The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Mousetrap Experiment: Modeling the Memesphere

 Reposted with some modifications from "The Proud Holobionts"

 Ilaria Perissi with our mousetrap-based mechanical model of a fully connected network. You can find a detailed description of our experiment on ArXiv

You may have seen the "mousetrap experiment" performed as a way to demonstrate the mechanism of the chain reaction that takes place in nuclear explosions. One of its earliest versions appeared in Walt Disney movie "Our Friend, the Atom" of 1956. 

We (myself and Ilaria Perissi) recently redid the experiment with 50 mousetraps and 100 wooden balls. And here it is. It was fun, except when (and not so rarely) one of the traps snapped on our fingers while we were loading it.

But why bother redoing this old experiment (proposed for the first time in1947)? One reason was that nobody had ever tried a quantitative measurement. That is, measuring the number of triggered traps and flying balls as a function of time. So, we did exactly that. We used cell-phone slow motion cameras to measure the parameters of the experiment and we  a system dynamics model to fit the data. It worked beautifully. You can find a pre-print of the article that we are going to publish on ArXiv. As you can see in the figure, below, the experimental data and the model go reasonably well together. It is not a sophisticated experiment, but it is the first time that it was attempted.

But the main reason why we engaged in this experiment is that it is not just about nuclear reactions. It is much more general and it describes a kind of network that's called "fully connected," that is where all nodes are connected to all other nodes. In the set-up, the traps are nodes of the network, the balls are elements that trigger the connection between nodes. It is a kind of communication based on "enhanced" or "positive" feedback.

This experiment can describe a variety of systems. Imagine that the traps oil wells. Then, the balls are the energy created by extracting the oil. And you can use that energy to dig and exploit more wells. The result is the "bell shaped" Hubbert curve, nothing less!  You can see it in the figure above: it is the number of flying balls "produced" by the traps.

We found this kind of curve for a variety of socioeconomic system, from mineral extraction to fisheries (for the latter, you can see our (mine and Ilaria's) book "The Empty Sea." So, the mousetraps can describe also the behavior of fisheries and have something to do with the story of Moby Dick as told by Melville.

You could also say the mousetrap network is a holobiont because holobionts are non-hierarchical networks of entities that communicate with each other. It is a kind of holobiont that exists in nature, but it is not common. Think of a flock of birds foraging in a field. One bird sees something suspicious, it flies up, and in a moment all the birds are flying away. We didn't have birds to try this experiment, but we found a clip on the Web that shows exactly this phenomenon.

It is a chain reaction. The flock is endowed with a certain degree of intelligence. It can process a signal and act on it. You can see in the figure our measurement of the number of flying birds. It is a logistic function, the integral of the bell-shaped curve that describes the flying balls in the mousetrap experiments

In Nature, holobionts are not normally fully connected. Their connections are short-range, and signals travel more slowly through the network. It is often called "swarm intelligence" and it can be used to optimize systems. Swarm intelligence does transmit a signal, but it doesn't amplify it out of control, as a fully connected network does, at least normally. It is a good control system: bacterial colonies and ant colonies use it. Our brains much more complicated: they have short range connections but also long range ones and probably also collective electromagnetic connections. 

One system that is nearly fully connected is the world wide web. Imagine that traps are people while the balls are memes. Then what you are seeing with the mousetrap experiment is a model of a meme going viral in the Web. Ideas (also called memes) flare up in the Web when they are stimulated it is the power of propaganda that affects everybody.

It is an intelligent system because it can amplify a signal. That is that's the way it reacts to an external perturbation. You could see the mousetraps as an elaborate detection system for stray balls. But it can only flare up and then decline. It can't be controlled. 

That's the problem with our modern propaganda system: it is dominated by memes flaring up out of control. The main actors in this flaring are those "supernodes" (the Media) that have a huge number of long-range connections. That can do a lot of damage: if the meme that goes out of control is an evil meme and it implies, say, going to war against someone, or exterminating someone. It happened and keeps happening again as long as the memesphere is organized the way it is, as a fully connected network. Memes just go out of control.

All that means we are stuck with a memesphere that's completely unable to manage complex systems. And yet, that's the way the system works. It depends on these waves of out-of-control signals that sweep the web and then become accepted truths. Those who manage the propaganda system are very good at pushing the system to develop this kind of memetic waves, usually for the benefit of their employers. 

Can the memesphere be re-arranged in a more effective way -- turning it into a good holobiont? Probably yes. Holobionts are evolutionary entities that nobody ever designed. They have been designed by trial and error as a result of the disappearance of the unfit. Holobionts do not strive for the best, they strive for the less bad. It may happen that the same evolutionary pressure will act on the human memesphere. 

The trick should consist in isolating the supernodes (the media) in such a way to reduce their evil influence on the Web. And, lo and behold, it may be happening: the great memesphere may be rearranging itself in the form of a more efficient, locally connected holobiont.  Haven't you heard of how many people say that they don't watch TV anymore? Nor they open the links to the media on the Web. That's exactly the idea. Do that, maybe you will start a chain reaction in which everyone will get rid of their TV. And the world will be much better. 


  1. Loudly whispered joke in the 1980s among the ranks of the Iraqi Army during the war with Iran that Saddam Husain has finally been told to stop appearing on the-only two TV channels, 16 hours non-stop a day. Saddam asked - OK, would you please just allow me appearing for 3-minutes, reciting the Quran when the transmission starts....

    Our Western Civilisation cannot have enough of reign, despite no fossil fuels will be enough to run the fossil fuels-run that reign - even if humans have not extracted a drop of oil ever yet.

    Now a little fossil fuels are left, hardly matching the massive daily consumption of the world - our Western Civilisation wants humans to self-destruct their beautiful cities, towns, infrastructure and life...

    Forcing humans to play an Energy Musical Chairs Game...

    It is the time our Civilisation to dissolve itself, peacefully and in dignity, instead...

    Civilisations and Social Contracts come and go - like Saddam Husain - came and gone...

    Life continues forward...


  2. Do you have data to show that people are not opening links to the social media as much as they used to?

    The rise of subscription-based sites may be part of a similar trend. People are tired of the low quality, time-wasting information and opinions on social media sites. Instead, they are willing to subscribe (either free or paid) to quality sites that do not aim for Search Engine Optimization. The trend is away from quantity toward quality.

    That is why I would like to know if there is research that confirms this trend.

    1. Good point. Whereas there are plenty of data showing that people are quitting traditional media, it is not the same for the social media. I know of many people who quit facebook. Indeed, being censored by their "fact checkers" is a bad experience. But, for the time being, Zuckerberg still dominates the social mediasphere.

  3. Me temo que no va a encontrar confirmación de esa supuesta tendencia, salvo algunas excepciones comparativamente ridículas. Cierto también que cada vez menos gente ve la televisión, pero las ideas que circulan por los lugares de consumo alternativo y mayoritario son las mismas. El mejor ejemplo lo proporciona la industria publicitaria. Abandonan sus inversiones en la prensa escrita o la tv generalista en abierto para concentrarse en las redes sociales. ¿ De qué viven, si no, FB, Ggl, y otras ? Internet, en diez años, ha cambiado radicalmente. De un ágora donde cabía alguna discusión y participación hemos pasado a un zoco manipulado por un oligopolio mercantilista. Nos han convertido en ansiosos consumidores, y peor, establecen las agendas públicas más eficientemente que los media tradicionales.

    Han sido las élites económicas ortoliberales y algunas iglesias ( evangelistas... ) quienes mejor provecho han sacado de Gramsci. Hoy gozan de una hegemonía cultural indiscutida. Los sistemas educativos, también la universidad, supuesto reducto del espíritu crítico, se han acomodado a la financiación de milmillonarios y macroempresas, y cedido a la presión de thinks tanks conservadores y las PR. Igual que los media mainstream.

  4. I enjoyed this read, Thank You.

  5. Es usted muy optimista cuando percibe posibilidades "espontáneas" y autónomas de organizar la generación y distribución de conocimiento. Antes eran los "editores" quienes mediaban en esa labor, y ciertos indicadores ( línea editorial declarada, prestigio y trayectoria, pluralismo, posibilidad de crítica... ) junto a alguna regulación y la cultura aceptada del género, valoraban el nivel de credibilidad. Ahora, son algoritmos quienes se ocupan de eso. Y más eficientemente, pues supuestamente siguen pautas científicas, "neutrales".

    Encuentro similitudes entre lo que llamábamos "Opinión Pública" y Memesfera. Con el problema añadido de que la "mediatización", la intervención en los contenidos, es ahora más intensa y eficiente. Sobre todo a través de las redes sociales, que es donde se informa esa gente "que no ve la televisión", pero a quienes les llegan los mismos contenidos. Ahora, gracias a la IA, perfilados para su mejor aceptación por los consumidores de bienes o ideas.

    Con los media tradicionales, aunque difusa, se percibía alguna línea entre el espacio público y el privado. Ahora casi toda la información circula en ámbitos generados por media docena de poderosas gigaempresas digitales. Alguna de ellas, incluso, se ha permitido el lujo de privar de la palabra a un todopoderoso presidente de los USA.

    Hay, pues, razones para ser escéptico. Usted habla de holobiontes con vocación comunicativa, y yo veo cada vez más burbujas impenetrables y beligerantes. Las crisis de mediación ( científica, mediática, política... ) incrementan las incertidumbres, y los sesgos de confirmación modulados por algoritmos son ahora más eficaces.

  6. Thank You for this thoughtful and informative piece.
    I gave up TV in the last millennium and can hardly stand to be around one, unless it's the weather forecast. What is it abiut me? I didn't keep the place in the book when the class was reading a lesson in school, either. I was thinking about something else, but I could usually find the place quickly.
    I don't think my condition is contagious. I just think a few of us have different settings.
    I do what I do, like garden and bike-commute, openly. Maybe people will think of seeing me when they find themselvestrying to adapt to life with less.
    I don't think I can change anybody's mind, though.