21 January 2008
Bernard & Mandelbrot on the Future of Government
"Mandelbrot has it all figured out and he doesn't even know he figured it out!" Bernard looked triumphant. It warmed my heart just to see him so enthused.
"Who is Mandelbroth?" I asked.
"Mandelbrot," he corrected, "invented a new math that works for computers and their capacity for near infinite recursion. But he explained the natural outcome of government. He's predicted it and didn't even notice it." Bernard took another sip from his mug, licking his lips as he savored the flavor. I was almost positive that his eyes rolled back for an instant.
"New math predicts the future of government?" I was a little incredulous. I hadn't known Bernard to be particularly mathematical.
"Are you going to listen or just ask irrelevant questions?" Bernard was speaking fast - very fast. I let my silence be my answer.
"Mandelbrot," he continued, "posed this seemingly simple problem. Measure the coast of Britain. It's a simple problem, right?”
"Yeah. You might get some variation, but yeah, it should be pretty simple, no?"
"Exactly. You'd think. But it isn't like that. If you measure the coast of Britain by, say, map, tracing the periphery of the coast, you might discover that the coastline is about 1,200 miles.”
“Okay,” I slowly answer, just trying to get time to think. Bernard is not just taking fast - he's uncharacteristically talking about math.
“But let’s say that you now want to get more precise, so you use satellite photos. Now you can trace the various coves and small peninsulas a little better. Given you are tracing around more detail, you find that the coastline expands, the value grows. You might find now that the coastline is about 1,500 miles.”
“But if you take a variety of measures, the value will start to converge around some central value, right? I mean, there is variation but it wouldn’t be that great.”
“No. That’s the whole problem, according to Mandelbrot. As you take care to measure more precisely, the length of the coastline explodes towards infinity.”
“Infinity?” I try arching my eyebrow in what I hope passes for inquisitiveness and not confusion.
“Infinity. After the satellite photos, you send someone down to walk the coast, tracing the rise and fall of the cliffs and beaches along with getting a more precise measure of the ins and outs of the coast. Now, the coastline is closer to 2,000 miles. You get more detail and the coast gets longer. Suspicious, you keep looking more and more closely, finally going down to the point of measuring by a powerful microscope, tracing the contours and periphery of the molecules that make up the sands and rocks that make up the coastline. At this point, the value explodes exponentially - explodes towards infinity.”
“So, how long is the coast of Britain?”
“Nobody knows. All you can know for sure is that the value grows as you look more at the detail. It becomes more difficult – even impossible – to measure it as we move down further from the abstraction of it into the reality of it.”
"Okay," I say dubiously. "Let's say I agree. Let's go even farther and say I that understand. But Bernard," I lean forward, "what does this have to do with government?"
"Well think about it. We're living in a time of information explosion and self actualization. Never before has there been so much information to assimilate and so many lives headed in unique directions. As we have more information and more individuals actualize, the value explodes. Government is about gross generalizations, about approximations and universal truths. All that collapses when you drill down to more precise measures of the coastline, when you delve into the particulars of real lives, real people."
"Meaning that in the future, government will collapse. If the individualization continues, lives will become unique in ways that can't be measured - like the molecules that add up to light years of distance along the coast. There is no way to get the measure of that. No way to encompass that by any value. This means that it’ll defy generalizations! No one will know the length of the coast! No one will know how to govern such an individuated mass. No government could!”
"Bernard ...” I drift off, watching him enthusiastically drain his mug.
"THAT is good," he said, smacking his lips like a child with hot chocolate. "Waitress!" he hollers.
"I think she's called a barista," I correct him.
"Whatever," he says. "Waitress what is this called again?"
"It's a double espresso," she said with a smile. "You liked it?"
"I loved it! My synapses are firing like Chinese firecrackers. This is great! I'll take one more, please." At this point he wasn't even looking at the barista but was, instead, running his finger around the inside of the mug, joyously licking off the foam. He looked up at me, "And to think that I let you talk me into green tea for all those years," he shook his head.
"Bernard," I sighed. "Mandelbrot and government. I still don't understand."
He looked intently at me, not saying a word. I almost began to squirm. "Unless you start drinking these," he said, "I don't think you ever will."