How Did We Outsmart Ourselves?

This question has been bothering me for quite a while – even while the answer has been beating me over the head.

I do my banking online – but recently my bank (a well-known American bank) has gone bonkers. In an effort to protect my security they locked up my account – without telling me they were doing this.

I spent a couple of hours on hold, on two different days, while I was transferred all over the company. I got to see their internal wiring – and I got to see some corporate insanity.

In the last one hundred years, or so – as we became more proficient technically, we became less proficient socially.

Lots of people have noticed this, in lots of ways. But the general public has not noticed how serious the problem has become.  And the general public still matters – because there are so many of them!

What we are dealing with here is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) – which involves everything – people and their technologies – including the most advanced – TV and the Computer – itself a complex including the Internet and Cell Phones.

We are a Stone-Age people in a world far too advanced for us to understand or control – despite having made it ourselves.

Although that is not quite correct – some of us have made it (like people making designer drugs) while the rest just went along for the ride (like being on a roller-coaster).


What Do We Think of the World?

We hate it.

But we are not aware of this – and are determined to not be aware of it – or much of anything else. This is about as gloomy an assessment of the world as you can get – but also, I think – realistic.

I should explain, however, that the “we” I am referring to here are Americans – the most advanced – but also the most degenerate people in the world. This is a strange combination, to say the least, and we need to give some thought to it.

I must be explicit. I am taking a MOOC (an American invention) about the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) – where the instructor is explaining how we should be using the Computer (another American invention). And he is doing an excellent job of it.

Americans should be intensely interested in this (after all, it is about them) but they are not – not at all. In fact, their response – as I have said, over and over – has been to destroy everything – including themselves!

For them, this is perfectly logical – using a perverse kind of logic – and this is worth going into.

I believe it goes back to the Industrial Revolution – when people became obsessed with their machines.

First – what is the machine? Lewis Mumford dealt with this subject in his two volumes about The Myth of the Machine. Where he shows that the first machines were composed of people – organized to work on huge projects – such as the Pyramids. The Machine was about organizing muscle power.

Mechanical machines came much later, after the Middle Ages – as part of the Modern World. And they were about using external power – at first, wind and water power – and later fossil fuels (coal, and then oil) to make some people wealthy.

It is often argued that this made everyone wealthy – and there was a lot of truth in this, as the Middle Class was born – after some serious social struggles. But this was only a temporary situation and American society has become more unequal than ever.

And not only that – but more unaware than ever. These are two qualities I want to emphasize – unequal and unaware. Both negative qualities that reinforce each other – a complex adaptive system (CAS)!

This is the world we hate. This hatred is mostly unconscious – but it is reasonable, given the world we live in.

The Future is Hard to Predict

This does not stop all kinds of futurists from doing just that – with assurance matched by those who want to believe in them. For the most part, they are telling people what they want to hear – or what they want other people to hear.

People who know the most about what is going on – never do this. If they are leaders, of any kind, they are forced to make decisions – which may or may not work. If they are lucky, they are considered visionary. If they are not lucky (as is usually the case) – they will try something else.

That is why the tags for this posting are CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) and Complexity (for Complexity Science). If you are reading the book I reference in Show the World You Know How to Think – you will know how new this science is – and how it is still being defined.

This however, is its biggest advantage – it probably will continue to be redefined forever.

Agent-Based Objects

These are basic to Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and to Object Oriented Programming (OOP) where they are simply referred to as objects. Neither discipline seems to have heard of the other – which is strange, because each of them could learn from the other.

Agents are things that have agency, that can make decisions, that have smarts. In CAS they are hard to put your finger on, but in OOP they are very well defined.

In a computer, all the smarts are contained in the Central Processing Unit (CPU) which is the miracle product of our time, and are now so cheap they show up everywhere. The CPU can do some basic things (such as add x to y) which depends on what the computer is for. The computer for a car, does different things than a computer for a microwave.

Software is nothing but a high-level list of instructions – do this, and then this, and then this – which are compiled into low-level machine language for the CPU. Software design is a very active field, and back in the Sixties it decided to go with objects, as related by Wikipedia.

OOP became a mania, everybody claimed to be using it, although few really understood it. This is when they could have been helped by CAS, but they never heard of it. Programming claims to be a science, but it is really not – and tends to live in its own world. Scientists do not understand them, and they do not understand scientists. And the world goes to Hell.

In OOP, an object is a self-contained computational unit – it contains its own instructions, its own data and does its own thing. It communicates with other objects by sending messages to and receiving messages from them. This is a world of independent objects talking to each other. Hopefully, they all accomplish some overall task – but it takes a lot of hard work to make sure this happens.

Often, they end up talking to each other – but not to the end user – who is stuck with software that doesn’t do what he wants. The user (who is usually not very bright) assumes he is the problem, not the software – and just gives up, and uses Facebook instead.

But let me return to objects. As it turns out, they are useful for other fields, such as CAS. Here, they are assumed to be crude approximations of human behavior. I must emphasize the word crude. I already have a posting A Human Cannot be Modeled which makes this clear.

However, in some situations, approximations are useful – as long they are not taken too seriously. And it is useful to assume that humans have a limited repertoire of behaviors. Any novelist or playwright knows these, and exploits them – in endless complications we never tire of.

This is also what the new breed of social scientist does – figure out what these hidden subroutines are. Unfortunately, people do not like this – and start screaming “This is not real Science!” Science is supposed to make them rich and powerful. And a science that shows them as they really are (not “a little lower than the angels”) is not to their liking.

People should be interested in software – after all, it now runs their world. But they have been so badly damaged by centuries of industrial society they are hardly capable of understanding anything.

Science should be making this clear, but it is scared to death of doing this. And carefully tip-toes around the problem.

The Eightfold Way as a Social Model

Finally, the book Complex Adaptive Systems by John H. Miller and Scott E. Page is getting down to pay dirt  – halfway into the book! It quotes Buddhist scripture:

Now what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? It is as follows; right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

No doubt Buddhist scholars would object to his interpretation of Buddhist scripture, which is facile – but no matter, it is useful anyway. It maps them as follows:

View – Information and connections
Intention – Goals
Speech – Communication among the agents
Action – Interaction
Livelihood – Payoffs
Effect – Strategies and actions
Mindfulness – Cognition
Concentration – Model focus and heterogeneity

I personally have a problem with the interpretation of Mindfulness. It is clear that the authors have no idea of what that means in Buddhist practice. It is also true that the Buddha had no idea what models and agents would mean over a thousand years later.

Overlooking these minor matters, however, the authors (note the plural case) go on to explain what these mean in Complex Social Theory.

As I said in my other posting today The Worship of Wonderful, Complexity Science tries to be wonderful – but fails. No matter, it is useful, and that is all that matters. Here are three paragraphs (out of six) for Right View:

Right View encompasses the information that an agent receives from the world. Such information can influence agents in both direct and indirect ways. Directly, incoming information will often cause to immediately react to what was received by taking some action. Indirectly, information is often “memorized” via some change in the agents internal state, and such changes may set the stage fore actions that will only be realized into the future…

A further complication is that the networks that agents receive often come from other agents. As such, agents may be able to manipulate, at least partially, their outputs so as to influence the actions of others. As we will see, models where such manipulation is possible can lead to some very interesting behaviors…

Networks may also be important in terms of view. Many models assume that agents must be bunched together on the head of a pin, whereas the reality is that most agents exist within a topology of connections to other agents, and such connections may have an important influence on behavior.

Most people react to this complexity by turning off – and refusing to notice anything at all.

I have been enjoying the Tico Times ever since came to Costa Rica. But this week it decided to call it quits, because it couldn’t afford to continue. I think the situation is worse than that – few want to know about anything.

They seem to think if they ignore their problems they will go away.

Computers Have Taken the Place of People

This is clearly impossible: computers are not animate, and can do nothing on their own. To be accurate, we must say we have given computers our power and made them rule over us. And even this is not true: a new force has arisen composed of people and their computers, which has acquired an independent and all-powerful identity of its own.

This happened because people have always wanted to be something greater than themselves (the religious impulse). Something that is clearly impossible. But that impossibility has happened, and happened completely.

We are now everything and nothing at the same time. A complete success and a total failure. A total failure at being ourselves, but a total success at being something else: computers.

A short definition is in order here. When I refer to computers, I mean the total package of computer hardware, software, and the Internet (the CSI). And beyond that, the merged identity of us and it. We have become it, and it has become us.

This is possible because the CSI is capable of manipulating the environment directly – and being controlled directly. It is a network of information-processing robots that do exactly as instructed by its software – even when these parts are widely separated. Nothing like this has ever existed before. A new universe completely at our command! But a universe that runs by its own rules, not ours.

The most important part of the CSI is the Internet. Immediately, when it was invented, we knew we were on to something big.

Immediately the world of business took it over and made it it’s own. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated. It meant a complete return to the rule of the rich and the powerful (since they now had the ability to control everything), and a complete retreat from the rule of the people, who were now powerless. How did this enormous power switch happen?

It happened because of an explosion of technologies, each more powerful than the last. Of course technologies did not happen on their own. They happened because people became obsessed with making more and more of them, each one building on the last. This in itself was not critical – what was critical was its effect on people: they started focusing more and more on their technologies and less and less on themselves.

A more astonishing change cannot be imagined. The net result was that people existed less and less and their technologies existed more and more. They became more and more real, while we became less and less real. Eventually we became nothing but an illusion having no power at all.

This could not have happened when our technologies were only machines, such as a steam engine. We were quite capable of organizing our live to suit them (to suit the automobile, for example), but they didn’t have much intelligence on their own. When intelligent machines (the CSI) appeared, we immediately started making them even more intelligent – and insisted that they control us. We, in our new incarnation, wanted to become as powerful as possible. We never noticed that the human part of this new thing had been reduced to nearly nothing.

Still, we had our illusion that we were real, and to us that was real enough. If all power was elsewhere, it didn’t matter.

We Have Been Captured by a CAS

Man has always been subject to his beliefs, ideas, and various passions. This is both good and bad – but inevitable: that is just the way we are. But now we have met up with something more than our equal: a CAS (Complex Adaptive System), that has incorporated us into it.  We have been captured by a system more powerful than us – and made to serve it.

This may strike you as pure poppy-cock – not worthy of further thought, but do not dismiss me lightly, I think I am on to something.

This process has been going on ever since the late 19 Century – with the result that things are now in control. This is not a new idea: it has been obvious to many. But we had no idea of what these things were – or most importantly: how they were organized.

We had no idea they could organize themselves – a startling new idea made clear by a whole new field of inquiry that studies Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). What these scientists have discovered is far more important than the discovery of sub-atomic particles, interesting as this is (at least to them). It is a discovery of how much of the universe works: as complex systems composed of many diverse, interrelated agents that are constantly evolving.

Before, scientists intuited this was the case, but complexity was not something they wanted to tackle: they didn’t have the tools for the job – especially the intellectual tools. And they were not used to the broad, interdisciplinary cooperation that is required to tackle a subject this huge. Now they, the cream of the crop, are hard at work on at – notably at the Santa Fe Institute – which you will be hearing about later, if you have your ear to the ground.

What is blocking the advancement of mankind into this new frontier? Mankind itself, which has been so successful in adapting to this new system, that it has eliminated itself from the equation.

This is nothing new, men have always been adept at adopting themselves to power structures, usually hierarchical ones. And the lengths they will go to serve them has always been amazing. Man has always adapted itself to power, but this power was always man-made. But this power is not man-made: it comes from without, from a CAS.

I know this is too much for you to grasp, so let’s back off for a moment and look at entirely man-made CASs – such as the various group identities we have always lived under. We have usually believed these were formed by powerful supernatural forces – such as the gods – when it was clear to any objective observer that we had made these ourselves. To use the language of Complexity: these organizations emerged from human life automatically. This is one of the characteristics of CASs – a truly fascinating subject: they automatically self-organize themselves into more complex structures.

Life itself is the prime example: atoms organized themselves into molecules, which organized themselves into cells, which organized themselves into organisms, etc. There was no outside intelligence doing this – they just did it themselves, out of their own internal intelligence. But the result was something amazing.

But this was nothing: beginning in the late 19th Century, man was adding to the mix, making powerful things at an ever accelerating pace. And these things have taken over – making as one of their objectives the elimination of the people who made them. And they have succeeded. We have become reproductive organs and power structures (engines) for them.

Here again, I have probably gotten ahead of you; let me back up again. Consider the effect of the automobile on America, the nation that has most successfully adapted to them. I was amazed the last time I was there by all the new super-highways: the  most expensive structures ever built by man – but overloaded as soon at they are built, by all the people eager to use their cars on them – who come flocking in from everywhere.

In short, we have turned ourselves over the the automobile – completely – which continues to demand more. We don’t see this, we only see ourselves enhanced by all this steel and rubber in motion – but it doesn’t take a genius to see what is really going on: the automobile is using us to its advantage. We are serving it.

Stepping back a notch, and getting the larger view: things have organized themselves into systems where we are subordinate players. We are so busy serving them we don’t have time for ourselves – exactly what they want.

And people think this is wonderful. We visited with a relative back in the Midwest the last time I was back home. They live on a lovely farm just outside a small town. We asked them what they did for exercise. Their answer surprised us: they drive in their new car to the nearest large town, about 30 miles away, on a superhighway, and then walk around in its air-conditioned shopping center!