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That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind. Yes, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Arpanet, a network that linked…By Kevin Berger

That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind. Yes, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Arpanet, a network that linked four computer nodes in 1969, the prototype of today’s Internet, a giant leap for humankind. (That moon landing was pretty significant, too.)

In fact, this year marks the golden anniversary of another scientific milestone, the Small World Experiment by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram. In 1969, Milgram published the results of his famous experiment, in which he mailed letters to random people in Nebraska and Kansas, aiming for the letters to end up with a designated person in Massachusetts. Milgram’s experiment showed human society was a “small-world” network in which everybody was connected by an average of five or six people along a path. The phrase “six degrees of separation” grew out of Milgram’s study, followed, of course, by “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which everybody in Hollywood can be connected to Bacon in six or less steps, the steps marked by people who have worked with somebody who at one time worked with the Footloose star.

The Internet and Small World Experiment were very much on the minds of the authors of “Six Degrees of Separation at Burning Man,” the article that kicks off this month’s Nautilus theme, Networks. The authors are based at the MIT Media Lab, Scalable Cooperation, investigating the impact of social media and artificial intelligence on human cooperation. “We have the intuitive capacity to be deeply cooperative, kind, and networked,” says lead author Ziv Epstein, a Ph.D. student and research assistant at the MIT Media Lab. But so far emergent technologies have failed to live up to their potential to enhance cooperation, due to “perverse incentives and myopic design.” Where, then, could the media scientists locate the innate kindness and cooperation that has gone missing in the calculated Google age?

How about Burning Man? The techno-bacchanal in the Black Rock Desert in California is governed by a set of creative principles that are the opposite of closed systems and nasty divisions. Last year, Epstein; his brother Micah, an industrial designer; Manuel Cebrian, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab; and Burning Man veteran Christian Almenar, who runs a CyberSecurity company in Silicon Valley; hooked up with a Burning Man director and hatched a plan to chart how the myriad sub-communities at the annual gathering interacted. The experiment would be a small-world test in “an extreme environment,” Epstein says. How did people get along in 100-plus temperatures, dust winds, and various altered states of consciousness? The results of the bold experiment emerge in the colors of Burning Man and the insights of science in our story.

And not to leave Neil Armstrong unheeded, this month we are honoring the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by showcasing our investigations into Earth’s natural satellite.

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