More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Around the ’50s a political ideology formed. I’m sure its ideas date back further but it was at this time that it crystalised into a coherent group. More than a political ideology, it was, and is, a worldview. This worldview has no explicit pop-culture presence. No-one preaches it overtly. So most people are unaware of it directly. However it was, and still is, insidiously influential on the thoughts of some important people.

One of the most basic assertions/assumptions of this worldview is what is technically called strong reductionism. This is the idea that any system is just the sum of the elements in the system. Put plainly: to understand a society you have to only understand individuals. So, for example, if crime increases by 10% then the explanation is that individuals like crime by 10% more than before. It is this idea that lead Thatcher to believe and proclaim that “there is no such thing as society.” What she meant is that society is a kind of academic myth. A mirage created by a bad understanding of the world.

I don’t know how but this worldview has filtered out into popular culture. The world is confusing right now, and confusion both inspires and demands analysis. Reading the never-ending stream of analyses of how we got here, on racism, on sexism, on equality, on social justice, I have noticed that the worldview I mention is encoded right into all of them, and it makes these analysis irrelevant because they’re blind to the biggest factors.

These analyses seem mostly to try to reduce behaviours of societies down to how individuals think and act. Attributing things to individuals is difficult, as there are billions of them, so this approach necessarily requires demographic segmentation i.e. stereotypical thinking (which is ironically often what the analysis is out to criticise.) You have to find the demographic group whose behaviour, or thoughts, or opinions can reasonably be said to contain the behaviour you are trying to explain. I say reasonably because these analyses are usually only opinions; what the writer thinks is a reasonable explanation is accepted, usually without any actual evidence, instead relaying on the reader liking the sound of the conclusion. How many “why Trump got elected” videos and articles have you seen? Few provide any causal evidence, most only provide demographics as data masquerading as evidence. These are plentiful and have, undoubtedly, already coloured peoples ideas of how the world works.

This approach to understanding the world is limited to specific types of conclusions. If the phenomena we are most concerned about are recent this type of analysis can only conclude that the difference in our society is obviously the fault of whichever group represents the biggest recent demographic change; millennials. Things like institutional racism or sexism are incomprehensible because those phrases don’t mean anything. How can an institution be racist if none of the individuals in the institution are guilty of overt racism? How can we even approach fixing a sexist education system if none of the parts of that system are being sexist? How can inhuman labour practices be an issue if everyone working in the factories chose to work there?

Strong reductionism is bullshit. It was shown, with actual maths, to be bullshit over 100 years ago. The hard sciences, you know, the people who put robots on comets millions of miles away, predict weather with miraculous precision, run optical cables across the ocean floor, create self-driving vehicles, use general relativity to account for transmission distortion in communication between machines in geo-stationary orbits, put the magic machine you are looking at in front of you, those people, dropped strong reductionism at that time and never looked back.

If you want to understand radical changes in the behaviour of our society in the last decade there is an elephant in the room: social media. Social media itself mediates the new social interaction. The important word there being interaction. Interaction is not a feature of individuals so strong reductionist worldviews are blind to it. For them interaction is effectively inert. It just transmits benignly, having no overall effect on behaviour. It can express behavioural traits, that’s it.

When the world, apparently in unison, listens to Gangnam Style then a month later ritualistically pours buckets of water over their heads, what does that tell you? That everyone woke up one morning and decided they like songs about Korean horse farming, then changed their mind and really wanted to pour whatever over their heads and social media was just there to record it? Or is it a more feasible explanation that those things went viral largely because of the nature of social media itself? So many variables in that process are obviously part of how social media and the internet themselves work and cannot be reduced to individuals at all. If social media didn’t exist, but every music shop in the world sold copies of Gangnam Style one day, would people have bought it? There is clearly another factor at play here that isn’t just peoples’ traits.

There is a motion that fake news, transmitted by social media, was a large factor in recent political events. You might think that this is an example of a break from the worldview above because it is laying blame at Zuckerberg’s feet. Maybe it is, but this analysis, again, seems to be about the content traveling around social media rather than the system itself. The system is at fault in that it contains this type of content. It is recognised that social media creates filter bubbles in which our view of the world is coloured to match our outlook, biasing our opinions. Again, this looks at the situation in terms of individuals. Social media biases the individual, or more accurately the individual biases themselves using social media, which manifests itself as a societal bias. Social media is just providing a way for individuals to do what they as individuals want to do, but if that is true there is no bias… ta da!

This is, I’m sure, a factor but it’s an incomplete story. Social media filters content based on two broad factors: the user’s interaction with it and marketing revenue. So if we like things that steers social media’s shaping of the filter bubble but what we like is a function of our social interaction, which is itself mediated by social media and distorted by our filter bubble. It might sound like I have added nothing to this analysis. The first says “A affects B”. Mine says “A affects B which affects A”. I’ve just pointed out a feedback loop made from the same elements, but that feedback loop is an important extra element. Put a feedback loop in a speaker-microphone system and you get a loud, shrill whine, right? That screechy noise isn’t a product of the singer, or the mic, or the speaker, or the cables; it’s a product of those things combined. It’s exact pitch is a product of the properties of all of those things and it’s volume is a product of their interaction. You can sing a different song but you’ll still get the same pitch. The only way to get rid of it is to get rid of the feedback loop.

We all see definite polarisation on most important issues. The standard analysis is, again, that two groups form, and the difference in opinion between the two sums to the outlook of the society. And again we are ignoring interaction. What people miss out is that both sides have a vested interest in portraying the other side as as crazy as possible. So most of the examples of either side are actually picked out by the other side. Those articles about air conditioning being sexist, a woman with 40 kids on benefits, people complaining about a movie poster, outrage about this and that, political correctness gone made, are in every case minor incidents involving a handful of people selected by the other side and made viral. Then the analysis that follows is based on data handed over by this process. Apparently the worlds leading experts on gender equality are all well-off white men who think that feminists are all men hating nut-cases; a conclusion based on a biased view of the world provided largely by a social media system designed to respond to those opinions by shaping its filters to make the world look more like that view!

In technical science systems with feedback loops have a mathematical property called non-linearity. They’re called complex systems because they have complex and often weird behaviours. The properties of these systems are well understood by people whose opinions no one cares about, and are unknown unknowns to a huge number of people whose opinions that shape our society. You probably aren’t aware of this but the idea of strong reductionism is axiomatic to all neo-classical economics, which includes all the ideas about how economies function in official practice right now. It’s embedded in the university curricula studied by many of our government ministers, although to be fair they probably didn’t pay much attention.

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