Thursday, January 9, 2014


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.
- Why?
- 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?
- Yes.
- The social behavior that we now have recorded and accessible to us on the internet is both natural and artificial.
- Meaning?
- 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 only partly 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.
- And?
- 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.