°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Before continuing with the issue of cosmography, let's briefly digress so I can elaborate on this. The term "post-normal science" was coined by Silvio O. Funtowicz and Jerome R. Ravetz in papers as early as 1991. I'm thinking about those two quite a bit, since for my Eco-Ec class I'm authoring some metadata for Encyclopedia of Earth under Dr. Funtowicz supervision. (I'm summarizing their 1994 paper "The Worth of a Songbird: Ecological Economics as a Post-Normal Science", the PDF of which you can download here) In their articulation, post normal science is contrasted with 'normal science' (as defined by Thomas Kuhn), the latter of which is generally dogmatic in its framework for problem-solving. Scientific disciplines have 'canonized' methodological toolboxes that are to be used in the discovery of scientific truths by 'professionals' or 'experts' trained in that particular field. The authors propose that scientific research has been conducted in two general categories: "curiosity-motivated" research and "mission-oriented" research (which don't have to be mutually exclusive). Post-normal science is neither of these, but yet still aims to share certain methods and intentions with both of them. Rather, post-normal science is issue (problem) driven. The key concept here is that it is issue-DRIVEN, as opposed to "oriented" or "motivated". This could imply a useful semantical distinction; that the common problems in post-normal sciences (like ecological economics) are the driving forces behind 'research and development'. Thus R & D is propelled or fueled by the need to articulate and solve problems, instead of being "drawn" or "oriented" by an imagined goal in the future - i.e. R & D does not have an 'agenda' by which it is guided in order to meet certain specifications. This ties in to the emphasis Funtowicz and Ravetz place on the need to properly acknowledge the multitude of uncertainty present in our epistemologies - we especially need to recognize this as it applies to knowledge about the functioning & 'cybernetics' of ecological systems, ergo our abilities to predict ecological events and make appropriate policy decisions.
Hmm. Okay, with that said, let's loopback to thinking about cosmography with some Buckyscripture.
This excerpt is from the conclusion to Chapter 2 ("Humans in Universe") of Critical Path
"The British Empire was commanded from the British Isles by great business venturers - the world men who ruled the world's oceans. The British Isles were found to be the most easily defendable shipbuilding bases and were conveniently positioned to rule the whole waterfront of all the European customers of the venturer's Oriental booty. Observing so many ships loaded with so many British sailors (shanghaied out of the British pubs), the world came to identify history's most successful world-outlaw organization as "the British Empire".
This was the first empire of man to occur after we knew that the Earth was a sphere. A sphere is a mathematically finite, omnisymmetrical, closed system. A sphere is finite unity.
As we described in our Introduction, Thomas Malthus, professor of political economics of the East India Company College, was the first economist ever to receive all the vital statistics and economic data from a closed-system world. Once the world is conceived of as a sphere - a finitely closed system - there was no longer an infinite number of possibilities, such as accompanied the misconception of the infinitely extended flat-out world. In an infinite world, with its infinity of possibilities, praying was felt to be "worthwhile."
Because Earth had been discovered by its high-seas masters to be a closed and finite system, the great pirate venturers who controlled the seas took their scientists around the world to discover and disclose to them its exploitable resources. Only because the Earth constituted a closed system could the scientists inspect, in effect, all the species, and only thus was Charles Darwin able to develop the closed-system theory of "evolution of species." Such a theory could not have existed before that. It would have ad to include dragons and sea serpents. All the people in all the previous open-edged empires lived in a system within whose infinity anything could happen or exist. Paganism (or peasantism) wasn't illogical. Geometrically speaking, the pagans could have an infinite number of gods. There were also an infinite number of chances of upsetting the local pattern, which was a most satisfying idea if it happened that the individual didn't like the prevailing local pattern.
It seems strange that we were not taught about the historical, philosophical, and economic significance of the foregoing transition from an open-flat to a closed-sphere world system. Because the churches were strong and the great pirates wished to obscure both their monopoly of riches of the now limited system and their grand world ocean strategy for its control, the significance of the concept of a closed world system was popularly unrealized. The power structure and its patronized educational systems "let well enough alone."
Monday, February 16, 2009
Professor Martin’s anecdotal gem of his late-night, wine-infused conversation with David Sloan Wilson and (who was the other guy? Some equally formidable transdisciplinarian, no doubt…) encouraged me to re-approach the viability of Darwinian evolution as a “universal blueprint” applicable beyond the substrate of organic life. Martin revealed that a fundamental thought-engine for these dudes is the informal hypothesis that everything in the universe can be explained by something approximating Darwin’s theory of natural selection. To paraphrase Martin, “THIS is the question that these guys are asking” - implying that when these guys get together and reach the second or third bottle of wine, Symposium-style, it’s this million-dollar proposal that gets verbalized one way or another.
While reviewing the ideas of Dennett and - by proxy - Dawkins, I was skeptical of the practice of applying the biological terminology of taxonomy and phylogeny to cultural and social structures. Although I myself am a lover of the plasticity of language and the “play” it allows, I was uncomfortable with the feeling that these figures of speech were perhaps intended as more than metaphor. No doubt, the ontological stratum occupied by human culture - where cultural transmission takes place - is indeed a complex adaptive system of SOME sort, but it is inherently more complex than the stratum of biotic life alone, (* I've re-worked this thought, see Addendum below...) Indeed, it is from the latter substrate that the occasion for the former arises. When we talk about the process of evolution — what we are talking about is the algorithmic transmission of qualia - of kind. We are also de facto talking about another process that variably collides with or catalyzes this forward-branching progression… the process of “selection”, which can perhaps be understood from another angle as any instance wherein the perpetuation of a kind of thing is “allowed”. There is no doubt that a process of this sort is revealed by the unfolding of cultural history and the transmission of cultural representations. The articulation of a field of memetics is one attempt to designate a scientific paradigm equipped to analyze the “evolution of ideas”, where ideas and their transmission are compared haphazardly to genes and heredity. It is clear to me that memetics is still in the phase of establishment, and we should all work with that in mind.
So, Darwin’s idea applied directly to cultural transmission — all I’m saying is not so fast. It's more complex than that. Perhaps this is a straw man argument and perhaps everyone is disciplining themselves to be duly cautious. To be clear, an open, interdisciplinary dialectic is precisely what is needed.
This all being said, perhaps I can move on to the point of this ramble. Martin’s story at the end of class seemed to be just the right combination of whimsical and profound - I effortlessly found myself playing with the tipsy provocation that had been central to the anecdote. And I decided to engage in a thought experiment where I tried to take the process of natural selection as far back as possible. So before humans and human culture there were social primates, then further back in time there were some mammals, and before that some vertebrates, then finally we get down to a hypothetical point where all earthlings were single-celled organisms. And the way we got to that point (it gets blurry here because this is missing-link territory) was - as DSW offers - something like multiple stages of grouping together of things - atoms, molecules, proteins - that were for myriads of chemical and physical reasons attracted to each other. And at some point groups of proteins were aggregating to make DNA, and then those grouped together to become chromosomes, and then those chromosomes grouped together, too, etc. When considering the idea of “chemical evolution” (thanks to Wilfried from Socialfiction!), I realized that natural selection, viewed in retrograde like this, simply can’t begin with biological selection. When did biological evolution begin, really? Perhaps a process of chemical selection at certain instances graduated to a new “operating system” of algorithms, say for example when proteins figured out how to replicate themselves. But to believe in natural selection itself as being an ex nihilo phenomenon seems completely hypocritical for someone who means to truly sip the kool-aid that delivers the epistemological acid that Dennett speaks of. Isn’t to posit that “evolution” started somewhere - to look for an ultimate origin - just a mirror image of the teleological mistake? What we call “evolution” is perhaps itself an emergent phenomena built on the foundation of even more fundamental forms of “selection”, at the chemical and even atomic levels.
-Monday, March 2-
In response to several comments from friends, I just want to rework a strand of thought in this essay - that regarding the question of a difference in complexity between the substrate of biological evolution and that of cultural evolution. Feedback is much appreciated!
...I feel like I’m eating my words about memetic evolution being “more complex” than genetic evolution. I think I articulated it carelessly, but it truly has made a great jumping-off point for arguement. Indeed, cultural evolution is physically encompassed by biological constraints (human bodies and minds). And - as I’ve said myself before when discussing economies and ecosystems - in terms of potential outcomes and arrangements, a system can’t be more complex than the system which contains it (this is essentially the law of fractal-invariance…) For example, our economy can’t be workably predicated on the notion of infinite growth, because infinite economic growth (which is ipso facto the transformation of natural capital) isn’t possible within a finite, mostly closed system (our planet).
I think the error I may have made involved using ‘complex’ as a descriptor where I should have said ‘complicated’. Relative simplicity is not necessarily a measure of complexity. For example, the abstract board game “Go” - a two-player game played on a gridded board - is parametrically incredibly simple; it essentially has two rules. The simple rules and design of Go allow for an incredibly high number of potential legal game positions and possible games played. Moreover, if one wanted to, one could play Go on a bigger board with more cells, increasing the aforementioned potential values. Often simplicity in design (like optimization of the abilities of elements or agents - in this case, the degree of freedom a player has in a given turn) occasions a great deal of complexity when such elements are involved in some sort of temporal relational order.
But I digress. Let’s use a continuum of fractal invariance to represent the relationship between biological evolution and cultural evolution - the two substrates being in essence part of the same fractal. Is any part of a fractal more complex than another part? Well, no, in the sense that a fractal can never begin to follow different mathematical schema in the course of its growth or unfolding. If it did it would cease to be a fractal. Underlying algorithms stay the same throughout the ‘body’ of the fractal; and its growth simply involves the patterned addition of more (and smaller) of the same units, potentially ad infinitum. Cultural evolution may occur at higher rates and on different scales than biological evolution, but changes in rate and scale do not indicate changes in underlying order. When we are dealing with cultural evolution and biological evolution, we are dealing with a sub-system and its ‘parent system’, respectively. In this case, the sub system often creates the inconvenient perceptual illusion of being independent from its parent system, and yes, the illusion of being ‘more complex’ when it is indeed an extension of The Fractal. However, the cog. sci. pioneers are working to reveal this illusion as merely “sleight-of-epistemology”, to coin a phrase…
Monday, February 9, 2009
Social insects as complex adaptive systems - this article is from 1998, great articulation of the CAS paradigm in the biological sciences
Evolutionary ethics: multilevel selection is not enough (David Sloan Wilson on biological ethics)
Holism and reductionism in evolutionary ecology (also by DSW)
Let me know if these links don't work.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
This is a FAQ from Computerworld.com that very succinctly conceptualizes complex adaptive systems (as they are relevant to software-based modeling).
"January 27, 2003 (Computerworld) -- What are "complex systems" in this context? These are noncomputer systems, such as a company's supply chain. A system is "complex" when it has so many variables and interacting forces that it can't be understood in its entirety or optimized by traditional, top-down approaches.
How can you tame this complexity? Although these systems are complex overall, they use a few simple rules at local levels. For example, in a supply chain system, a rule in a warehouse might be, "Fill orders on a first-in, first-out basis," or "Don't send this truck out on delivery until it is full." Dozens or hundreds of these local "agents" - truck dispatchers, say - acting autonomously produce complex behavior by the system as a whole. It's possible to simulate this complex behavior by programming software agents with a few rules and letting them interact with one another. By optimizing the agents' activities at a local level, it's possible to improve the performance of the system as a whole.
Why are these systems called "adaptive," and why are they sometimes likened to ant colonies? Ants individually have extremely primitive brains, yet collectively they run surprisingly sophisticated and efficient operations. With no central direction, they divide responsibilities among themselves, find food, build and maintain their nests, tend to their young and respond to attacks. And the colonies adapt; if you block access to a source of food, ants will find an alternate route to the food. Complex adaptive systems do the same. For example, if Plant A can't satisfy a customer order because it's temporarily out of a raw material, Plant B may fill the order. Plant B may do this "automatically," based on simple local rules without direction from a central authority.
What is meant by "emerging behavior"? Like ants, individual agents can modify their rules to adapt to changing circumstances, and this can alter the global behavior of the system, often in unpredictable ways. Sometimes small, local changes can have big system impacts, just as a tiny disturbance in the atmosphere over Africa can lead to a hurricane days later in the Gulf of Mexico. Agent-based modeling can help us understand and predict these emerging behaviors and help us devise new rules for the local agents that will improve the performance of the system as a whole. "
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Now that's a slam-dunk, right there. I LOVE BIOLOGISTS WHO HACK THE SOCIAL SCIENCES!
I was sitting in my Sociology class the other day that is a requirement for graduating. I've actually taken quite a few Soc. classes at UVM... and I always feel like I just got time-warped to the 1950's. So much of sociology is badly in need of a tune-up. Perhaps a new engine that runs on algae ethanol.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
It has become increasingly evident to me that farming to provide your local community with food, fiber, fuel or some combination thereof is at this point a revolutionary act. On a more personal level, farming also seems to present a continuous application opportunity for many strands of organic knowledge, and a place to reconcile systems of knowledge that have become reductionist and removed elsewhere. To me, the farm integrated with its community is an energy and nutrition delivery system - a catchment system for sunlight - it is to its surrounding environments what a tree is to a forest. In retrospect, it seems like my interest in human nutrition - both physical and spiritual - is what has drawn me to the agrarian awareness that I find myself experiencing. I'm finishing my undergraduate education with a major concentration in Religion - although I think nowadays that if I'd known it was a possibility, I would have certainly chosen "Human Ecology" as a broader, more open-ended option for exploring the questions that I've had. Nevertheless, it has been fascinating for me to learn about the multitude of ways that human societies have created systems for spiritual nutrition - a kind that has remained completely un-quantifiable in the face of other measures of wellness. Among people who incorporate animism or shamanism into their world-view there has seemed to be retained an understanding of deep ecological principles that simply do not survive in many of the perspectives that dominate post-industrial society. So in my imagination, a small diversified farm is a project in modern shamanism - it is a community organ situated in the various spaces between civilization and nature. It is like connective tissue between these two realms - revealing that they are not really separate after all. It is, consequently, a translating mechanism; where a complement of Nature's animate forces - light, water, wind, plant and animal consciousness - are turned into nutrition for people. Lest we think this circuit only conducts energy in one direction, the farm is also simultaneously a means of returning nutrition back to Nature. A farm then should be designed to accommodate earth's natural energy cycles for the co-benefiting of the land and its people. Right now we all face a host of systems that need to be remediated, and - in some cases possibly re-invented. Healed, is the operative verb - and as far as healing methods go, it seems like nourishment is tried and true. This type of healing is primarily prevention - it is building immunity and strength from the ground up, and investing in the fundamental health of systems, as opposed to continually "fixing" broken components of unhealthy systems.
Indeed, there is a need for "speakers" on behalf of Nature, in service of both the community and the surrounding landscape, who work to sense whether there is equilibrium between the two systems - this is the old role of the medicine man! And the more I think about it, the more it seems like there is no one closer to this role than the ecologically-minded farmer. To be sure, it would be overkill to call on every person to fill this role - the applications of the human mind are far too infinite for that. We need other kinds of translators, too!
My proposal is that perhaps, with a scant 2% of our own population "farming", we simply need more translators in this particular space: the space between sunlight and food. Farmside projects like community-supported agriculture, herdshares, community gardening, and educational programs seem to be the lifeblood of the whole idea of civic agriculture. A farm engaging in these sorts of projects can be experienced by people as an integral institution in human settlements, along with courthouses, libraries, schools, churches... It is in the same category as these things, truly. To put it on the community map and make it a place where social action takes place - even if that action is simply a CSA member coming to pick up some veggies - is to take a step in showing people just how intrinsically valuable the farm is!
Oh, I could wax on about the Farm Vision quite happily, but an important thing to address here is: What is my role in that space? What has it been and what will it be?
My role so far has been: to learn, to find my own way of translating - which is in part through writing - and to share my experience and perspective, and let myself be lead by this exchange. It has also been to learn to work with animals (the ones with hooves, especially!) which for me has implicitly been to attempt to understand their consciousness, physiology, our co-evolution with them, and thus their (incredible!) ecological value. It has also been to learn about old ways of food preservation and alchemy - of dairy products in particular - in both history and practice. It has been to learn about grass, and trees, and to come to see pastures and forests as our true masters. It has been, as of late, to think about informed ecological design as an operating system for all these programs and components. And finally, it has been to reach the doorstep of human consciousness, and to realize what Bucky Fuller suggests - that these minds we have may represent one of the most powerful organizational forces in the known universe. When I realize that our hands and our language are - by proxy - our mind, it seems that this mind has evolved with two strong desires: to build things and to share information. The choice then, that we have as individuals, is: A) what to build and B) what information to prioritize. Running this program in my head has returned many answers, many of which change over time. There remains one common answer - and it's something like "farm" and "farming"!
Thanks to my wonderful roommate for lending me The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. His work has been hugely influential and edifying. You can find lots of cool environmental & human health related news at my roommate Melissa's blog Paradoxes of Whole Living.
Also see Critical Path by Buckminster Fuller, it's the closest thing to his brain in a book.
hack on, eco-punks.