UCLA's Institute For Pure And Applied Mathematics, Conference On Mathematics Of Social Learning, January 9, 2014
- Are you a Luddite?
- I would like to use machines right, not break them. As the last lecturer said the internet reflects the social world as it is, but also changes it. I think the internet can teach us how not to organize our social lives.
- How not to?
- You know Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Dr. Frankensein robs graves and scavenges body parts, puts them together and is horrified by the result. Each part individually is good, but the whole is an abomination.
- They don't fit together. Vary in color, texture, age, and joined by sutures or scar tissue.
- But the monster is alive. Each part gives something to the others. Were you at the lecture yesterday morning? They'd done a study on telephone contacts. People were in two categories. Some kept mostly the same contacts for years. Others kept some contacts, mostly family, but were often adding and removing contacts too. At the end of any one month about 40% of their contacts were no longer there. For both groups, the number of contacts remained stable, about 25. People were constantly, day by day, adding and subtracting.
- They were operating a gift economy, the term from anthropology for a community of people who give gifts to each other not expecting a direct return, but expecting because they stay within the community, eventually being on the receiving end. If I send a contact a picture of the sunset, I am giving up my immediate enjoyment of that sunset, at least for a few moments, in order to make a gift of it to my contact. If keeping the contact does not eventually lead to a return gift, a new contact is looked for. That is what the numbers mean.
- What about the kept contacts?
- Even more interesting. Did you hear the afternoon lecture?
- The social behavior that we now have recorded and accessible to us on the internet is both natural and artificial.
- The computer scientist had studied Facebook. What appears in the timeline of each member depends on decisions made by Facebook selecting a limited number of posts out of hundreds or thousands friends send out. In fact, the computer scientist's colleague had just been given the job by Facebook to set the rules for making that decision. What is decided to be shown affects how members use the network. Two things follow from this. First, using Facebook you lose the freedom to choose who to make a gift of your updates, and the resulting stream is alien to you. It includes return gifts from everyone in your gift economy, but put together in a way you can't account for.
- But Facebook can.
- Consider what Facebook is doing. Facebook is like Dr. Frankenstein, putting together a monster out of the gifts made to us in return for our generousity. What we see has life and order to it, which Facebook can account for, but to us is ugly and arbitrary.
- I don't think many Facebook users would agree with that statement. But I see your point.
- The second thing that follows from the selection is that while we use the social media site to make things to give, the social media site is taking things away. The site is editing, filtering, channelling our lives. Now what if that, Facebook's activity as a site, not our response to it, is a model of how we should be living our offline lives?
- Editing and filtering?
- Yes. A friendship, if it is real, is continually making and receiving gifts. Your wife walking in a room is a gift, her sitting down is a gift. So what really goes on...
- That's a marriage, not friendship.
- Let's say "intimate relationship". Ugly words. The wife and husband don't actively make gifts. Rather they make demands on each other, on each other's attention. They do what Facebook and the other online social networks do, they filter. They control who sees who, who does what, when, and how.
- I don't know what world you live in. That's not marriage.
- Marriage, or friendship is like the development of science. The mutual respect of scientists selects out who they take seriously and whose hypotheses to develop and test. In the same way husband and wife, friend and friend have selected each other out to control the direction they will take together in searching to make the best life together.
- Friendship and marriage are research projects. Facebook is a Frankenstein electrifying a billion monsters, one for each of its members. What next?
- Like in the Frankenstein novel, a warning. You heard it in the lecture: statistics from Facebook already allow us to predict when a "relationship" will break up. In Afghanistan, according to another participant in the conference, the US Government is taking advantage of its total access to records of private communications to profile possible terrorists by patterns of internet and telephone use.
- You think the government will use the new way of gathering information against us?
- Why wouldn't it? But I wanted to return to the observation that what they, the computer scientists were studying is something partly natural and partly artificial, and that the artificiality becomes absorbed in the "natural" world which responds and adapts to the artificial. The warning: modified behavior is more easily predicted.
- You think we will become monsters.
- This guy from the Santa Fe Institute talked about his new way of computer modeling of prices. In the usual supply and demand model, it is unknown how a price is arrived at. There is no central auctioneer asking an audience, who will pay 100? who'll pay 50? who'll pay 5? His solution was to consider prices private. Each buyer and seller starts with an idea of how much he wants or will pay, then looks at what other people are selling at or paying, finds out if they are successful, and adjust his own sale or buy price accordingly. Prices evolve individually.
- I missed the lecture. What happened when he ran the model?
- Stable price arose. At the buffet I told him that he was only partly right. Prices were set individually, but they partially evolved. Mostly they were set by a social expectation.
- How do you know that?
- That's what he asked me. I said from experience buying and selling old watches between other dealers in Europe. Prices willing to be paid by shopkeepers, for example, were three times what they paid. If the buyer wouldn't or couldn't pay, price would be lowered if there was a need for cash, otherwise there would simply be no transaction.
- Like in the housing market after the 2008 crash. Very few people were buying. People offered property for sale only when they had to. What did the economist say?
- His father, a furniture dealer, demanded 40%. He said, come to lunch, we'd talk.
- I didn't go.
- Why not?
- Don't be offended, but I don't like the people here. This is not my world.
- What is your world?
- I don't know what you think of the theory of evolution. I'm of the opinion that it is something like the theory of mysteriously stable supply and demand. The economic model works a little, but only because of stability provided by social characteristics of human nature. The same is true of evolution. For random adaptations to be selected, and evolve in one direction, they have to at each step be advantageous. That is almost impossible to believe. The mathematician Berlinski gives the example of evolving a paper cup, starting with a tube, and later adding the bottom disc. The tube isn't much use for drinking. Compare what happens in the computer simulation of evolving individual prices. Two things are necessary for stable prices to result: attachment to the path already set out on, the process of looking for a price, remembering what has happened and continually readjusting trial price in response, and the expectation that you will be able to succeed. That is, that you know there is such a thing as a right price. The theory of evolution fulfills neither condition, neither requires keeping to the same path nor has a known end looked for.
- That's the stuff of our world. I asked, what is yours?
- Rousseau wrote that society becomes corrupt when people act in response to other people's demands so as to get power over them, rather than do what they know by personal experience will be good for themselves. In the natural life are both requisites for successful evolution: the individual path stuck to and continually referenced, and known goal: happiness. The theories of evolution and market stability describe individuals responding to other individuals and the world without the continual reference to past experience and individually known goal, in other words, are built on the model of corrupt human behavior.
- You think we are impersonal and put ambition ahead of being happy?
- I do.
- But you profit by the work we do.
- Nietzsche wrote that certain people were drones: they work but don't reproduce, don't themselves play a part in evolution.
- Consider the so-called problem of free will. In scientific research, social convention keeps scientists to a path and sets the end. Following the path, however, each scientist can go at his own rate and make some deviations of direction. To that extent the scientist can be an individual, while participating in the social project. An individual develops habits, and adapt his habit to the circumstances of the world as they change in response to the habits he allow himself to practice. As an individual, the scientist does exactly what he wants to do. As a scientist, however, he sees it is possible, given exact knowledge of his habits and circumstances, to predict his every thought and action. He finds this possibility disturbing. How you ever wondered why?
- He's not free to do anything he wants if he has to do what we can predict he will do.
- But why would he want to do anything he doesn't want to do?
- That's an interesting question. Yet I for one, if I examine myself, do want to do, at least potentially, what I don't want to do. I want to be free to do anything, and then choose to do what I want.
- Unconstrained by dedication to individual path or to individually determined end? You see the implication? Wanting to be able to do what we don't want explains the appeal of the unreal models of evolution and supply-demand economy. The freedom to do what we don't want is precisely the freedom to accept the demands of social convention, to find out what other people want and then do it to obtain power over them.
- Why are evolution* and market economics accepted despite being obviously inapplicable to what we know about the world?
- Money and power. Educational and journalistic institutions accept the theories. They are orthodoxy.
- Why are these theories the one's you can make money and get power from supporting? Why have they, and not others, become the orthodoxy?
- They play a role in political and economic developments, propaganda campaigns or campaigns of war.
- As Darwin was for the Nazis, or market economics for financial speculators. As the equally unsupported economic theories of communism was for the Soviet Union. But why do scientists and economists, secure in their positions, asking nothing from political movements and campaigning for no war, still support them? Is it something in the theories themselves? What is it in the theories that is so attractive?
- You tell me.
- We like each other.
- Yes, I hope so.
- People like each other. Animals like each other. Plants seem to like each other's company. We find stone with stone, air with air, water with water. "Like likes like". In nature it is the rule. People like each other, and want each other to like them. Do you agree?
- Of course.
- Do you think people want to go on liking each other and being liked by them?
- And if at the cost of liking and being liked, they could have more children survive and make more sales? When your children fail, mine have better chance of success. When you set the wrong price and don't make a sale, I have a better chance to make one. I have an interest in your failure. Previously I liked you. Maybe now I don't want to go on liking you. Imagine we are constructing a computer model of these choices.
- I like you. I want to go on liking you. What happened to us to make it possible not to want to go on liking?
- We get corrupted. Once it hurt us to buy and sell for profit, to speak to a man at a coffee shop and the next day pretend we'd never spoken. What was once unnatural, becomes second nature.
- I think you're right. Any idea, kind of education can teach these behaviors. Torture people enough, any regular violence, they become selfish, will betray their best friend. We don't need to look to evolution, or market economics. We can't blame modern life on these theories.
- Modern life is full of torturers. Parents, teachers, lovers, employers. A never ending list.
- So why, once we have already become selfish, are we attracted to these theories?
- Say I am a monkey and make an ugly face. I scare you, another monkey, with my anger. I keep doing it, you keep running away. In time I am the boss, you are the servant. Roles have been set. We call the setting of roles by repetition by the name "ritual". We've been through this.
- We have.
- We like each other. We like liking each other, and want to go on liking each other. But we get angry and afraid, repeat situations in which some of us are angry and some afraid, social roles are constructed. Do we still like each other? Do master and servant like each other?
- They feel safe.
- Rituals provide security. That is why they work, why they are a stable human social behavior. Fear and anger plus repetition produce security.
- And that goes into our model.
- Right. Now what about our theories of evolution and supply and demand market price? What do these two theories have in common?
- We said evolution works by chance mutation, prices are set by a process unknown to the individuals participating. The result of the chance and unknown processes is a stable structure of unequal roles.
- Why unequal?
- Because your having worse children allows me to have better, your failure at setting prices enables my success. There is no question that the Nazis at times justified their killings with Darwin's theory, that the communists used their own fantastic economic theory to justify their own killings. There are known cases where the theories were explicitly appealed to, directly instituting ritual, like the training of mass executioners by the Nazis. But I think this is a clear case of the, call it, promiscuity of myths. Where existing rituals need only be given the direction to be repeated, any myth of ritual form can function, it need not be the ritual that originally formed the behavior. Any myth with the structure of ritual, dying and rebirth, will do. The ancient Greeks, for example, seem to have had no trouble accepting alternative version of their myths, to even have had no trouble in composing them themselves.
- Then market economics and evolution simply reinforce our existing rituals that accomplish the unnatural remolding of character. We ask now, Why should we be altruistic? Instead of asking, Why hurt people we like? But even if these theories do not form the original rituals, the expectation that they remain in currency is very great. According to Berlinksi even such a famously independent man as Noam Chomsky was skeptical of evolution before later falling silent on the subject.
- We are already selfish. Nevertheless, we need the theory to issue reminders?
- We haven't completely gotten rid of our liking for people. We like our families, a little. Though it is not unusual for us that family members keep their possessions separate and demand payment for any exchange. It is not unusual for us that family members feel under obligation to pay attention to each other in an equal way, when it should be obvious that if affection is real it can't be other than inevitable and immediate.
- So we have our university professors and politicians and journalists going on and on about evolution and supply and demand. Every time they mention these theories we are not directly reminded to be selfish, we don't think about that. Rather we are recalled to the self forgetfulness that must be there in our economic and personal lives if we are going to continue as we are.
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination.” -John Keats
- Let's go back to evolution. Go through the argument again.
- Darwin's theory of evolution is natural selection of chance mutations. When we breed dogs for height we make sure other possibly advantageous qualities aren't given a chance to develop: not health, age, color, shape, strength, only height. We have difficulty imagining how in nature the equivalent conditions, a substitute for the breeder, could be found. A long neck is good for a giraffe, but so are many other qualities. Another problem is that a greater height and longer neck will come at the cost of other useful qualities. Hip problems, breathing problems for example are common with certain breeds of dogs. The dog breeder puts together tall dogs with tall dogs and ignores the problems, but it's hard to see what nature without the interference of a breeder could do about it. Another problem is the complexity that has to be maintained and extended for the development of specialized organs. For this to happen, useful changes must not interfere with existing structures, rather they have to extend the potential of existing structures. Hard to see how this could happen by chance.
- OK. You've said chance selection of random change in evolution, the spontaneous organization of the free market out of impersonal economic transactions are examples of myth and ritual. I don't really get that.
- The Guru brought over last night a girl who told me she'd prostituted herself the night before.
- You're living with a prostitute?**
- For the time being. I asked her if she was a prostitute, and she said she wasn't. She is living her life, living out the myth popularized by singers whose message is Be who you are are, everyone is as good as everyone else, find your power.
- Where is her power? Did she tell you?
- She told me. It's power over men. She was extremely defensive, she took everything I said to be an evasion or an attack. Her life was a struggle for power. She had to give up all other human qualities, sincerity, kindness, etc in the pursuit of being who she'd decided she was. At least for the time being. She was young, wanted to apply for film school.
- She was evolving herself into role like the dog breeder guides the evolution of his breeds.
- Yes. The politician does the same, saying or doing anything to get and keep the job.
- Evolution then is modeled not only on myth, but also on everyday social behavior?
- Lewis Mumford said that physical technology grew out of the historically prior social technology, the complex hierarchies of Middle Eastern empires.
- How does this connect with what you said about ritual?
- The politician, the prostitute, in every act of gaining and solidifying power passionately attempts to make up for the loss of personal alternatives, looking ahead to the power of newly established social relations.
- If the theory of evolution is merely a clumsy translation of social technology of ritual, how does evolution really happen? Or do you deny evolution altogether?
- Let's try to imagine a kind of social technology that could support evolution.
- Sure, if you can.
- We need to be able to get rid of the breeder artificially limiting which good adaptations are to persist, and we need to protect complexity. We have technology which does this.
- What technology is that?
- When we see something as beautiful we have taken a step back. We've stopped responding to immediate demands of the world, we see a limited part of the world and feel ourselves to be safe with it. Within that safety of defined relation of ourselves to the world, small changes can be allowed that do not imperil stability of relation, and which, if they too can establish a new, safe, beautiful relation to the world, will be acquired and take their functioning place in the complex world we already live in.
- Lost me.
- We we speak, we have confidence we will be understood and in the words we've already learned how to use. That is the background of beauty and complexity. We add one word on top of another, without knowing the end of the sentence. When the sentence works out to be a good one, a beautiful one, we have maintained complexity and evolved a bit our knowledge.
- Do you mean that individual animals learn to remake the world into something beautiful, in which condition evolution then can occur?
- If we assume we living things have something inherent in them similar to our conscious endeavor to create and live with beauty, evolution works***. Something like what we do when we use language takes the place of the breeder.
- But, this is difficult. Do animals take a step back like you say we do when we speak? Do they have a sense of beauty? Do they in fact act on the world to make it beautiful?
- I think it is possible that any form of life can identify different basic kinds of relation to the world without using language as we do in naming some things beautiful and others ugly. I think it is possible that adaptation and evolution could proceed with beauty, with making the world beautiful as a priority.
- Evolution may still be seen as a struggle for existence, but beauty may be its necessary condition.
* Natural selection of chance mutations
** See the story The Wife, The Writer, The Guru...
*** Complexity respected, a single path of adaption pursued, disadvantages taken into account along the way. In the example of language production: 1. Complexity respected: retained as the motive behind speaking. 2. Single path of adaptation: the course of the sentence being produced. 3. Disadvantages dealt with: sentence direction alters as obstacles of meaning encountered. From outside, natural selection. From inside, random change plus this additional factor (reaching towards beauty) selecting between changes.
Evolution thus modified applies also to property relations. The chance acquisition of property, limited by the demands of beauty, and selective pressure of the claims of other people, yields something like anarchist economics.
For anarchist economics:
Property Is Silence
The Tools To Remake Our Lives
Further Reading: Einstein & Intellectual Physics
Summary Of The Argument:
1. Evolution of species out of individual chance mutation, and free market productivity out of de-individualized trades for profit, are two models of development that suggest a corresponding model of personal life. Individuals perform rituals, and these theories of communal or species development out of impersonal or chance behavior of individuals share the form of ritual.
2. Using our imaginations we are able to make models of the world. We see that in one particular kind of situation some particular kind of thing happens. Sometimes what happens is frightening. Once we have this knowledge of what frightens us we cannot easily forget it.
3. Our fear itself is fearful. Our fear can lead us in two directions. Either away from fear, in exploration of ways to change our circumstances so as to avoid the fearful consequences. Or towards fear, making it the basis of ritual. Ritual is a group enactment where fear is replaced by the security from knowing what to do while in our group performance. Ritual removes fear, overlaying, hiding from view conditions causing fear.
4. In ritual there is no limit to what we are willing to do to enact whatever is the conclusion of the performance. Ritual is violence against oneself, against one's individuality. It leaves you ripe for violence against others. When you have no sense of yourself you can have no sense of others, no sympathy with others; nothing stops you from violence against others who might be an obstacle to whatever order ritual might be establishing. Any chosen means is justified to reach the social end. Someone who choses the other direction, however, sees other people as help in the job of replacing fear with creative action. Such an individual can never use violence except in the extreme case of self defense. Such an individual does not aim at creating any fixed relation between people or aim at any fixed state of the world at all. For such an individual fear itself is deliberately to be avoided, therefore there can be no recourse to violence, the tool used to build a society of ritual on the basis of fear, the tool used to institutionalize fear.
5. A neuroscientist "thinks" that thinking is not real. How is it possible to think that thinking isn't happening? A neuroscientist thinks brain changes are his thinking. He thinks he doesn't have to pay attention to thinking. If he was an evolutionary biologist, instead of ignoring thinking he would think evolution was based on chance. If he was a free market economist he would think the only relation between people with regard to things was the search for profit. In each case human nature is denied for the sake of investigating a mechanical relation: economic, biologic, or species-historical. Neuroscientists, Darwinians, free-market economists are all thinking. And what they are thinking is that their own experience does not exist. Nature includes movement of a kind we cannot see, known to us intimately as thinking, that shares few characteristics with things we can see*. No less real is the movement which draws us to others, or which for a time draws species towards complexity. This denial of experience is only possible because what these thinkers are doing, when they do the thinking they deny doing, is the performance of ritual.
*See: It Just Happens