standards” — other social conventions that enable coordination among diverse groups of people? Think about a measurement system. Sure, some people will claim that the metric system is intrinsically better than the Imperial because it’s easier to calculate in a decimal system.

But Britain didn’t switch from Imperial to metric just because the latter is base ten. It did so because of what economists call “network effects.” The value of any given coordinating standard — like a measurement system or a language — is worth more when more other people use it. And Britain’s neighbors and largest trading partners generally do. There are “economies of scale” to being part of the larger network.

Globalization has introduced a new coordination game among literally billions of people. With apologies to Thomas Friedman, the world isn’t flat. But it is networked — and we’re all heading to Grand Central Station after one fashion or another.