Posted tagged ‘science’

Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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The Strange Order of Things — A Book Review

November 25, 2019

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, by Antonio Damasio, Pantheon Books, 2018.
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I was initially attracted to this book, coming upon it in a bookstore, just by the title.

The strange order of things well describes my own sense of the world, and experiences in it.  I’m not sure whether this book necessarily reinforces my perception of the strangeness and mystery of our lives, but it does provide another way to approach looking at life on Earth.

Strange OrderThe author, Antonio Damasio, is a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy at the University of Southern California.  As that background might hint, this book is more of a work of scholarship than what would typically qualify as popular science reading material.  It is heavy going, at least for me, in many places, and seems intent on establishing the academic worth of the author’s ideas.

Homeostasis is all

The premise for all the book’s thought is the concept of “homeostasis.”  Most of us, if we remember high school biology, have a vague notion of what the term means.  Homeostasis, we were told, is about the ability of the body to maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in external, and internal, conditions.

A good example might be the actions our body takes to maintain our internal temperature of around 98.6 degrees F/37.0 degrees C.  Others could include glucose concentrations or calcium levels in the blood.  There is a narrow band of best fitness, and our body works towards those.  All of this is completely unconscious.  All animals keep themselves alive with the same mechanism.

Damasio takes the meaning and concept of homeostasis and broadens, deepens and heightens it a hundredfold on the basis of much recent scientific and philosophical work.

He then takes that omnipresent base of homeostasis and extends it eventually to human feelings, subjectivity and our consciousness, and the nature of cultures.

Damasio’s understanding of homeostasis is that it has “guided, without prior design, the selection of biological structures and mechanisms capable of not only maintaining life but also advancing the evolution of species….”

He goes on: “This conception of homeostasis, which conforms most closely to the physical, chemical, and biological evidence, is remarkably different from the conventional and impoverished conception of homeostasis that confines itself to the ‘balanced’ regulation of life’s operations.”  Our high school view of homeostasis is a narrow subset of the homeostasis Damasio is driving at.

So what exactly is Damasio’s concept?  In his view, homeostasis operated in ancient unicellular life forms back to the dawn of time, and in all the many intermediate life forms up to the present.  A nervous system, in the earliest creatures, was not necessary.  But it did require sensing and responding abilities, even down to the activity of chemical molecules in their membranes.  All in action to maintain the organism’s survival.

The homeostatic imperative

Damasio does not want to talk about maintaining the organism’s equilibrium or balance.  He wants to define homeostasis not as a neutral state but as a “homeostatic imperative” which projects and searches into the future as a basis for the organism’s well being today even on the chemical or molecular level.  Where is the best place to be to receive nutrients for that organism, for example.

Of course, for unicellular bacteria, there is no nervous system, but the evolution of life from those ancient beginnings depends, as we do, on homeostasis continuously casting about in time and space to increase the opportunities for survival of the organism. And not just bare survival, but:

“…Life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival, but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species.”

In fact, for Damasio, how genes, nervous systems, consciousness, mind, feelings and culture come to exist at all is the result of the restless, unceasing activity of this homeostatic principle.  Homeostasis and life in all its forms are inseparable.

Damasio’s description of the development of the necessary nervous systems for animals to begin directly sensing and mapping their environment put me into a bemused state.

The mysterious stuff of the universe

It is as if the mysterious stuff of the universe (like the old-fashioned aether or the new-fashioned dark matter, dark energy and the little bit we know*) draws towards it the homeostatic seeking of life.  Nervous systems begin to form. They stretch out their tendrils of vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell for what that specific modality is capable of perceiving (while leaving out a vast universe of what is for the moment unknowable through those senses).

It’s a little like the fable of the elephant and the blind men, if the elephant is n-dimensional and we blindly imagine that what we see and hear, and the ideas that derive from that, must be the entire nature of things.

But I digress….  Damasio develops his line of thought about what homeostasis has wrought as follows:

— Development of the genetic apparatus is not conceivable without homeostasis
— Genetic selection is guided by homeostasis
— The first cells develop
— Multicellular organisms arrive
— Nervous systems take form which enable better sensing of the “surround”
— Mapping of the environment through the senses occurs
— The creation of “images” based on that mapping allow refined homeostasis
— The activity of feelings connect to the homeostatic regime
— Subjectivity and mind become prominent
— Social and cultural interaction become another layer

This is a list I drew up with large gaps in its sequence (some may be simultaneous) and description, but this is the drift of what I glean from the book.

The function of feelings

Damasio’s description of the function of feelings I found quite interesting, although in the book I thought it was a bit jumbled, with discussion here, and then over there.  He does devote two chapters to it, however, called Affect and The Construction of Feelings.

I find this interesting because I “feel” (there’s that word) that my life is governed more by feelings (including sensations in my body) as a mode of discernment rather than by intellectual or purely rational processes.  (It could be that’s just me though….)

“Feelings portray the organism’s interior – the state of internal organs and of internal operations – and as we have indicated, the conditions under which images of the interior get to be made set them apart from the images that portray the exterior world.”

The experience of feeling translates the condition of underlying life directly into mental terms, as bad, good or unremarkable in the background.

“Spontaneous feelings signify the overall state of life regulation as good, bad or in between.  Such feelings apprise their respective minds of the ongoing state of homeostasis.”

And such feelings eventually result in social and cultural consequences in one direction, and influence endocrine, immune and nervous systems going inward.

Damasio asks the question, why should feelings feel like anything at all, pleasant or unpleasant?  Because, he says, they make a difference. They prolong and save lives.  “Feelings conformed to the goals of the homeostatic imperative and helped implement them by making them matter mentally to their owner….”

Am I conscious?

For Damasio, evidence of consciousness (if we really need to have that) is that we each have our own perspective.  Subjectivity and integrated experience make up consciousness.  The process of subjectivity relies on the building of a perspective for images (from all the senses) and the accompaniment of the images by feelings.  There is no one place in the brain where all this occurs.

“Mental states naturally feel like something because it is advantageous for organisms to have mental states qualified by feeling.”

Moving on to homeostasis and the nature of culture, we run into a major difficulty for the success of homeostasis at that level.  Homeostasis is inherently based in the individual organism, and culture is really about how to accommodate the competing, or at least different, wants and (homeostatic) needs of each individual.

We could take a look at the social insects, though, as Damasio points out.  “Their seemingly responsible, socially successful behavior is not guided by a sense of responsibility to themselves or others, or by a corpus of philosophical reflections on the condition of being an insect.  It is guided by the gravitational pull of their life regulation needs….”

But on the more human, conscious level, I can see an obvious role for the mechanisms of homeostasis in at least those arenas where “distributed cognition” might hold sway.  (The concept of distributed cognition rethinks the basic unit of cognition, expanding it beyond the skull to include the whole body, useful physical artifacts and technologies, and ultimately, groups of people.  Think of a team of people navigating a large ship.  Or a band playing a song.)

As is usual with my reviews, especially of books on complex subjects, I have barely skimmed the surface here of what Damasio describes, and may occasionally have simplified it beyond recognition.  There is much more to the book especially on feelings, consciousness and the nature of culture.  Those ideas and the book as a whole is well worth the time it takes to wade through the density of the text.

But let me leave it here with this final quote from Damasio from an early chapter on the human condition:

“Cultural homeostasis is merely a work in progress often undermined by periods of adversity. We might venture that the ultimate success of cultural homeostasis depends on a fragile civilizational effort aimed at reconciling different regulation goals.  This is why the calm desperation of F. Scott Fitzgerald — ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ — remains a prescient and appropriate way of describing the human condition.”

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*A footnote!

For some interesting articles on the current limits of what science knows about the universe:

We May Have to Wait for Post-Humans to Understand the Universe
The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics
Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries of the Strange Universe

Can Modern Human Beings Inhabit A Sustainable Environment?

April 4, 2015

Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem
by Jack Harich, System Dynamics Review, 2010, 37 pages
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Is it our nature as human beings that we must be so intractable and incapable of change, even against our best interest?

Must the culture to which we belong remain so bent on turning everything into commodities and markets that it becomes less and less possible to live in a decent, dignified way in a healthy world?

Is nature itself doomed by humans unable to get a grip on themselves, like addicts who repeat the same destructive patterns over and over again while constantly talking ineffectually about their plans to get better?

I’ve often wondered about these things, but rather pointlessly without any particular insight, as the world’s stresses mount. But I came across Jack Harich’s paper a while ago, and the analysis he makes of the situation from a systems perspective seemed to actually get at the real difficulties.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about the systems approach, but it does seem to be about the interdependence of things and events.  You can’t look at completely independent elements this way — but what do you know, the world does seem to be wholly interdependent, if not interpenetrating!

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking comes out of General Systems Theory as formulated by the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and 40s with application to everything from biology to cybernetics to the social sciences.

“Cybernetics” is almost a quaint term to me, probably undeservedly so.  But it seems to go along with images from the last century of revolving magnetic tapes on massive IBM computers, and 1970s talk about feedback loops.

But it is actually about information, in all its aspects, and how it changes and makes a difference in the world about us.  Witness all the gadgets and the distracted people.

And of course it can’t help but bring to my mind the book Psycho-Cybernetics, that wildly popular self-help book from the 1960s by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  (I can still see that cover.)

Actually Maltz’s field, although one might be snide about it, was instrumental in developing what the book tried to say: that only with a positive self-image can one strive towards goals worth having, and be able to correct one’s path along the way. In his experience, many of his patients still felt ugly after his surgical attempts to beautify them.  Although perhaps others benefited enough to pursue goals in life with a renewed self-confidence. He saw human behaviour as a negative feedback, cybernetic system.  (It seems to me, though, that self-clarity is just as important as self-image in any such system.)

This can only be peripheral to Jack Harich’s more academic considerations in his article on change resistance and environmental sustainability, although his approach is all about correcting a path that leads nowhere.  And maybe humanity is coming to have a self-image problem….

The situation is that after at least 30 or 40 years of well-intentioned effort, humans have failed to move towards living sustainably on this planet.  The science of environmental sustainability is unable to solve its central problems. Harich proposes a new paradigm, a new way to think about the problems.  But first we need to understand the “old” way.

The Old Paradigm

He identifies the old paradigm as focusing on “proper coupling” as the central problem to solve. Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. For example, if you never got hungry you would starve to death…. ”

“In the environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.”

He notes that in 1972 the publication of The Limits to Growth brought the problem of environment sustainability to the world’s attention and defined the problem as how to devise economic and ecological sustainability that could last far into the future.  How can the ecological and economic systems be properly coupled? More elaborations of coupling mechanisms were proposed such as “a broad natural capital depletion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of ecological tariffs.”

In 2007, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encouraged governments to create incentives to mitigate environmental problems.  Another way to promote proper coupling.

The New Paradigm of Change Resistance

Harich recounts a discussion years ago over a difficult problem with a young engineer from the U.K., who suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from every angle and still are stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction.  Find it, and the problem becomes more solvable, he says.

So to Harich, change resistance is that missing abstraction.  The term describes the tendency of a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of forceful measures to change that behavior. The main feature of this is that the status quo represents an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change.  And the status quo today, as Harich points out, is an unsustainable world.

When anyone attempts to solve sustainability problems, the system maintains its balance by automatically increasing the barriers to change.

He proposes decomposing difficult social problems into two more workable sub-problems: 1) overcoming change resistance, and 2) achieving proper coupling — that is linking proper consequences to actions, as in universal suffrage or the dangers of smoking tobacco. (His analysis depends on having a relatively democratic society.  Unfortunately, the democratic features of the developed world are also increasingly in question.)

For sustainability, there is obviously massive change resistance.  This indicates, Harich says, an implicit goal of the system in which we find ourselves. He identifies a process of “Classic Activism” which has been long used by citizen groups to solve problems of the common good that governments are not addressing.

Most environmental literature, including The Limits to Growth and the IPCC assessment reports can be seen as part of the Classic Activism of finding the proper practices; telling people the truth about the problem and proper practices; and exhorting, inspiring and bargaining with people and groups to get them to support the proper practices.

The Process of Classic Activism Fails

Harich describes how while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has failed to adequately address the global environmental sustainability problem.  His diagrams of the feedback loops at play are fascinating.  (Check out Figure 3 on page 45 in pages 35-72 of his article.)

He says classic activists don’t see the feedback mechanism of systemic change resistance or assume it is only a minor issue, easily solved by overcoming individual change resistance.

He cites an interesting table from Donella Meadows on places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness.  At the low end are playing around with subsidies, taxes and standards, moving to the higher leverage items of addressing the goal of the system, and even transcending paradigms.

In his model of the process of Classic Activism and its failures, there is no discussion of why social agents are motivated to solve problems and also to resist solving problems.  It’s just how the loops function.

Basic to his discussion is the “common good” as the mixture of “industrial production, social factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all living people and their descendents.” Hirach writes, “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot.”  [ His emphasis.] He goes on: “Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it and all sorts of twaddle.”  (Twaddle, I’m sure, is a technical cybernetic-type word….)

But “deception” is a defined term, meaning the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true, not out of malice necessarily but as a way to achieve the goal of resisting change.  Thus deception is an objective term which describes a certain kind of observed behaviour in Hirach’s model, and which serves to play the largest role in political decision making.

Wakeup Call Catastrophes

He observes that most environmental progress is made piecemeal as a result of some “wakeup call catastrophe” such as the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole or acid rain or the Love Canal. “…Reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late.”

As Harich sees it, the main problem for Classic Activism is that change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located within individual agents.

Getting at the Root Cause

The root causes usually identified as important in hampering environmental sustainability such as population growth, economic inequality, lack of cooperation and maladapted values are not the deepest root causes of inability to change.  They are only intermediate and pseudo root causes to Harich.

Harich warns that what he will present as possible solutions “may appear impossible.”  Such impossibilities as universal suffrage and the end of slavery as an institution could be considered similar.

The modern corporation can be viewed as a kind of life form, following the same principles of behaviour that genetic life forms do.  He cites an abundance of literature showing that large for-profit corporations are “now the dominant life form in the biosphere.”

The Goal of the Dominant Life Form on the Planet

WEFstrip

The corporations’ goal of maximizing profits is mutually exclusive with the goal of Homo sapiens to “optimize quality of life for those living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we depend for life.”

This is identified as the root cause of “improper coupling.”

Harich asks us to conceive of the modern corporation being re-engineered to be a trusted servant of Homo sapiens, which historically was the original idea.

The new re-engineered goal would be serving our species as its highest priority, “by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter,” both in general and for specific outputs of the corporation.  Goal achievement would be measured by contribution to a sustainable quality of life index.  Others have already done much work on such an index, Harich says.

“Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved.  A negative amount means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized.  Over 100 percent indicates expectations were exceeded.  The index would be calculated by each company as part of normal accounting.”

This is one suggested approach and will require further experimentation and refinement.  Harich says, for example, instead of an index something called the Triple Bottom Line could be used.

“The new goal must be as simple, unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profit maximization.”

Corporation 2.0

He calls this Corporation 2.0 and says it could be introduced on a gradual basis over a couple of decades.  Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens, would now benefit the new corporations.

“Imagine what it would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem as they have worked in the past to not solve it.”

So all seems to depend on redesigning the modern corporation — and Harich expects “strenuous resistance from the corporate life form to loss of dominance.”

So then he goes on to ask what is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign?

“The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken, or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form.”

The corporations’ have promulgated two high-impact beliefs to further their goal: 1) corporations are good and essential to society’s wellbeing, and 2) growth is good because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock market are the best indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.

Harich says both points are only half-true.  It is only the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently defined.  And GDP doesn’t measure quality of life.  Serious disasters automatically raise the GDP as more is spent to reconstruct, for instance.  And the stock market is a kind of con game.

High Deception Effectiveness

But how to overcome the high “deception effectiveness” behind systemic change resistance?

Harich suggest pushing “on the related high leverage point of general ability to detect manipulative deception.”  This might be done by more and better education on how to detect common fallacies (see end of this post for an example); independent political truth rating organizations such as FactCheck.org; corporate environmental responsibility ratings; and the use of quality of life and sustainability indexes.

Unfortunately, the current ability to detect manipulative deception is very low.  But if it should ever start to rise, “deception effectiveness” will then start to fall, and the corporations’ two high-impact beliefs will begin to lose credibility.

Hirach points out that worst historic excesses of dictators, kings, warlords and other tyrants were eventually, in a way now intuitively obvious, reduced by the addition of the voter feedback loop.

“This could also be called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.  Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?”

*       *      *

In some ways, Harich’s analysis in systems-speak is stating the obvious.  But his approach does have the advantage of providing of a more-or-less objective means of detailed analysis of all the feedback loops that govern our way of life.

In his model, you can add or modify a feedback loop, and observe in a verifiable, repeatable way what kind of impact it might make on the whole system.  It is a quite detailed, technical representation that one should read his paper to appreciate.

You can read more on Jack Harich’s site about the sustainability problem at Thwink.org.

And finally, here is a summation of the Truth Test as presented by Robert Gowans and included in Harich’s article as a table:

“Table 3. The truth test

1. What is the argument?
2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on: Is this truth or deception?

By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time it takes to hear or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.”

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Note on cartoon source:

From Marc Roberts Cartoons