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."
Showing posts with label Democracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Democracy. Show all posts

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Why do we Always Choose the Decisional Systems that do the Most Damage? A Plea for the way of the Holobiont


Captain Ahab, played by Gregory Peck in the 1956 film version of "Moby Dick." Ahab is a fictional character, but there are plenty of real-world cases when handing all the decisional power to a single person led to catastrophe. The problem is not just about ships, it is general for many kinds of organizations, including states and empires, Why, then, this governance system is so common? It is one of the many mysteries of the behavior of human beings who tend to find comfort, and often their doom, in the "strong man" at the top. A much better way to organize complex systems would be to use the concept of "holobiont," taken from biology. 

In "Moby Dick," Ahab’s madness ultimately causes the sinking of the Pequod and the death of the entire crew. It is a fictional story, but there are plenty of real-world cases where mistakes by the captain led a ship to disaster. One recent case is the sinking of the "El Faro" container ship, in 2015. It was, first of all, a human tragedy: none of the 33 members of the crew survived. The records of the ship's black box were recovered, and we can still hear what they were telling each other in the hours before the disaster. It is impressive to hear how, up to nearly the last moment, they didn't realize the mortal danger they were facing in the form of a category 4 hurricane. An especially poignant moment is when, on the morning of the last day of the ship, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, prepares coffee on the bridge, and one of the members of the crew asks for artificial sweetener. He didn't need to worry about his waistline. One hour later, he would be dead, just like everyone else on board.  

What went wrong with the "El Faro"? It would be too easy to fault the captain, Michael Davidson. He surely made mistakes: he underestimated the threat, and -- probably -- acted emotionally, thinking he could show his bravery by sailing straight into what he believed was just a tropical storm. It is normal: everyone makes mistakes, and human males are especially prone to making the kind of mistakes that derive from a macho attitude. The point is to detect the mistakes and correct them before they create disastrous damage. And, here, the ship's command system failed completely. It is typical for ships to be managed by a "vertical" organization that pivots around a single man (rarely a woman) at the top. It is the captain, whose orders cannot be questioned. You may remember the quarrel between Starbuck and Ahab described in Melville's "Moby Dick," where Ahab cuts short Starbuck by saying that "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod". Again, this fictional episode is not unlike what happens in the real world. 

The kind of vertical command structure nearly guarantees disaster when the man at the top turns out to be mad, drunk, or simply not up to the task. And then disasters happen. Not all of them are as spectacular as the sinking of the "El Faro," but if you consult Wikipedia's entry on "shipwrecks," you'll be surprised by how long it is, even for recent years. The same kind of disasters happen with planes, working teams, and, often, with the military, where the list of incompetent, stupid, and evil commanders is long and detailed (the charge of the 300 at Balaklava is just one of the many examples, even going on right now in the world). 

It may be that rigid hierarchical structures have their origin in the overstretching of the role of the "alpha male," typical of many social creatures. Indeed, in human society, these structures are typical of all-male environments. In the case of the El Faro, the second mate, Danielle Randolph, was the only woman on the command deck. Women are known to be more flexible and less obsessed with rank than men (of course, with plenty of exceptions!), and it may be for this reason that she was the only one who explicitly proposed to steer the ship toward safety. Other members of the command deck seem to have had doubts, too, but they didn't discuss the captain's decision. So, the second mate was overruled by the captain who, in doing that, was signing his (and everybody's on board) death sentence. Another poignant element of the story is the last message that Randolph sent to her mother. It ended with "love to you all" -- which was not her usual way to end her messages. She understood what was going to happen, but was powerless to avoid it. 

In nature, alpha males have no power to give orders to other members of the group. The concept of "orders" is purely human and also relatively recent in our evolutionary history.  From what we know, rigid pyramidal hierarchies started to appear only with the development of city-states, some 5,000 years ago, when there also appeared kings and God-kings. Apparently, people were fascinated by these larger-than-life figures, to the point that they put their trust in them. So much that they even invented imaginary overlords, truly out-of-this-world alpha males, to be obeyed and worshiped.

Democracy doesn't change things so much. Imagine that the captain of the "El Faro" had been elected by the crew. That would have changed little or nothing about his power to give orders to everybody. Then, if the second mate had been a member of the opposition, it is even more certain that she would have been overruled when she proposed to change course. That's how democracy works: the opposition is always wrong.

So, where can we find better ideas on how to manage complex systems? Maybe there are ways. Let me report a paragraph from Prigogine's "The End of Certainty" (1996), where he cites Bierbacher, Nicolis, and Shuster:

The maintenance of organization in nature is not -- and cannot be -- achieved by central management. Order can only be maintained by self-organization. Self-organizing systems allow adaptation to the prevailing environment, i.e. they react to changes in the the environment with a thermodynamic response which makes the system extraordinarily flexible and robust against perturbations from outside conditions. We want to point out the superiority of self-organizing systems over conventional human technology which carefully avoids complexity and hierarchically manages nearly all technical processes. 

The authors, here, are actually describing the concept of "holobiont," even though they do not use the term. The holobiont is the most common and efficient way for complex systems to organize themselves in nature. The elements of a holobionts interact with each other horizontally, not hierarchically. It is what gives the system its extraordinary flexibility and adaptability. If the command system of the El Faro had been organized as a holobiont, the captain couldn't (and wouldn't) have ignored or overruled the suggestion of the second mate.

Would it be possible to organize human society in this way? Yes, we know plenty of examples of societies that self-organize into forms that mimic the holobiont structure. Elinor Ostrom reported how several of these structures can manage natural resources at the local level, much better than heavy top-down hierarchies. So, it may well be that God-kings are an evolutionary dead-end and that, as we march into the future, we'll learn to behave more like the natural way of behaving is, it is the wisdom of holobionts. On the other hand, for the time being, this idea looks a little difficult to put into practice, considering how much people seem to love the idea of kneeling down and receiving orders from the Great Man at the top. And I don't have to tell you about the unending string of disasters that this attitude has caused, and is still causing. But you never know: in the end, all humans are holobionts. And holobionts can learn!

These concepts and more are discussed in "The Proud Holobionts" blog

(you can find here a dramatized version of the sinking of the El Faro aired on the Discovery Channel in 2020. The trailer of the fantastic 1956 movie, "Moby Dick" is here

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Propaganda Trap: How to get out of it?

 You probably saw the Hitler clip from the 2004 movie "Downfall." And you may have noticed the detail of Hitler's left hand trembling out of control. It is based on historical data: Hitler's hand was really trembling in that way, a typical symptom of Parkinson's disease. And he was also subjected to fits of rage, just as shown in the movie. Surely, many people must have noted his erratic behavior and thought he had mental problems. Yet, nobody could find a way to remove him from power, ensuring that maximum damage was done to everybody. It was the result of German propaganda: a giant machine that fed on itself and that could not be stopped before it was too late.


The story of the 20th century includes several "mad dictators" who did great damage to the people they ruled, and not just to them. Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany are the best-known examples. I wrote several posts on Mussolini (here), who clearly suffered of an extreme case of the Dunning-Kruger syndrome, but was not mentally impaired, just a run of the mill psychopath who cared nothing about the suffering of the people he ruled. 

Hitler, like Mussolini, was convinced to be a military genius and he often overrode the suggestions of his competent military staff. And he was a psychopath, too, with all the typical traits of cruelty and indifference that characterize psychopaths. But, unlike Mussolini, there were evident problems with Hitler's brain, especially during the last years of his rule. He had clear symptoms of Parkinson's, and he was subjected to fits of rage that rapidly went out of control. He regularly consumed methamphetamine, barbiturates, opiates, and cocaine, as well as potassium bromide and Atropa belladonna. His symptoms worsened after the assassination attempt against him in 1944. 

I already wrote about how dictatorships are born. What is surprising in this story is not so much that there exist people who are at the same time stupid and evil, in addition to being mentally unstable. It is not even so surprising that Italy and Germany, two European countries inhabited mostly by normal and decent people, fell into the hands of two of these madmen. In the beginning, they didn't look like madmen: they looked like the right person at the right moment. What is truly weird is that these countries could not get rid of the madman in charge, not even when it became clear that he was a madman. 

You know that Adolf Hitler ruled Germany until he killed himself in 1945. But, already in 1943, it must have been clear to everyone with at least a few neurons in their brain that the war was lost and, worse, there was a madman in charge. But nothing was done. Nothing could be done. 

If you want to get some idea of the situation in Germany during the last year of the war, you may read the book by Florian Huber "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself." It is a book that tells you of something not normally discussed: what did ordinary Germans think of the situation and how it was that they couldn't free themselves from the evil spell that their own propaganda had generated. To the point that a large, although unknown, number of them committed suicide. Choosing death was the ultimate strategy to avoid facing reality. 

In a sense, it was unavoidable: the Germans had chosen a path that led them exactly where they arrived.  Propaganda is a wondrous machine that feeds on itself: once you start it, there is no way to stop it. It can make some things unspeakable, and if they are unspeakable they cannot be spoken. The story of the "White Rose" is especially tragic: a group of students of the University of Munich who tried to say the things that could not be said. As a result, they were sentenced to death and executed by beheading in 1943. Surprisingly (but perhaps not so surprisingly) the executions didn't seem to generate any outrage with the German public. An even starker evidence of how deeply the Germans were beguiled by their propaganda.

So far, we are not (yet) in the hands of an evil psychopath, but many things seem to be moving in that direction. So, the question of how to get rid of a dictatorship seems to be equivalent to asking how to get rid of propaganda. But the Western propaganda machine, today, is enormously more sophisticated, effective, and pervasive than the German propaganda was at the time of the Nazis. Fortunately, if we speak against the government's truth, we do not face execution by beheading (so far). But we are simply ignored, and if not ignored we are demonized and ridiculed. 

Is there any hope to stop the evil machine? It looks difficult, even impossible. So far, propaganda has been stopped only by the complete collapse of the governments that created it, as it happened in Italy and in Germany. Are there better ways? Maybe. Propaganda has been with us for more than a century: it has changed, it has morphed into different forms. But one thing remains central: propaganda exists because there exists a centralized control of the information flow in society (we call it the "media"). As long as this control exists, propaganda will remain with us, all-powerful as it is. 

But, right now, the Internet has created a gigantic system of information flow that escapes central control -- so far, at least. As long as we can bypass the media we are immune (within limits) from propaganda. Otherwise, the only way to get rid of it is collapse. 

So, what we are seeing is a gigantic struggle for the control of the Internet. Will the center win? Or will it be the periphery? Our future hangs on this question. 


Sophie Scholl, a member of the "White Rose" group who was sentenced to death and executed in 1943 at 21, for having spoken against the government propaganda of the time. Her story shows how harsh the information war can be. And her example remains a source of inspiration for us.