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 memesphere. Show all posts
Showing posts with label memesphere. Show all posts

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Twilight of the Narrative: Why the Truth will never be Revealed

 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (John 18:38)

What is truth? We often have a "Hollywood" model of truth: we expect it to triumph at the end of the movie, when the bad guy confesses his crime and everyone agrees on what really happened. 

Reality is very different. Truth is multiple, fractal, hierarchical, a game of mirrors, never showing herself in full. Think of the pandemic: aren't we in the age where the "scientific method" gives us a rational, objective view of the world? And yet, the multifaceted aspects of a hugely complex story seem to be beyond our capability to process it rationally.  Truth is not coming. It may never come. (And you may also be reminded of another case whose 20th anniversary we recently commemorated -- there, too, the truth did not come out and probably never will).

In the post, below, Sheridan analyzes the structure of the memesphere and challenges at the core the idea that the "narrative (about the pandemic) is going to crack" any day now and that the "truth" will be revealed. He says, "There is no longer a unifying narrative that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there is now only a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed over them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, it's just dominant."

In essence, the memetic sphere has shattered into an infinite series of closed microspheres. The dominant macrosphere can no longer control them, despite its desperate efforts at censorship, intimidation, and obfuscation. But if the microspheres don't talk to each other, the truth won't come out, whatever it is.

Read this post: it is truly enlightening

The Twilight of the Narrative

by Simon Sheridan

November 27, 2021 (posted here by the author's kind permission)

Recently, I was visiting a friend’s house when a Michael Jackson song came on the radio and my friend said something interesting that I hadn’t really thought about before. He noted that, at the peak of Jackson’s fame, the releasing of one of his albums was a global event with a coordinated marketing campaign which meant that pretty much everybody in the western world and many parts of the non-western world would have known when a Michael Jackson album was released whether they liked his music or not. This is something the young people these days wouldn’t comprehend as they each have their own social media influencer or Youtube celebrity or whatever that they follow in much smaller sub-cultures than before. Even the most popular pop stars of today are only known to a subset of the population never the whole population like Jackson was. 

This observation got me thinking about a subject that I have been pondering for a while which is the impact of the internet on our culture. It seems to me this impact is not really discussed much anymore even though it is directly contributing to our current woes. One of the main changes wrought by the internet is the shattering of “grand narratives”. A Michael Jackson album release is one. But the pattern extends into other areas of the public discourse where its effects are far more important such as the narratives that hold countries together. As the corona event drags on interminably, there are those in the dissenter camp who still think the “narrative is about to crack” any day now and the “truth” will be revealed. 

This mindset from the old, pre-internet world is no longer valid in the world we live. There is no unifying narrative any more that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there are now just a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed on top of them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, just dominant. The emergence of the “conspiracy theory” label alongside the daily censorship that now happens on social media platforms are among a number of tactics that are now used to try and subdue alternative narratives in the hope of allowing a centralised narrative to form. But it never does for the simple reason that you cannot coerce people into believing a narrative. Narratives must evolve organically with a feedback loop between top-down and bottom-up. The increasing use of censorious tactics in the last couple of years reveals the underlying weakness of the dominant narrative. The powers that be have gone all out in attempting to hold together a narrative that itself doesn’t make sense as it is changed willy-nilly according to purely political considerations. 

It’s tempting to think the politicians are doing it on purpose with some larger objective in mind. But what if there is no larger objective? What if these tactics are simply what is required now to create any type of dominant narrative at all? What if these tactics are now the price you pay to create a narrative? If so, that price has gone through the roof. We can usefully call this narrative inflation. If you increase the supply of money, you get monetary inflation. If you increase the supply of narratives, you get narrative inflation. The price to create a dominant narrative has gone up for a number of reasons but one is that the internet opened the floodgates on the flow of information and allowed multiple alternative narratives to be created. This has created its own dynamic independent of the political and economic considerations that are also driving the trend. It may turn out that one of the consequences of allowing free and instant information is to destroy centralised narratives. There are good sociological and psychological reasons why this would be the case.

Eyewitness testimony has long been problematic for police trying to investigate an incident or crime. Even for something relatively straightforward like a car accident, where the eyewitnesses themselves have no personal stake in the story, accounts can diverge radically. Ten people witnessing a car accident can give you ten different stories of the crash. These problems are greatly exacerbated when the individuals involved have a vested interest in the case as often happens in criminal investigations. This eternal problem has been dealt with in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. The best non-fiction work I have seen about the subject is the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in which a school teacher is found to have child pornography in his home which leads to a series of events including him pleading guilty to sexually abusing some of his students. The documentary follows the motivations of those involved as rumour of the crime spreads in the local community creating its own dynamic as gossip and innuendo put enormous pressure of the family at the centre of the case. By the end of the documentary, we don’t know whether any of the official story is true as the lies and deceits create second and third order effects that distort the whole picture. 

This real-life account mirrors one of the best fictional representations of the problem, Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”, in which a murder occurs in the forest but we hear radically different versions of the event told by the people involved (including, dramatically, the deceased). The philosophical question raised by both films is whether or not there can be found an objective standard of truth. This is a problem philosophers have wrestled with for millennia but it becomes a practical problem in cases involving crime where we want to see justice served and yet we have multiple, irreconcilable accounts about reality and seemingly no way to choose between them. At the end of the process, the system gives a verdict of guilty-not guilty and this is taken as the “truth” but is it really the truth?

With the internet, we have seen the same psychology applied to the public discourse and this has created practical problems for politics. Politicians love to divide the public where it suits their interest but it’s also true that they need to appeal to a foundation which unites the public. The process is similar to the justice system. Although there is disagreement and competition within the system, everybody must agree to play by the rules. The system itself is the thing people believe in. The public discourse which existed prior to the internet was facilitated through a system in which the media was known as the “fourth estate”. Its job was to hold government to account. Of course, this was not a perfect system but, as the saying goes, it seems it was better than all the others. It was certainly better than the system we have now where the media does not hold the government to account at all and is little more than a public relations branch of the government. 

Recently in the New Zealand parliament, Jacinda Ardern was questioned about $55 million her government gave to media with certain conditions attached about what could be reported on. In Australia, the government waived the usual licence fee for the mainstream media channels back in March 2020. This amounted to around $44 million in subsidies. The theory was that this was needed because covid was expected to reduce advertising revenue, a strange claim given that the whole population was about to be locked at home with every incentive to watch the news. That measure came after the Australian government famously held Facebook and other big tech players to ransom and forced them to pay money to Australian media companies for content. Whatever the ethical dimensions of these issues, what lies beneath is the fact that the media companies are no longer viable businesses capable of existing without government support. Because they are now reliant on government money, their function as the fourth estate that holds government to account has also all but disappeared. That’s a problem for them but it’s also a problem for the government. The “official narrative” is transmitted through the legacy media. If the legacy media goes away, so does the narrative. Governments know that if the media disappeared, so would a large chunk of their power. The government needs the media as much as the media needs the government.

I would argue that the public also needs the media. It needs the media to act as its representative. That was the whole point of the Fourth Estate arrangement. The public paid for the media and that meant the media had an incentive to represents the readership’s interests. But that is all gone now. Some people think the public doesn’t really need the media. For almost any event, we are able to watch live video online now. Once upon a time we needed the newspaper to tell us the facts, but we simply don’t need that anymore. You might think that’s a good thing. We remove the middle man and allow the public to see events for themselves. But that introduces the same problem you have with eyewitness accounts which is that you get as many versions of the “truth” as there are people. The discourse becomes fragmented and the checks and balances that once held disappear. It’s a bit like having a crime investigation without a detective. “The system” can no longer control the discourse the way it previously could. This is not a trivial matter. It leads us back to one of Plato’s most dangerous ideas which is the Noble Lie. The idea goes that society cannot exist and justice cannot be served unless there are a number of lies which bind society together. Lie is, of course, a very strong word. We could soften it by calling them myths or ideals but the effect is the same. The myths and ideals are the glue that holds things together and, according to Plato, without them society will disintegrate.

Our post-internet public discourse provides some evidence for this assertion. It has become completely detached from reality or, to put it another way, it represents only one version of reality: the one that comes from the top-down. This process is especially advanced in the US. It hit a fever pitch with the Trump presidency and has not relaxed since. There are now at least two mutually incompatible narratives going on in the US meaning that agreement about the fundamentals which hold society together is called into question on an almost daily basis. It’s quite common to hear somebody on either side of the debate label somebody on the other side as “crazy” or “insane” and that is one manifestation of the problem. Within this new world, the idea that the “narrative is about to crack” doesn’t make sense. The dominant narrative is held in place by power, not by truth. By definition, the only thing that can “crack” it is another source of power. This was Trump’s genius. He hijacked the entire machinery that generates the narrative and turned it to his own purposes. But I think Trump was the end of the road. They got rid of him but in doing so they removed any last pretence that the narrative was “fair” or “truthful”. You can’t just delete the sitting President and then go back to normal as if nothing happened. As a result, a large proportion of the population no longer has any faith whatsoever in the system. That holds true no matter who is in power. The dominant narrative is now nothing more than the story told by those in power.

In Australia and much of Europe and Canada, we are just now catching up with the US. Here in Melbourne, more than a hundred thousand people marched against the government last weekend. The Premier’s response was to write them off as “thugs” and “extremists”. It reminded me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. When politicians no longer feel like they need to accommodate the interests and opinions of a substantial proportion of the population you know the narrative is already fractured. Andrews may or may not get away with that politically for now but the protestors represent a new group in Australian public life; the ones excluded from the narrative. The same goes for the demonstrators in Europe who are simply ignored by the mainstream media. Because the public discourse no longer pretends to reflect reality, nobody really believes in it including the people who nominally go along with it. Deep down they also must know that it is fake. 

We are entering a time when even the idea of a centralised narrative is no longer believed in. If Plato was right, this fact alone is an existential threat to the state and it is understandable that the state would strive to fix the problem. But it’s almost certainly too late. All of the censorship and victimisation in the world won’t put humpty dumpty together again. Going forward I expect we’ll still have an “official narrative” but nobody will really believe it. That’s what is implied by the falling revenue numbers of the mainstream media channels. Will that lead to the disintegration of the state? Plato would have said yes. We may be about to test that theory.

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. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

9/11, the Coup that Failed. The Role of the Memesphere

Octavianus Augustus Caesar (63 BC – 14 AD). Perhaps the most successful leader in history, he didn't just become the absolute ruler of the Roman State but took over the role of the highest religious authority (the "Pontifex Maximum") and transformed himself into a living deity. He was able to turn a democracy into a dictatorship using techniques that were repeated many times in history. But the task was not always successful. It was the case of the 9/11 attacks that did not lead to an absolute dictatorship in the United States. Here, I argue that it was because of the different structure of the memesphere in the 21st century.

In 30 BC, Octavianus, later to be known as "Augustus Caesar," defeated his remaining competitors for the control of the Roman state and took the title of "Augustus," the absolute ruler of the Empire. The most fascinating element of this story is that Octavianus established the pattern of how a successful leader can take over the government and concentrate all power on himself. The recipe goes as follows:
  1. Obtain sufficient funds for the task 
  2. Enlist your supporters in a para-military or military organization. 
  3. Obtain a high-level government position using a mixture of intimidation and legal means.
  4. Exploit a dramatic event to scare everyone and obtain special emergency powers.
  5. Never relinquish your emergency powers, but always increase them. 
This is what Augustus did: his money came initially from the inheritance he obtained from his grand-uncle, Julius Caesar, but surely also from the support of high-level people who wanted tight control of the Roman State. He used the money to acquire a military force that he used to intimidate the Senate and defeat his competitors. Then, he was nominated commander ("imperator"), a title that was initially supposed to be temporary. From his power position, he exploited the disaster of the defeat of Teutoburg, in 9 AD, to scare the Romans with the "Barbarian menace" to obtain even more power. In 12 AD, he took the role of "pontifex maximum" the highest religious authority of the time. Later on, he was worshipped as a living deity. 

The pattern of turning a democracy into an absolute dictatorship was repeated many times in history. In Italy, in the 1920s Benito Mussolini built his power base with money from the Italian industrialists and landlords who were afraid of a Communist takeover. He used the money to create the Fascist party and a paramilitary organization, the blackshirts, that he used to intimidate his adversaries. After the "March on Rome" of 1922, Mussolini and his party gained a landslide electoral victory in 1924. Then, in 1926, Mussolini exploited a failed assassination attempt against him to obtain special powers from the parliament. From then on, Mussolini never relinquished his position of absolute dictator until he was dismissed in 1943, and then assassinated in 1945. 

In Germany, the military-industrial complex supported Adolf Hitler out of fear of the Communists, too. Hitler created the National socialist party and the paramilitary organization of the Brownshirts (the Sturmabteilung). In 1933, the Nazi party won a majority in parliament and Hitler was nominated as Chancellor. Just a few months later, the Nazis exploited the Reichstag Fire in 1933 to stir up a wave of anti-communism. The German parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave wide powers to the government. That was the first step toward absolute power for Hitler and he never relinquished it until he committed suicide in 1945. 

There are many similar cases and you see that there is a thread that starts from Augustus' coup of more than 2,000 years ago and leads to the events of 20 years ago: the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center in New York. 

Seen in the light of the historical record, the 9/11 attacks look like a textbook case of a leader who exploits a dramatic event to gain special emergency powers for himself (*). A joint resolution passed by Congress a week after the terror attacks gave the executive branch of government "unchecked power" to deploy the military at will. 

Yet, the 2001 attacks didn't lead to an absolute dictatorship. President Bush used his newly obtained power to incarcerate a large number of people and to wage war worldwide, but at the end of his mandate he stepped down from his post as he was expected to do. Today, after 20 years, there is talk of not renewing the "Patriot Act" of 2001. What happened that prevented (so far) the US from falling into an absolute dictatorship, as it had happened many times to other nations?

The simplest explanation is that the American people are so deeply in love with democracy that they would never accept being ruled by a dictator. Or, it may be that George W. Bush was not the right kind of leader. He didn't have the prestige of Augustus, the eloquence of Hitler, or the cunning skill of Mussolini. And he didn't have a personal militia to support him. Donald Trump was much more like the average populist would-be dictator but, in order to take over the government, he would have needed much more than horned shamans as his personal militia.

Maybe, but I think there are deeper reasons that made it impossible to create in the 21st century the kind of dictatorship that had been common earlier on in the West. Basically, it has to do with the way communication acts in society -- the structure of the "memesphere". 

In the Western societies of the 20th century, communication was dominated by the mass media, first in the form of newspapers, then radio and TV. These communication channels could be controlled in a completely pyramidal structure. Even though there might have been hundreds of newspapers in a country, the main ones were just a few and they could be tightly controlled by the Government or by the dark powers behind. The same was true for the radio and TV channels. 

In other words, the memesphere was purely pyramidal. Communication was vertical: the government decided what memes to propagate and imposed them on people by means of obsessive repetition. It was the definition of "propaganda," a technique already known in ancient Roman times, but that was especially common in the 1920s. 

But, in 2001, the Internet had already become an important communication force, shaping the memesphere in a completely different way. Direct connections among nodes in the memesphere allowed a certain degree of horizontal communication. The Internet-based memesphere was becoming a virtual holobiont able to process information in ways that a purely vertical organization did not allow. 

These two different mechanisms of communication were examined and quantified in a paper that I and my coworkers Perissi and Falsini published on Kybernetes in 2018. We noted how two different kinds of communication can be observed to compete: the "viral" (horizontal) mode and the "fallout" (vertical) mode. 

The possibility of horizontal meme spreading caused the development of a large number of "conspiracy theories" about the 9/11 attacks spreading over the Web mainly by person-to-person communication. These memes could be demonized, ridiculed, dismissed, and contrasted in many ways, but could never be completely eliminated. 

The result was that the polls consistently showed that a significant minority of the US population believed that the attacks were a false flag (*), while a majority kept thinking that the government knew about the attack plans but chose not to stop the attackers. So the government could not obtain the kind of blanketing communication that was possible with the traditional media. It may be argued that the impossibility of obtaining a 100% consensus is the main reason that prevented the taking over of the government by a populist leader. 

Now, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, the media are still tightly controlled by the government, but the memetic conflict has become harsher. The media are engaged in an all-out attack against the Internet communication sphere. The dissent is now branded as "fake news" and actively suppressed on social media. But the Internet is vast and there are many channels of communication that the government seems to be unable to close.

The virtual battle is raging. It could lead to a return to a pyramidal communication network if the government manages to take control of the memesphere. Or that may turn out to be impossible and the fluid nature of the memesphere may remain alive, leading to a fragmentation of the social sphere. We are already seeing that. As always, we live in interesting times (in the sense of the ancient Chinese malediction). 

(*) These considerations do not depend on whether the official government version of what happened with the 9/11 attacks is true or not. After all, the Roman legionnaires at Teutoburg were exterminated by real Germanic warriors!