Thursday, October 4, 2012

Intro: Sketches from 2030

The year 2030 seems far away, but not too far—something of a middle-ground between the present, and the “real” future. If our current rate of change holds or increases, it’s likely that this future world will seem as foreign to us as our present world would seem to someone from 1994. The future is a funny thing: it always progresses in some ways that surprise us, in some ways that don’t, and sometimes the progress we expect fails to appear. Starting today, I'm going to start interspersing among my larger posts some short pieces about my predictions for what the world will look like in the fourth decade of this century—while we’re being inundated in new technology, most of the biggest changes are likely to come from social reorganizations. Of course, while I think I'm a reasonably smart guy, I'm totally open to being told my predictions are crazy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Homestuck Timeline Post

Gamzee, Egbert, Bec: An Eternal Golden Bluh :: Hofstadterian Self Construction, Homestuck, and Intelligent Systems

Spoiler Alert.

In his review of their list-book Inventory, comedian David Cross says The Onion’s A.V. Club “has decided to embrace what it parodies until it meets itself just outside of heaven and shakes its own hand while flipping itself, and you and me, off.” For many fans of Andrew Hussie’s megalithic webcomic Homestuck, that beautiful epiphany and the associated obscene gesture are multiplied manifold. The work is so laden with paradox, self-reference, and sheer impossibility that it appears to be made of the stuff.

The post-modern Italian novelists would have loved it. Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, one of the few novels written in second person that was not a Choose Your Own Adventure, experiments with reader/text relations (that slash, of course, has a double-meaning—Calvino clearly “ships” the reader and the text) in a roundabout, self-referential way. Umberto Eco performs a similar maneuver with the literary symbols in The Name of the Rose, though this is a bit easier to read. As much as post-modernists love paradox, we can go back to Oedipus for the  first causal paradox in fiction, making this, as TV Tropes would say, older than dirt. (Although, as we’ll see, its existence in the natural world makes it, um, older than stars, probably.)

The Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1980 went to Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which featured whimsical musings on mathematical theories, impossible drawings, and symmetrical musical scores to make points about the nature of consciousness. Hofstadter felt that his point may not have been as well understood as he had hoped and wrote the more on-the-nose title I Am A Strange Loop in 2007. Its thesis is this: the human concept of self is a result of the fact that our sensations create a neurological feedback loop. Hofstadter is best-known for his ideas on general self-reference, though, illustrated by the xkcd strip which snarked that his six-word autobiography would be: “I’m So Meta, Even This Acronym”.

Hofstadter’s self-reference work and its associated implications for the construction of self (as well as self-construction) interpret Homestuck exceptionally well: the heterarchies of the plot, its construction, and its interpretation include all kinds of self-reference, paradox, and causal looping. A complete analysis of these features appears unwieldy or downright impossible, but suffice it to say that the topography of plot and plot generation appears to indicate a work that exhibits the downward causality usually reserved the generation of a human consciousness.

Aboutness and Paradoxes in the Meta-Narrative

After a certain number of pages, a reader could become convinced that HS is simply a webcomic (albeit in a non-traditional format) about kids playing a video game, and that the game mechanics in the plot are simply an artifact of the characters’ gameplay. But this isn’t precisely true—the mechanics start well before the first player (Rose) installs Sburb: John is messing with his fetch modus and leveling up on the Echeladder from the very beginning of Act 1. Clearly, the reader has been playing the “game” of Homestuck, which happens to be about kids playing the game of Sburb. (By Act 6, it becomes clear that the reader has been playing the game of Homestuck, which in turn contains the game of Homestuck, the game in Intermission 1, the game of Hivebent, and another game also called Homestuck.) Never mind that the reader/player is implied to have killed him/herself in Act 5.

Starting with the first panels, we’re asked to input a name for the characters, as is customary at the beginning of most RPG video games. “Our” inappropriate suggestions are always rejected by the kids, but later we find that the reader-player wasn’t responsible for those suggestions after all—they were typed by the trolls in Act 5.

Later, Hussie’s author-insert character (often referred to as “AH”) is shown throttling Doc Scratch after some disagreement as to whose narrative style is more interesting. Scratch is made out to be omnipotent (or nigh omnipotent) through the preceding Acts, but against the author himself, he wobbles like a ragdoll and is killed, being shown to have been full of stuffing. Lord English emerges from Scratch’s corpse; Hussie’s character has had a direct effect on the plot. Lord English then proceeds to shockingly kill Hussie’s character. Strangely, a non-dead author character is later shown attempting to propose to Vriska Serket, who reacts poorly. (Note: This may have been his “dream self” or a dying hallucination.)

Plain Vanilla Stable Time Loops

The psychotic villain Jack Noir is shown to have ruined the Act 5 [Post-Scratch] trolls’ session by preventing them [link with sound] from winning Sburb (er, Sgrub), by entering their final door, though he did not prevent them from deploying a new (abortive) universe. This new universe is the home to the Act 1 kids, who in turn are responsible for the rise of the super-powered Jack that prevented the trolls from entering their door.

A future version of Dave travels back in time to save John from following Terezi's suggestion to cheat at Sburb, which would have resulted in John’s death. This Dave sticks around after John talks himself out of the troll’s plan, unaffected by the change in the timeline.

These and dozens of other plot points mirror the standard stable time loops from golden age sci-fi like Robert Heinlein’s short story “—All You Zombies—”, in which a natural hermaphrodite travels through time to become his (and her, as the character identifies as both genders at different times) own father and mother.

Meta-Stable Time Loops and Time Shenanigans

Other time loops are ostensibly stable, but the reader is only treated to a view from inside them. That is, they’re unable to see how the loop was created, just that it is created. The clearest example of this is the advent of Lord English, who emerges from the puppet corpse of Doc Scratch, but about whom it had long been claimed: “He is already here.” That is, before he emerged, he was already present. In the words of Hussie’s in-story character: “The dude is ALWAYS already here. When it comes to being here, already is practically all he ever is.” Again, we’re not sure how that is possible, but it clearly is possible, as it is fact. Take a drink.

There’s a third type of infinite loop that seems to more closely track to those that construct consciousness in Hofstadter’s work: the relationship between the kids and their “dancestors” (that’s “descendant” + “ancestor”). You see, due to John’s ectobiology exploits, he and the rest of the Act 1 kids are the ancestors of the Act 6 kids. The Act 6 kids, in turn, are the ancestors of the Act 1 kids. It is unclear how this does not cause infinite regression in both directions of the timeline, but it does create a stable matrix of personalities: the kids model their behaviors after the ancestors they admire, who in turn modeled their behaviors after the kids themselves.

The Act 6 characters Calliope and Caliborn are playing a two-player instance of the Sburb game, though they share the same body: Calliope is asleep when Caliborn is awake, and vice versa.

The Circular Nature of Content Creation

There are also some interesting feedback loops in the construction of the comic itself. Analogous, perhaps, to the standard-level stable time loops in the story, is the direct collaboration Hussie has with people that have been contacted directly to produce things like mini-games, music, and some Flash work. Beyond that, there is direct fan contribution, which until Act 4 was a necessary ingredient of much of the content, and post-Act 4 has remained an integral part of many plot points and details. Note that HS is not unique in this regard—see Ze Frank’s vlog “A Show” for more great examples of an auteur acting as a moderator for user-generated content.

The third level of author-user feedback is this: Hussie has admitted to occasionally using fan forum ideas for further content, without making a direct request. In this way, speculation about future plot points can become self-fulfilling, looping back upon itself.

Downward Causality and Intelligent Systems

Hofstadter takes great pains in I Am A Strange Loop to explain that simple self-reference or infinite regress does not make consciousness. After embarking on a “Video Voyage” of creating endless video feedback tunnels using a camcorder and a television, he makes it clear that the tv/camcorder combo is not conscious. There’s no perception taking place inside the loop itself. Only the humans on the outside of the loop are capable of perception.

That said, there is a niggling sense that “self” can be constructed outside of the neurological substrate. He falls short of saying that an army of ants has a “self”, but it’s heavily implied that a self could be made of any physical components, so long as self-perception was taking place in the process. That is, it appears that in Hofstadter’s world, any system in which a stimulus from inside the system can be perceived by the system itself is conscious.

Of course, one could not legitimately make the point that Homestuck is an actual artificial consciousness, just that it has a similar structure. Hofstadter refers to “downward causality”, in which processes on the level of the neuron are responsible for the construction of a “mind”, which is then perceived to be the construct which is responsible for the neuron-level processes. It’s an infinite loop: chicken and egg, the Apollonian prophecy and Oedipus’s transgression, Lord English and Doc Scratch, Rose and Roxy.

Something that extends beyond the bounds of the study of the construction of self, but is definitely related, is memetic construction and propagation. Hofstadter allows for the low-fidelity propagation of self through the minds of others, as when he himself “thought” as his deceased wife Carol. Homestuck allows for this type of personality propagation through the dream bubbles—the memories of the truly dead (there are so many kinds of "dead") allow for their perceptions of the living to continue.

The desire to propagate one’s universe, i.e. one’s mind, is a prominent feature in human psychology, and may simply be a common feature in the mind of any intelligent system. That is, any system that can produce a “mind”, even outside of strict human-neurological substrate, might theoretically “want” to reproduce that mind-construct. In this way, biological evolution in itself might be considered a mind, and it clearly acts as though its desire were to propagate itself.

It’s clear that in the Homestuck mythos, a universe is a living organism, which appears to have evolved and continues to act as any other living organism: by developing the organs in needs to survive and reproduce. In this case, the universe’s propagation appears to depend on the development of an Information Age intelligent society, which then obtains a copy of Sburb, distributes it, and plays it. The win condition of Sburb is the creation of a new universe.

John Searle famously proposed the “Chinese room” thought experiment in 1980, right around the time that Gödel, Escher, Bach was published. In it, a man sits in a room with a computer. He is fed scrap paper with Chinese characters on it under the door, then consults a computer program for a correct response, then copies that response and slips it back under the door. The argument was that the man clearly did not speak Chinese, and neither did the computer. Hofstadter points out that the system of man and computer do actually speak Chinese together.

Likewise, it could be said that the systems of plot loops, circular content creation, memetic propagation, and self-reference cause a simulacrum of an intelligent system to develop. And while this system cannot solve problems, react as a human, or actually become self-aware, it does become a thing unto itself, like a self. A thing, shaped like a self.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Collaborativist's Cookbook

Note: This post is really just a short, practical version of the previous post. I do think it adds to the conversation though—it connects the failure of government and big business to the need for collaborative solutions, mixes in the idea of "civil society", and gives some practical ideas of how to contribute. Do any of you know of a list of collaborative projects easily accessible on the web? Thx.

Throughout history, humans have banded together to diminish threats to human life and comfort. As simpler threats were largely eliminated (death by other apex predators, exposure to the elements), more complex human organizations arose, eliminating more complex threats. The institutions we currently rely upon to reduce these threats are beginning to fail in their duties.

Currently, the only organizations that are powerful enough on the whole to manage these threats are governments and corporations. While these have managed to produce protection against a litany of long-standing threats, they have begun to fail at tackling very complex threats: global economic collapse, public education in a service economy, and other problems. Though these issues are most often “first world problems”—issues of happiness or social and economic progress that don’t affect those in the developing world, the idea that they are unimportant is deceptive and incorrect.

The system is shot through with mediocrity, and it will not be easily fixed. It’s not even clear right now what a corrected system would look like (although reduced lobby influence in government is almost certainly part of it), or what measures need to be implemented. To wit: fixing society is going to be a long road.

When people realize this, they often get depressed or jaded. It doesn’t need to be that way. Allow me an illustration. Imagine your car has broken down, and for some reason, you need to repair it yourself. You’re hardly a natural-born mechanic (if you are, pretend you’re not), and the problem lies in the engine somewhere. The repair is going to be nasty, and you can’t take time off of work to do it. You’ll be forced to work on the car in the evenings and on weekends, and you still have to figure out how to get around town.

In the long term, you’re going to need to consult manuals, call friends, and work long hours to fix your car. It’s not going to be easy.

In the short term, you’re going to have to solve a more immediate problem—how do you get from point A to point B?

While this seems daunting, you really have to work on both items. Thankfully, in the end you’ll have a car you can use, as well as perhaps a bike, a carpool, a knowledge of the bus routes, and maybe better cardiovascular fitness.

The Long Game

I’m not going to spend much time on this, because you know what to do. Act directly to move government and corporations: voting reform (alternative voting), lobby reform, disclosure, and transparency are the biggest things on the table. Please do these things, however you feel best.

The long game is important, but working in the garage all day is doing nothing for you in re: getting the groceries. Hence, the short game:

The Short Game

This is the part people are afraid of, because it requires immediate and significant changes. Fear not, though, you only have to do stuff you want to do anyway.

The only ironclad rule here is to build collaborative parts of the “civil society”, organizations outside the corporate-political sphere that advance common interests. The reason for this is simple—the broken “system” of government and large moneyed entities provides services generally too slowly, too expensively, or with serious negative side effects. For example, the city comes to take away your trash, and they do it quickly and cheaply, but they don’t do it effectively. No one goes through your trash to see if someone else might like that pretty good TV you’re just throwing away. That’s why there’s freecycle. The new civil society is collaborative, which means it can solve a lot of problems without centralized planning.

There are a LOT of collaborative projects out there, and they chip away at all sorts of problems, from world hunger to finding a couch to crash on. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much time you have, or what limitations you face, you can help something awesome grow...awesomer.

You can be collaborative in a few different ways:

1. Start Something. If you’re finding difficulty in getting something you need in order to be happy, and you can think of a way that a new collaborative movement could fix that, make it your personal project. Find existing online communities to enlist help.

2. Be a Gnome. If you love an existing collaborative project, contribute to it. There’s plenty of organizational, editorial, clerical, publicity, and other work in every project, and there’s usually no barrier to entry. So get crackin’, and make your favorite projects better, a step at a time.

3. Enlist in a Cause. This is more than just going gnome. Become active and visible in an online community or collaborative project. Help plan meetups and hangouts, volunteer at conferences and workshops, and help resolve disputes if necessary.

4. Preach it. Tell your friends about the awesome project that you’re working on. When someone you know complains about a problem that you know has a collaborative solution on the internet (even if you’re not involved in that project), point them to that project.

A Parting Piece of Advice

Keep your Long Game out of your Short Game. That is, if you’re creating and contributing to collaborative societies, you must keep them as open as is reasonable. You don’t want people opting out because they disagree with you politically, religiously, or philosophically. You may think this is bland, or that this is selling out, but major collaborative projects almost universally have rules against bias. And that’s for a good reason.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

New Society Manifesto

Welcoming the advent of the Wiki Wiki World.

Without any significant strain, anyone endowed with a reasonable amount of sense can see the problems that have infested the developed world. Employment is not readily accessible by all who wish to work, parliamentarians and congressmen exclusively represent the interests of moneyed entities including corrupt corporations, and supposed solutions to major social and economic problems drive the populace to tribalism. The current track of Western and other developed societies is unsustainable—but an alternative is arising. This new society should be supported by everyone who wants a better life for themselves and their posterity.

A partial enumeration of the failures and impending failures of the existing system

  • Systems that ostensibly reward intelligence, hard work, and other values are becoming oligarchies run by “those who got there first”. (Christopher Hayes)
  • Representatives and other officials are increasingly beholden to campaign funders, not to their constituents. (Lawrence Lessig)
  • The job is dying.
  • The corporation is also dying. (Venkatesh Rao)
  • Employers increasingly disrespect the 40-hour workweek, expecting and requiring excessive work hours. (Bob Sutton)
  • Viable goods, attention, time, and ideas are increasingly left to waste.
  • The populace is becoming politically tribalized, preventing collaborative political effort.
  • Prices are often unfair, and packaged quantities are being reduced in a deceptive manner. (The Consumerist)
  • Information disseminated by the media is increasingly untrustworthy.
  • Privacy, both off- and online, is eroding. (Rebecca MacKinnon)
  • The economic problems that began in 2008 are not subsiding, no matter what national and international economic policies are implemented.
  • The gap between rich and poor is widening, and the situation for the poor is not improving. (Ezra Klein)

Note that issues like police brutality and civil rights failures are big problems, but are not unique to Western or developed societies. Other problems, like overcrowded, private prisons and healthcare crises, tend to be spotty and focused on few specific places in the developed world (cough cough), but are largely subsets of other large problems listed.

Why popular resistance and social trends will fail to bring change in the developed world

Traditional social movements seem to have sprung out of major concerns (lack of food, oppression by leaders, unsafe conditions, unequal rights) that could be summed up in one statement (Mubarak must go, Votes for women, No taxation without representation). Unfortunately, the problems with the old society are too numerous to attack in one movement. Occupy Wall Street tried this, and did lots of things, none of which actually spurred significant legislative or regime change.

Taking the broken system head on is bound to cause conflicts between people who would otherwise be able to work together, as we all focus on our hobby horse issues at the expense of other important concerns. The protection provided by pitting these conflicting forces against each other may not be an intentional aspect of the monolithic old culture, but it sure confers a devilish evolutionary advantage to this particularly mutated parasite.

The heart of old society is the idea that resources are scarce, traditional hierarchies are inevitable, and the ability to compete with other humans for resources is “merit”. It is the home of Glengarry Glen Ross, Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street, and the Godfather. It is Darwinism writ large, where pincers and scales are replaced by schemes, prestige, and privilege. It is inevitable that such a system will degrade into a great-ape-style hierarchy, where alphas enforce class distinctions by force, regardless of their actual abilities.

The task of defeating primate behavior in order to provide human groups safety and progression opportunities has traditionally been handled by governments. The development of large governments appears to have been instrumental in the formation of modern technologies (formerly things like aqueducts; in our era, the space program and the Internet), but such governments have been prone to catastrophic failure, or at the very least, wide-scale corruption.

Governments are represented by people: presidents, judges, legislators, etc. When a government becomes systemically corrupt, revolution is the only solution, because removing the figurehead does not effect real change. Revolutions are hard; they require conditions to be very unpleasant for a very large group of people, because making a transition often involves a risk to one’s life, and a risk that the new system will be worse than the old. The corporate version of revolution—restructuring—is far more common, but often fails to bring real change to business cultures and practices.

It is unlikely that any government or corporation in the West will make life too difficult for a significant group of its citizens or clients, but that does not mean that Western style governance is optimal. It is the foundational principle of a New Collaborative Society that there are better ways to do nearly everything that governments and corporations do—finding them just requires a bit of experimentation.

The role of networked electronic communication in forming a Collaborative Society

Until humans had a way of communicating, society was impossible. Language was a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition for banding together, building together, and protecting each other in new ways that ultimately led to human domination of Earth. Each new advance in communication has brought with it massive changes to society in general—there’s a reason we call that time before the development of writing “prehistory”. The printing press led to multiple societal revolutions, and certainly there could be no modern corporation without the telephone.

The internet has been so revolutionary—more so, perhaps, than the telephone or even the printing press—that we still do not know what the end result of its development will be. We have seen some strange and scattered effects: the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, online commerce, and distributed work and communities. We do not know what will come next, but it is wise not to ignore the strong possibility that nearly all of our existing ways of life will have changed completely by 2100. It is important that we guide that change as well as we can.

Cory Doctorow identified the “disorganized but effective” nature of online movements (they obviously can’t be called “organizations”, but “movement” or “adhocracy” works), and posited that as the cost of human transaction drops, the wiki approach might be used to plan cities, perform scientific inquiry, and explore space. This would constitute a massive human revolution, as the tasks normally reserved for governments or large corporations could be performed by people en masse, without commitment to a permanent hierarchy.

A warning about thinking on this line: it is likely to disappoint in the near future, as much of the Western world is divided between those who trust in governments and those who trust in corporations, a false choice of epic proportions. As long as those institutions have the most fans, they have power. (One can see in the world of Indiegogo, Twitter, and YouTube that having fans is essentially equivalent to having power.)

Thus, the role of the conscientious believer in a New Collaborative Society must become that of an evangelist, but a smart one. We all know auto-shills, trying to push their own blogs, music, or books onto others. The new society must preach by practicing: show the world that eschewing the hidebound universe of the old is both easy and effective. Even if the portion of the New Collaborative Society being practiced is something of a “minimal viable product”. Baby steps are better than no steps, and in the information age, those strides can increase in length exponentially.

The current state of the New Collaborative Society and its characteristics

The early effects of the Internet, meaning those that are visible now and those that are peeking around the corner at us, are sparse and sometimes inscrutable. Innovations seem to crawl in some areas and leap in others, and culture appears and disappears without much notice. (Anyone here remember Homestar Runner?) This porousness and sporadic growth translates to inconsistencies in the current iteration of the New Collaborative Society: a loose but expanding collection of practices that replace traditional institutions by disruption. As an alpha release, there’s not enough here to convince the masses to abandon decaying lifestyles for these ones.

That’s not to say that nothing has been done, however. While New Collaborative Society may be in the infant stage, it’s a whale calf, not a puppy. Early adopters have propped up projects as varied as Wikipedia and the Arab Spring, from Occupy to the Open Source movement. Deciding what forms part of the New Collaborative Society can be a little tricky—do farmers’ co-ops count or not?

By definition, any component of New Collaborative Society should be a replacement for a part of Old Society that is headed toward, or already experiencing, systemic failure. This seems fairly limited and specific, but when one examines the long term, much of Old Society appears to be balancing at the edge of a frighteningly precipitous drop, and thus open for New Collaborative Society replacements. The following are trends I believe to be parts of this change, but note that one does not have to buy into each New Collaborative Society institution in order to be supportive of New Collaborative Society as a whole:

Table A - some trends that appear to form part of the New Collaborative Society

It’s clear that the drive of the current trends tends toward direct action on the market to shift small pieces away from scarcity-driven models to post-scarcity, abundance-driven ones. Beyond that, existing New Collaborative Society trends also show a movement away from complex bureaucratic administration, toward more spontaneously-organized and disorganized administration.

Missing components of a New Collaborative Society and possible solutions

The most powerful elements of society, central governments and large corporations, have few competitors in any sphere, much less rivals that actually threaten their dominance on more than one front. New Collaborative Society solutions generally work in terms of disruption and replacement rather than stepwise progression and slow change. It will be difficult to disrupt technologies like federal governments and multinational corporations because of their powerbases and pocketbooks.

Education is another area in which New Collaborative Society solutions have as yet failed to resolve some concerns. Post-secondary education is still inappropriately expensive, and degrees are not insurance policies on unemployment.

Further, there are areas with some New Collaborative Society solutions which are incomplete or incompletely applied (e.g. transportation, staple foods, child care). These areas still stand to be disrupted or replaced. Problems in these areas are real, and action must be taken to resolve them. We should be grateful that there are ideas in motion to resolve these issues, and join with the people engaged in solving them if we feel the need, but it seems very likely that solutions to even large problems of distribution are forthcoming.

The problems in education are more complex. While there are groups in existence leveraging the surplus in educational content, the issue lies in the matter of accreditation and degree-granting. Like money, educational certificates only have value based on the approval of an institution, and the system bases its awards on an educational facility’s ability to approximate an Old Society model. This will be difficult to overthrow, as it will require a New Collaborative Society organization to prove itself to Old Society institutions (either accreditation groups or employers themselves).

Governments and corporations are very unlikely to see the benefits of current New Collaborative Society organizations with regard to their operational tasks. Currently, however, governments are finding the costs of performing certain tasks, like operating prisons (in the US) and managing security, much too high. Private contractors are hired to do these jobs, but these in turn exacerbate ethical problems—monetizing human suffering seems unlikely to yield any good results.

Relief from sub-national entities as the state, Home Nation, county, province, départment, or canton seems very unlikely. Some of these (US State, Home Nation) have “nation envy” and tend toward the same entrenchment of Old Society’s scarcity-obsessed norms as their parents. Other sub-nationals lack autonomy or authority to do any sort of governing whatsoever. Converting a sub-national to the New Collaborative Society cause is unlikely at best.

It may be possible to convince a small national or sub-national entity to contract some of its responsibilities to New Collaborative Society organizations, but it’s quite likely that governance is something that will have to be endured rather than embraced by the New Collaborative Society for the time being. Engagement is the key—voting always for those laws that will allow for the disruption and replacement of failing institutions, and against laws that further expand and entrench said institutions.

A call to action

The task for anyone interested in effecting Carnegie’s “real and permanent good” in the digital age will be to embrace, live, and spread the New Collaborative Society. This means to engage not only in collaborative projects that immediately interest and concern you, but to identify others that could interest and concern you, to create new collaborative projects and movements, and to connect those seeking solutions to collaborative projects that meet their needs, especially if they’re currently frustrated with the scarcity-based institutions that are failing them.

Interested parties can consistently strive to solve problems by creating collaborative projects that disrupt and replace old institutions. If collaboration supporters use demonstration, protest, and other forms of reactive behavior only when absolutely necessary, possible opponents to New Society norms will find no legitimate grounds for their opposition.

With very very few exceptions, all collaborative projects should be open to any and all parties who have the skills and desire to help. Inasmuch as collaborative projects avoid seeking to ally themselves with a political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, party, or sect exclusively, they can avoid harmful labeling and other damages that frequently arise in the tribalized world.

The New Collaborative Society should, and will, succeed at creating a new human universe full of peace, opportunity, and abundance.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Orders and Ideas: The Nebulous End of Self-Organization

Necessary Disclaimer

Organization underlies everything in the universe. Molecules are made of atoms, atoms made of smaller particles. The ability of human beings to observe the organization of the universe is only limited by the accuracy of our instruments and the clarity of our thoughts. This organization is widely thought to have begun with a Big Bang, from which all the matter in our universe emerged in an explosion of...stuff. Quickly, that stuff was pulled together by forces inherent in the stuff itself, energy and matter quickly becoming organized: smaller particles into organizations that created larger ones, those larger particles into conglomerates that became nebulae, suns, planets, moons, comets, et cetera.

All images in this article courtesy of Wikipedia.
It is interesting that there is a measure of self-similarity in the construction of atoms and the construction of solar systems, galaxies, and other space-bound organizations: a center surrounded by smaller objects in motion. Recently, CERN scientists found a particle composed of two heavy quarks and a light one, with the mass of a lithium atom. It decayed in about a trillionth of a second. Arguably, there could have been a large number of these unstable particles created by the Big Bang, which decayed quickly while the stable ones went on to make protons and neutrons. The universe just threw everything at the wall and saw what stuck. The laws of physics sorted them all out in something of a "survival of the stablest" race.

Carl Sagan famously said, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Of course, for that pie to get here, there had to be some organization beyond simply the invention of the universe—the emergence of a solar system where our planet sits in a habitable zone and survived some rocky formational eras to get a stable atmosphere and liquid water (but not too much of it), and some of the material on the planet formed a certain type of very complex acid. That acid, acting in accordance with the laws of physics around it, began to replicate itself, which opened a whole new can of worms (via prions, viruses, bacteria, and the like).

Life is clearly more complex matter than non-living material, adding functionality to the material possessed of it. Again, everything simply following the laws of physics, the emergent behavior we call life added a great deal of complexity to the matter contained on one (though probably not just one) planet orbiting a random sun, which was circling something else. Earth has become the playing field for a new type of complexity, the beginning of life a type of Big Bang.

And just as the Bang pushed matter and energy out into the void, where physical laws organized it into intricate forms, the beginnings of life pushed tiny organisms out into a lifeless mass, where the laws of nature organized them into more complex life, from single cells to multi-cellular forms. The rules governing these forms are simply very complex iterations of the laws of physics, though they are so complex that it is simply easier for us to consider them a new code of law entirely.

There is a third explosion to be examined, however. Just as emergent matter-organization paved the way for life, emergent lifeform-organization paved the way for sapience. Humanity is one species among many, like Earth is one planet among many, but it has become the birthplace of a new type of organization. Human interaction and development represents an dramatic increase in complexity over other forms of life, tool and language use resulting in huge shifts in the structure of Earth's surface, the electromagnetic emissions in our part of space, and future changes that have not yet been executed.

The laws governing the interaction of sapient matter are significantly more complex than the laws governing other life. So much so that our own guesses as to the content of these laws constitutes what some call the "soft sciences", simply because they cannot yet be codified rigidly as in physics.* And sapient beings as a group have engaged in a third type of matter organization: technology.

Just as matter in close proximity to other matter appears to want to form a spherical object, though it is without free will, lifeforms appear to want to propagate their genetic code. No non-sapient lifeform is aware of the concept of genes, but they all appear to act in a way that indicates a desire to preserve their genetic code. Again, the universe is just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks—this has the end result of producing life that spreads its code, as all life that is "stingy" with its code has a reduced chance of influencing what life will succeed it.

However, relating this observation to this third type of self-organization is difficult. Kevin Kelly's famous question "What does technology want?" sums the problem up nicely. Ideas do not organize themselves and propagate in a way that is clear or obvious to observers, perhaps because those ideas exist in those observers' minds in the first place. Beyond that, what precisely is this third type of self-organization? Plants and planets are made up of atoms, but such a constraint on "ideas", "technology", or "sapience" is tenuous at best. In the end, what is the substrate of sapience?

Matter inhabits space, and life inhabits Earth. What does thought inhabit? Is it locked into brains, making humanity the only matter than can ever truly think? Or are ideas objects in themselves, expressed in magnetic patterns, sound, or visual symbols? Perhaps it is a middle ground—ideas might only be represented in the objects they impel human brains to make. Each possibility has different ramifications:

If ideas can only exist as brain impulses, then humans themselves are the third type of self-organization, and teaching is the idea's method of procreation. Are our human organizations the emergence of the next form of self-organizing material? If so, are our groups more like slime molds—cooperatives of single-celled organisms—or like plants or animals? Is the next step in our "evolution" the rigidification of human organizations into multi-brained organisms?

Assuming ideas themselves are the true form of the pinnacle of self-organization, the question is: how do ideas organize themselves? We see them clump together in societies, belief systems, political parties. Is polarization just another name for the evolution of idea-based superlife? It is interesting that we often refer to organized ideas as "culture", the same name we give a bacterial colony.

And if technology is actually the third wave of self-organization, does this mean that technological singularity is inevitable? Or are there other possible evolutions of technology that do not inhabit a one-directional concept of progress? Could the superhuman machine actually develop in a way that does not mimic our intelligence?

And, in closing: It appears that most of us believe we have free will, which emerged somewhere between the beginning of life and the beginning of humanity. Is the development of the next stage of self-organization dependent on humanity's use of its free will? Or is it fated?

*It is interesting that the science governing physics is considered the "hardest", and that sciences of increasingly complex matter get "softer" until reaching the softest of them all, the human sciences. It is conceivable that the study of the next form of organization will be softer, not harder than the human sciences. If this is the case, the robot psychologists in Asimov's work might be a better prediction for the future than the hard-nosed engineers of other Golden Age sci-fi.

Disclaimer: This article was not written from any religious point of view. I find no conflict between the idea of a sentient Creator, and the idea that the Universe we experience was organized by physical law after a large explosion. I, personally, begrudge no one their leanings, whether they be pro- or anti-God. If you feel this text offends you, by all means feel free not to finish reading it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Great Big Map of American Malaise

This map shows results from the site What Does the Internet Think? for each US State. I like the 70's vibe I'm getting from the nasty color scheme. Click for big.

Interesting points: Missouri and Mississippi. New Jersey! Also, why so much hate for Li'l Rhody?

Forthcoming: This map plus readouts for major cities.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

There Are No More Frontiers (And That's A Little Scary)

Alaska's official state nickname is one of only two that doesn't follow the formula "The X State". It is called "The Last Frontier". (Not to be confused with Space, which is not a U.S. state, but is "the final frontier".) (The other is New Mexico, "Land of Enchantment".) (OK, done with parentheses, for the rest of the piece.) Unfortunately, the name no longer fits. The parts of Alaska that are going to be inhabited are already inhabited. There will be no Klondike v2.0. For that matter, much of the mountainous part of the rest of the country, though expanding in population, is no longer pushing tentacles of human settlement into the wilderness. The United States has reached something of an equilibrium.

"B'ars" are significantly less afraid of three-year-olds, though, so that's a bonus.
Image via Wikipedia.

That obviously bothers some people, like Peter Thiel, who started his career by created PayPal and is continuing it by creating controversy. His new, big, strange project is an artificial island in international waters, not regulated by US law (recent seasteading news). Thiel believes that minimal government will create a paradise, and this is the only viable way to make it happen. In other words: "It's 2012, where's my moon colony? Oh well, an artificial island works too."

The history of humanity seems to have had two phases: one where a young nation devises a new, better form of governance, and another where said nation does all kinds of crazy crap that tests the integrity of that form, causing some people to leave, colonize a new place, and start over at phase #1. We're neck-deep in phase #2, it seems. In the United States, this means you live in a place that is governed by entities who have a vested interest in keeping ideological conflict at a simmer—motivating the party bases—without allowing a full rolling boil. As long as the Fifth Party System remains in place, there will be no peace.

The BBC posted predictions for 2112 the other day, including one that surprised me quite a bit: That California would eventually secede from the Union. This struck me as two things: 1) unlikely and 2) unfortunately so. Now, I'm not one to argue for the secession of any part of the US, but it seems like we'd all be better off if there were some way for different ideological communities to engage in the level of self-governance they seek. California seems a very unlikely target for that for a number of reasons, but it's sort of sad that there's no way to vent the pressure of the ideological battle for dominance.

There's a saying regarding internet services: "If you're not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product." It seems clear that the same holds true for modern politics. If you're not receiving a subsidy, kickback, or special project, you're not a constituent. You're a flyer.

Handbills don't explore new frontiers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Storytelling Is the Most Important Human Activity, Ever

Since the dawn of the humanity that we now recognize, progress has been part of life. If you were a Mesopotamian farmer tucked away in the deep recesses of the BCE years, progress may have been so slow as to present you with an illusion of constancy. If you're my son or daughter, it will likely be so quick that it becomes background noise, like the motion of a plane on an intercontinental flight. We've tamed a good chunk of the elements, cured a load of diseases, and can reliably deliver either three pizzas or a month's worth of internet connection to many locations and for the same price.

We got there by telling stories. It may appear that we got here by doing science to things, refining our beliefs and moral codes, and creating political change, but those are all just flavors of storytelling. It's what humans do, and it's why we are so prolific. In fact, it's pretty much all humans do.

CC license, by Scholastic, Inc.

Politics is the easy example: Both wide-sweeping changes and small-scale elections depend upon narratives to function. The U.S. Declaration of Independence contains a number of narratives that shaped the Revolution, but it was in turn built upon the narratives of a number of colonists who felt they were getting a raw deal. (Those narratives, or a version thereof, are still taught in US History courses from K to 12.) Elections depend upon narratives, too, and this much should be obvious. Candidates tell stories about what they will do, what the city, county, state, or nation should do. And they get elected based on how well the narratives they tell, and the narratives told about them, thrive.

Science, however, is also all about the narrative. The scientific method requires experimentation, precisely because it wishes to produce useful narratives, which describe things that appear to be constant and accurate to a standardized human perception of the world. We've long idealized experimentation as the heart and soul of science, but it is the narrative constructed around the experiment—the story—that makes science available and useful to the whole of humanity. Newton did extensive experimentation on the effects of gravity, but it is the apocryphal narrative of his apple that sticks in the collective memory.

Religion, too, of course. If you're a skeptic, you believe that religion is a set of narratives created by man to explain the inexplicable. If you're a believer, it's that God delivered narratives to man in order to help us imagine the unimaginable. Either way, the story is foremost.

And so on. Mathematics consists of narratives about abstract concepts, presented in a symbolic language. Art often uses a literal narrative to communicate a figurative narrative, and identifying that figurative narrative is part of (if not most of) the joy of artistic endeavor.

Our economy, and therefore the quality of life we enjoy, depends almost entirely upon the narratives we tell: the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell the rest of the world, and the ones told and believed by every other human being on the planet. Belief, or conviction, the state of holding a narrative as truth, is the most important force in our world. Affecting beliefs is a huge human responsibility, as is adopting them.

In our modern world, ideas spread very quickly. Narratives shared through the Internet are often adopted and propagated very quickly, with the potential for drastic change to the human universe literally overnight.

It is very important that we exercise wisdom in sharing narratives of any sort, and rigorously examine the narratives we have chosen to accept.