25 April 2008

Massive Connectivity Now - Social Simulations Next

Aristotle said that there were three ways to report truth: history, science, and fiction. History reported facts. Science made those facts into laws that could apply to past or future. Fiction was the highest form, though, because it included what could be. (I'm almost positive Aristotle wrote this. If not, it was someone else. And if no one wrote this previously, I'll just take credit for it. I often confuse my memory and imagination, usually to my detriment, but I digress.)

Our brains spend lots of energy running models of what ought to be. We simulate a lot. It helps for the various regions of our brains to have models that run in parallel - in situations as varied as interpersonal behavior and navigating our way around a garden.

But this capability to simulate so much would be mind boggling if not for values that guide the activity. All that massive potential is guided by wants and needs - we simulate in ways that guide us towards desired states rather than send us adrift into the sea of infinite possibilities.

We've evolved massively impressive internal systems that allow for all this to take place within the confines of our head, dense brains so tightly packed with connections that "a cubic millimeter of brain tissue contains about a mile of axons and a couple of miles of dendrites. (1)" The brain is a mass of connections and those connections are often busy with simulations. It was not until this massive redundancy emerged that the capacity for simulation emerged with it. There are parallels in the social world: we're beginning to see a massive growth in parallel connectivity between people.

Social evolution lags species evolution. In 1866, a transatlantic cable was operating between North America and Great Britain. When it was first laid, a New Yorker wrote in his diaries, “Yesterday’s [New York] Herald said that the cable is undoubtedly the Angel in the Book of Revelation with one foot in the sea and one foot on land, proclaiming that time is no longer. Moderate people merely say that this is the greatest achievement in history. (2)”

It has taken about 150 years for this simple cable to transform into massive redundancy. In today's world, there are millions and millions of connections between individuals. The Internet has become the simplest, catch-all for this phenomenon of massive interconnectivity.

When the transatlantic cable was first laid, it was used by bankers like J.P. Morgan to execute bond trades between Britain and the US. It was a cable used for action. Now that there is massive redundancy in the connections, it is increasingly used to generate what-if scenarios, to define what could be. The difference between news and blogs is often as simple as that: it is the difference between reporting on what happened and reporting on what could be.

Blogs might be a kind of social fiction - reporting on what could be. What if the capacity for generating social simulations just becomes more enhanced? What if it becomes a tool that that both expedites the articulation of desired states and makes it easier to navigate towards those?

I suffer from wild bouts of optimism, a condition I've never been able to properly explain. I think that we'll learn more about how to join brains together into social simulations that move us towards the better community. The Internet, blogs, even Democracy, will be looked back on as the equivalent of the telegraph. The connections are proliferating. The simulations have begun. Now, we watch it ratchet up. The fiction that makes reality is, after all, the strongest form of truth. Eat your vitamins. It is going to get really fascinating and you want to be alive when this happens.

For those of you keeping track at home, this appears to be my 700th post, about 100 more than I would have written had I been posting once a day. Still no cure for my idearhea.

(1) Read Montague, Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions (New York: Plume, 2006) 35.
(2)William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created (San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 2004) 186.


cce said...

I'd imagine it's hard to "suffer" when having wild bouts of optimism. I only imagine b/c, well, I tend towards wild bouts of despair and know for a fact that suffering plays a part. And I guess that is why you see blogging as a step in some exciting and meaningful direction - interconnectivity, while I see it as, perhaps the end of all meaningful personal contact and true productivity - possibly a glorious waste of time.

Gypsy at Heart said...

Cce, you can't possibly believe what you say. If it were a glorious waste of time, you'd not be blogging and I wouldn't know of you. You don't waste my time and neither does Ron for that matter.

Ron: The interconnectivity we can engage in today vs. that measly telegraph line is mind boggling. I agree. The problem lies in deciding which connections to pursue. There are so many out there that I suffer from occasional bouts of overload. I wonder if our brains will have to expand to accommodate these simulations you refer to. Somehow I think all the cubic millimeters of brain tissue and miles of dendrites will not be enough to process it all.

I believe I have the Birth of Plenty in one of my bookshelves. Long ago it was assigned reading for a University class I once took. Can't remember a thing about it but I'll give it a look.

Interesting post. Had to read it twice in order to understand what you were talking about. That's a fitting tribute to your 700th post I think. Don't you?

Gypsy at Heart said...

Sorry, mispoke. I have People of Plenty - Economic Abundance and the American Character by David M. Potter. Still no clue what it's about though.

Life Hiker said...

Even with the massive processing power of our brains we lack capability to really think about more than one thing at a time.

The trick will be to come up with some kind of agenda that people can focus on, so that our communal thinking will generate meaningful consensus on the outcome of our group simulation. Governments might even have to pay attention!

Yet I fear that the world's population growth and global warming may turn out to be our biggest problems, creating resource constraints and conflicts that could turn us from focusing on mutually beneficial strategies.

The best outcome would be that our interconnectivity will help us deal with these issues rationally.

Ron Davison said...

I tried despair - I didn't like it. But anything creative both leads to wildly transformative results and waste. Think seeds from a tree.

It is overwhelming to think about the myriad options. I wonder, if it all stopped now, how many centuries it would take to simply digest what is already out there?

The notion of a consensus emerging from shared simulations is one that I find alluring.