Signs

(Jesus) said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is…  You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?  Luke 12: 54-56 (NIV)

“You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Bob Dylan,  Subterranean Homesick Blues, (1965)

Separated by 2000 years, Jesus and Bob Dylan were on the same page. As they saw it, just as you and I are alert to what the skies have to say about impending changes in the weather, we can and should be attentive to signs of our times.

Where is humanity heading? Here is one (admittedly amateurish) forecast, focused on one sliver…leadership and power…  offered for your critique. It’s prompted in more-or-less equal parts by (1) the sequester,  (2) biologists’ fascination with the newly-emerging field of connectomics, and (3) social scientists’ ambition to model and forecast what societies will do next.

First, as we know all too well, the sequester is now in force. In the frame of earlier posts, it actually “made landfall instead of passing safely out to sea.” That wasn’t supposed to happen, and indicates that our leaders are losing control over their own political process. This was the subject of an interesting op-ed piece in this morning’s Washington Post: Why the people in power are essentially powerless, by Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment. Mr. Naim points out that the inability of the President and the Congress to sort out our fiscal problems is a symptom of a more widespread malaise facing public- and private-sector leaders worldwide. He suggests that power is fleeting today because (1) there’s more competition for it, (2) the Internet is democratizing and empowering the world’s peoples at the expense of their nominal leaders, (3) middle-class populations are exploding as the world’s poorest climb out of poverty (and that newly-middle-class is impatient and better-informed), (4) people are more mobile, and (5) people are accordingly growing more dissatisfied with and intolerant of authoritarianism. [Hopefully this taste will encourage you to read the fuller article, which you’ll note is in turn excerpted from a book Mr. Naim has just authored.]

Second, biologists are developing a new ability to map the neural connections in the nervous system. This isn’t just your grandfather’s phrenology. This is connectomics… the use of high-end neural imaging and histological techniques to develop brain activity maps and figure out how brains work… essentially looking at the brain’s wiring diagram, and understanding what pieces of this puzzle are inherent and what are developed by experience. Such science might lead to insight about connectopathies… dysfunction in such brain-wiring that might lead to problems as diverse as Alzheimers and bi-polar disorder. For an eloquent and engaging discussion you might try the TED lecture by Jeff Lichtman of Harvard.

Third, social scientists are hoping to model entire societies and their behavior, per a session at the just-concluded 2013 AAAS annual meeting concluded just two weeks ago in Boston, as reported in an article in The Economist. Here’s one of the more interesting bits:

The boldest idea of the session, though, came from Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Dr Helbing is one of the leaders of the FuturICT project, the aim of which is to create a general computer model of society.

As Dr Helbing puts it: “We understand the universe much better than we understand our own societies.” But physicists do not understand the universe by tracking every atom within it. They do so by devising and combining laws (gravity, thermodynamics and so on) that each describe part of the system. Similarly, a model of society would not aim to simulate in detail every human being on the planet. Rather, by combining smaller, more specific models… Dr Helbing hopes he or his successors will eventually be able to describe whole societies…

That is a wildly ambitious project, but there could be some useful staging posts on the way: predicting when people are likely to riot, for example, or modelling the breakdown of trust between banks and customers that causes financial crises. This really is Seldon[1] country, although Dr Helbing is quick to point out that a crystal ball is impossible. That is because the maths underlying complicated systems like societies are exquisitely sensitive to a model’s starting conditions. Small errors can quickly snowball to produce wildly different outcomes. But, decades hence, a kind of social weather forecasting that would make reasonably specific predictions, with a reasonable amount of confidence, over short periods may not be out of the question.

Mr. Naim’s work reinforces the speculation that appeared years earlier in this blog, that in the world of the future, top-down, command-and-control approaches to solving the world’s problems will become increasingly ineffective. This would be cause for concern if that power weren’t replaced by something more effective. Given our emerging capacity to understand how brains work… and how large groups of brains work… one candidate is a kind of wisdom of crowds or swarm intelligence. It’s likely as our traditional leaders lose power that it’s not so much evaporating as being spread around… transferred to the rest of us. In a democracy this should be welcomed, so long as you and I strive to (1) educate ourselves about the societal challenges we face, (2) build a spirit of cooperation, not animus, with one another, and (3) develop the noble character needed to make wise decisions for the greater long-term good of all.

A tall order, but worth the attempt.

 



[1] [1] [an Isaac Asimov fictional character who learned how to forecast group behavior and used his ability to save mankind]

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2 Responses to Signs

  1. Bill:-

    One of the things we have tried to do with CARRI is to develop a general framework for community functioning. We want to provide an overall fabric to which that specialists can bind modules for different parts of community life. We have encountered widely divergent opinions from specialists, so I’m glad to see an attempt such as Helbing’s.

    Two observations emerged from that development that are of importance here:

    1. We are living in a post-political age – one I call the Age of Influence. Our political activity reflects not power but rather the melding (or not) of the views of various constituencies. If you accept that, then the posturings of the political class in Washington – of both parties – are highly counterproductive, and are leading to a situation that resembles the Polish Sejm in the 17th and 18th centuries. All its members had virtually unlimited veto power. As a result, legislation was passed only after considerable compromise; and without compromise, nothing was passed. Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

    2. As you point out, we are in a transition away from a top-down decision-making model. However, for the foreseeable future, that means we will have to confront the dilemma of implementing decisions made “horizontally” (via peer-to-peer interactions) through “vertical” (hierarchical) organizations. Coupled with 1, this implies that solving the wicked problems facing us will be a long drawn-out process. And if the problems are truly wicked, I must admit that I’m pessimistic that the current crop of politicians is up to the task of solving them.

    • Thanks, John…insightful…and it prompts me to ask…would you be interested in submitting a guest post that expounds these views more fully and provides a bit more of the background of the CARRI work?

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