Isaac Asimov’s iconic science fiction trilogy, the Foundation series, describes the rise and fall of a distant galactic civilization, where a group of scientists had developed a way to predict the behavior of large numbers of people by blending aspects of history, physics, math and social science. Psychohistory, as it was called, couldn’t be used to predict individual behavior, which was too erratic, but large groups could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. (The idea came out of Asimov’s own research background as a biochemist and his work on gases: individual molecules are unpredictable, but the gases could be predicted.)
Psychohistory is often described—both derisively and admiringly—as an intellectual antecedent to the Pentagon’s current push for social network analysis. In reality, the national security community is pursuing a much broader field that draws on a collection of loosely affiliated work, including social networks analysis, network science, political forecasting, agent-based models, and even complexity science.
Much of the current social network work dates back to the 1930s and sociometry, a way of quantitatively measuring the relationships between individuals and groups, and later, 1960s-era “small world” work by Stanley Milgram — later popularized as the “six degrees of separation,” a phrase for the number of connecting relationships needed to link any two individuals. The field remained relatively obscure, until 1998, when Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz revived the “small world” work, publishing on social network issues, adding in mathematics. Soon, there were hundreds of papers on social networks and a field was reborn. The small world theory even found a place in pop culture, through the “seven degrees of Kevin Bacon,” which challenges people to link Bacon to other Hollywood actors in six steps.
The Pentagon also began moving into social network analysis in the late 1990s, with concerns about Al Qaeda’s growing influence. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda became the primary focus of the Pentagon, and interest in modeling terrorist networks took off.
But perhaps the biggest boost for the field came inadvertently, when the U.S. Army in 2003 grew frustrated with the lack of accurate information on Saddam Hussein’s personal network, which they hoped would lead to his whereabouts. A group of U.S. Army intelligence analysts and commanders decided to map out Saddam’s social network using a link diagram, which was later credited with tracking down the Iraqi president to an underground hideaway located on the property of a farm house near Tikrit.
Three months after Saddam Hussein was captured, a small social networking site called Facebook was launched by ambitious Harvard students. Terrorist networks, social networks, and a booming field of scientific research all came together to bring a previously esoteric field of research to the forefront of national security.