On Tiki Alcatraz — with Mr. Exon and Braden. December 2018
I’ve been having some interesting thoughts and wanted to make sure I wrote them down before my brain core-dumped them, or the hyper-drive shifted into high gear and I left them back in another quadrant of the space in between my ears.
I’m on a list serve about meta-modernism, and have been conversing with numerous people on that list serve about various issues surrounding Hanzi Freinacht’s book, The Listening Society. The people on the list-serve typically are more classically trained academics, with all that entails about reliability vs. validity, and of course know far more about historical philosophy than I do. What does that mean? They do better when it comes to building references to past work, but have difficulties with larger systemic paradigms, like mine. A mechanical engineering prof is no authority on philosophy, needless to say.
That doesn’t mean, though, that their sense making sensors interpret the universe necessarily in the wrong way, or in a way on a surface level different from mine. I’ve been decoding their posts for the last year, and learned a lot. But it does mean that they’re much more likely to argue a position from historical precedent than bottom-up, generative systems thinking. The way I view this is, well, we use the tools we have. As a nonlinear physicist, I’m more likely to argue from the social physics. As philosophers, they’re more likely to argue from past literature.
I had an interesting thought about how externally defined social networks (think Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, which inevitably tend toward hierarchies,) exhibit meta-linear dynamics, whereas the minute you let people get out and form their own relationships, all sorts of crazy stuff (which lends itself well to creativity) starts happening, including cognitive leaps, discontinuous growth, and generalized emergence.
How so? If you’re in a hierarchy, and you’re supposed to talk to just the people in your organization, you’re only likely to move up one click in level at any given time. If your hierarchy’s levels are hooked to scale, either temporal or spatial, then the next level up usually corresponds to one click up in duration (you’re supposed to worry about quarterly performance instead of just serving up a latte) or spatial scale (you’re responsible for your workstation, but one level up, you’re responsible for your cubicle farm.) Knowledge then also is linearly inherited from above, and your experience doesn’t matter much. All this works to suppress any large changes, because the best you’re going to do is iterate on your immediately available space. Or time. And if you’re programmed to the max in your position, you likely don’t have any energy to think about how you’re going to change anything. So now we’ve completed our thermodynamic argument against change — time, space, and energetics are constrained. Change just isn’t in the cards. Or rather, radical change. You’re indexed to your own, closed system.
If one wanted to reflect on this in a larger way, one can also see that Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection maps well to this meta-linear paradigm. Things change slowly, if at all, unless an external event radically rearranges an ecosystem niche. And we don’t really even talk about that, because within the hierarchy of our little bounded system, everything kinda knows its place. Sort of like watching The Lion King except the animals eat each other.
Contrast that to independently generated relationships. Independently generated relationships are highly variable, and contingent on experiences a person has — some positive, and some negative. Maybe you went on a trip overseas to Japan, and really took to Shinto temple architecture. Upon returning home, you fell in love with a Japanese exchange student, because of your fascination. All the sudden, a whole bunch of different deep cultural knowledge starts getting dumped into both your v-Meme-NA, as well as your other, more specific fragmented knowledge. Maybe you start liking Japanese rice porridge. Or something. It’s unpredictable, and since the knowledge space is not constrained by the rigid boundary of an already-established hierarchy, change comes in unpredictable ways. You’re quite literally opening yourself up — which is what travel writers have been saying, and now you have a knowledge system boundary understanding of it.
What’s interesting is this corresponds well to how the various organisms manage their relationships — and nothing is more clear than understanding how single-celled organisms do this between each other. To get a comprehensive picture of all this, I highly recommend reading David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree, a super-well-researched and comprehensive discipline-biography (I just made up that term) of Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT). In this book, you get to learn how bacteria and all the different single-celled organisms (Can’t remember all the names, but prokaryotes and eukaryotes come to mind) swapped stuff as needed. Mitochondria started outside our cells, and were captured, or infiltrated, and created the far more complex single-celled organisms we see today. No one was waiting for long-term evolution to adapt. They grabbed the partner DNA that worked at the time, and went with it. Not taking the chance was going to mean death anyway.
And some of it was seemingly random, or based on geographic (literally) migrations. Just like you, those Shinto temples, and your new Japanese domestic partner. Those ideas got inserted inside your brain in ways that were highly nonlinear — and that level of diversity gave you a far different perspective than you would have had had you stayed inside your immediate community/cultural box.
It’s the system boundary thing that really matters here. Inside a system with a rigid boundary, like all hierarchies, you’re pretty constrained informationally. But when that boundary becomes permeable, all sorts of stuff can, and does happen.
What’s more interesting is what happens if you either keep, or don’t keep those rigid system boundaries, to the overall health and life of your system. If those boundaries are rigid, and the amount of information influx is small, at some level you might have information stability. But inevitably, over time, entropy is going to catch up with you, especially as you nail down smaller and smaller scales of behavior. Think of rituals. First you start with a Christmas tree with grandma’s star. The next thing you know, certain ornaments that you’ve had forever start owning their own place. And before you know it, you’re one broken globe away from ruining your Christmas tree feng shui.
Interestingly enough, this seems to be what happens to businesses as well. In Geoffrey West’s book, Scale, where West, as the former director of the Santa Fe Institute, exhaustively chases an understanding of growth, mapping this to sub-linear and super-linear behavior, showed that businesses tend to die after 40 years, whereas cities keep on no matter what happens. Why? Once everyone in a business knows their place, and their place becomes synonymous with who they are, it just gets much harder to mix new information in. And then that social structure rigidity likely translates to product rigidity. And so on. How many Blackberrys do you see in use nowadays?
This also maps well to Roger Martin’s The Design of Business Magic=>Heuristic=>Algorithmic funnel concept.
In the end you lose your diversity, and resiliency to external conditions, entropy catches up, conditions change and you can’t sense them, and you go out of business. Interestingly enough, it also shows how psychopaths can capture your business and start creating that entropy. They take your definition of self, and use it against you. If you’re already locked into rigidity, such actors hasten your collapse. As crazy as it may seem, it’s almost like the universe is working to recycle your organization.
One can also see how opening oneself up too much also can create chaos — too much information flow, and before you know it, you start undermining your deeper identity that may have served to protect you from already extant, learned threats in your environment.
What’s the right balance? Not so easy to say. But if we understand the social physics, and the acceptance that there has to be some nonlinear flux in order to not get sick and die, then we’re on the right track. Sometimes you just have to capture a few mitochondria. We can all learn a little from the dynamics of our micro-biome.