By DON NEEPER
Formerly of Los Alamos
Since the year 1900, the complexity of our society has increased by several-thousand-fold because our communications evolved from hand-delivered letters and telegrams to instant information by TV and internet.
Communication, however, does not necessarily imply intelligence. Slime molds and trees communicate to varying degrees by chemical signals, but we don’t regard them as “intelligent” species. Intelligence usually implies the ability to apply reason to new or trying situations.
We regard bears and cats as intelligent because they are capable of learning and reasoning. Wolves cooperate to hunt as a pack in rapidly changing situations. However, complex group behavior does not always imply much intelligence. Unlike the actions of the wolves, the movement of schooling fish does not demonstrate reasoning by individual fish.
Insofar as we know, humans have the largest reasoning capability of any species. We have developed the most extensive cooperative efforts, heretofore limited only by the quantity and diversity of our technologies. However, new problems now threaten our society.
1) Human activity is altering the global climate, and we collectively do little about it.
2) Political and social polarization threatens cooperative government (democracy), here and around the world.
3) Many individuals draw their identities from their chosen group. Maintaining political identity prevents cooperation, especially in the congress.
4) A virus spreads, and our country is divided on how to make an effective response.
5) Each of us is bombarded with a combination of information and misinformation, often mixed with unrequested advertising. The result is reliance on belief instead of fact.
Can no leader address the concerns? Has the complex system that is human society gone amuck?
According to a thesaurus, amuck means “a sudden mass assault against people, now viewed as psychopathological behavior occurring worldwide.” Is this what draws Americans, including some five congressional candidates, into the bizarre conspiracy theory called QAnon?
Has our social complexity acquired its own artificial intelligence—an independent ability to compute, communicate, and plan?
No. Although operators using artificial intelligence are reportedly infusing both truths and lies into social media, the set of five threats is an emergent behavior of the complex system that is society. Cris Moore of the Santa Fe Institute says, “… markets and societies compute … they process information … (the mechanics) reveals complexity as a lens through which we can see the world.” (A complex system is many decision-makers interacting by non-proportional rules.) Complexity thus offers a means for understanding how we operate as an assembly of three hundred million individuals.
All complex systems have emergent behaviors, properties of the entire system unlike the characteristics of individuals. The way to control an emergent behavior is to alter the rules of interaction that enable the emergence. For society, the rules of interaction are our written laws and the larger set of unwritten rules of behavior—how we meet, greet, do business, trust, live and love—right down to how we arrange silverware on the dinner table.
As a society, we seem to be losing the capability to distinguish fact from fabrication or demonstration from riot. We’re becoming distrustful of our social institutions, with the result that we’re unsure whether we will be able to vote, whether the results will be accepted, and what will happen if any authority declares the results to be invalid.
An immediate partial solution is for each person take responsibility, not just for himself, but also for the rest of society. Do what matters, not just for your identity group, but for everyone else. In other words, replace an effort to win with an effort to contribute.
In the next column, we’ll look how we might alter social rules.