Just in case we start thinking that the Internet and the modern age have changed everything, consider the Greek historian Herodotus’s description* of Mesopotamian medicine more than 2,400 years ago:

The following custom seems to me the wisest of [the Babylonians’] institutions…. They have no physicians, but when a man is ill, they lay him in the public square, and the passers-by come up to him, and if they have ever had his disease themselves or have known any one who has suffered from it, they give him advice, recommending him to do whatever they found good in their own case, or in the case known to them; and no one is allowed to pass the sick man in silence without asking him what his ailment is.
[Book 1 (Clio), Section 197]

But that wasn’t the only model. Many pages later, he presents the specialists of Alexandria:

Medicine is practiced among [the Egyptians] on a plan of separation; each physician treats a single disorder, and no more: thus the country swarms with medical practitioners, some undertaking to cure diseases of the eye, others of the head, others again of the teeth, others of the intestines, and some those which are not local.
[Book 2 (Euterpe), Section 84]

The urge among the sick to seek their neighbors’ advice, and the neighbors’ compulsion for giving it, is as fundamentally human as accessorizing…or the urge to specialize.

The point, I suppose, is that caring for the ailing is a social function, and social media—like all tools—extend human reach without really affecting human intention. The patient-empowering online exchanges that tempt and bedevil us simply amplify voices and opinions we might have heard in Babylon two and a half millennia ago. Understand the human processes first; then try to master the media that carry them.

There’s a caveat here: the “shape”—the fractal dimension—of a social network can change it qualitatively. If it’s still available, take a look at Santa Fe Institute physicist Geoffrey West’s TED talk** on how the fractal dimension of social networks determines the creativity, wealth, growth, and atrophy of cities and corporations. Companies are hierarchical; cities just are. They have different network structures and different patterns of growth. Cities become more creative and (like living organisms) more efficient as they grow; companies simply become more efficient. Cities—like Alexandria—can live for thousands of years; companies (and states like Babylon), cannot. Chaotic humanity and unruly human customs endure; restricted governing structures do not. Fascinating.

*Herodotus, The Histories. George Rawlinson, trans. The Internet Classics Archive, classics.mit.edu//Herodotus/history.html. tinyurl.com/c4t47oo. **www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_west_the_surprising_math_of_cities_and_corporations.html. tinyurl.com/3hln4dk.


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