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The power of networks : six principles that connect our lives
Brinton C., Chiang M., Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016. 328 pp. Type: Book (978-0-691170-71-8)
Date Reviewed: May 8 2017

Christopher Brinton and Mung Chiang have taught an online course on networks to more than 100,000 students around the world using the Coursera platform since 2013 [1]. This course was based on a previous course taught by Mung Chiang at Princeton and also offered by Coursera since 2012 [2]. Unlike his previous course, which included more technical material and also led to a monograph published by Cambridge University Press in 2012 [3], the course this book is based on appeals to a wider audience and refrains from using mathematics beyond basic arithmetic operations.

So, you might be wondering, are there any differences in the material covered by both course-and-book pairs? Not much, really. In fact, even some figures in this book also appeared in Chiang’s previous monograph on the topic [3]. Their main difference lies in the way basic network concepts are explained to be understandable by anyone with a basic education and some curiosity on how things work.

The book chapters are organized around six basic principles that underlie many of the design decisions of communication networks and the dynamics of social networks. These principles tackle hard problems such as resource sharing and ranking, offer different perspectives on the wisdom of crowds (both when they are wise and when they lead, let’s say, to “suboptimal” results), discuss the power of the divide-and-conquer approach when solving design problems (the Internet, in particular), and analyze end-to-end control mechanisms as they are employed to control congestion in Internet traffic.

Among the topics covered by Brinton and Chiang, an inquisitive reader will discover how distributed power control is used by your cell phone, how the radio-frequency spectrum is shared in Wi-Fi networks, why usage-based pricing schemes are now common in cell phone bills, or how Google ranks its search results and decides which ads to show you. A reader will also learn about how to combine product ratings or the basics behind recommender systems. With respect to the Internet, the book covers basic transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) architecture, routing techniques, and congestion control. With respect to social networks, the authors include discussions on the social learning networks behind the success of massive open online courses (MOOCs), YouTube videos going viral and the occurrence of the so-called information cascades, centrality metrics that can be used to evaluate the importance of nodes within a network (for example, closeness or betweenness), threshold models of social contagion, and the small-world phenomenon.

Most of the topics included in this book also appeared in Chiang’s more technical monograph. Some were dropped, such as voting systems (“Why does Wikipedia even work?”), epidemic models (“How do I influence people on Facebook and Twitter?”), scale-free networks (“Does the Internet have an Achilles’ heel?”), and P2P networks (“How can Skype and BitTorrent be free?”). Only a few did not appear in the previous book, most notably the chapter on social learning networks and MOOCs. And there are also some interesting issues that might spur the interest of potential readers and explain somewhat common phenomena, but were not included in the selection performed by the authors, for example bufferbloat.

In any case, readers will find accessible recounts of many interesting problems, how they are solved in practice, and how they are related to a small set of underlying principles. They will also read four conversations with distinguished figures in the field: two fathers of the Internet, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf; the executive chairman of Alphabet and Google CEO, Eric Schmidt; and the former president and COO of Verizon Communications, Dennis Strigl. They comprise just 30 pages within this informative book and provide a more human perspective on how communication networks came to be what they are today.

The text is often interspersed with references to the supplementary material that is available at the book website [4], yet at this time it basically contains a static Q&A PDF document per book chapter. In its current form, it is just a mere 64 pages of questions and answers that expand the discussions included in the book and that could have easily been included in the main text as sidebars. In the future, what I found to be somewhat annoying references to the book website might, however, serve as the basis for a feedback loop between readers and authors if properly managed.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Goodreads

Reviewer:  Fernando Berzal Review #: CR145252 (1707-0408)
1) Brinton, C.G.; Chiang, M. Networks illustrated: principles without calculus. Coursera, https://www.coursera.org/learn/networks-illustrated (04/06/2017).
2) Chiang, M. Networks: friends, money, and bytes. Coursera, https://www.coursera.org/learn/friends-money-bytes (04/06/2017).
3) Chiang, M. Networked life: 20 questions and answers. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2012.
4) The power of networks. http://powerofnetworks.org/ (04/06/2017).
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