Archive for March 2008

The King Is Dead – Long Live The King

March 29, 2008

We’ve seen how hierarchical societies have properties suggesting they could be a stable form of organization of self-interested agents that have a need to expend the usable energy they can obtain in a manner that will optimize their survival probability. Indeed such hierarchies of co-operating semi-autonomous parts are, for groups of energy-conserving intelligent information-processing agents, probably a near-optimal solution arrived at by evolution.

A corollary of this hypothesis is that as humans, we get to choose some details of the form of hierarchical governance we get, but we do not get to choose whether we get hierarchical governance. The energetic efficiency and hence survival-adaptive considerations, and the stable manageability properties of a hierarchical form will almost certainly overpower ideas and ideals, such as libertarianism or anarchy, which do not give hierarchy its due.

We may choose, for example, to elect our leadership democratically, but we may not choose not to have leadership. If we reject representative democratic hierarchy, then hierarchy over us will be imposed by those individuals who are effective at building, harnessing, and wielding the power of hierarchical groups. There are always latent empire builders and latent power groups in society. The only question is which hierarchies will come to the fore, and what their scale and compass will be in a given historical time period.

The hypothesis would also predict that there should be no such thing in human history as a total societal collapse of any prolonged length.

Instead, what we should see is that hierarchy gradually builds up in each historical era to the size and number of layers that the underlying technologies of the era will support. We have noted that there are costs of co-ordination (governance), and despite hierarchical grouping being an efficient shape for the organization of such governance, the possibility of effective governance will run into limits with increasing population size and increasing geographical size of the governed region. In other words, beyond a certain size, co-ordination requires too high an energy tax on group members, and so a larger group becomes infeasible energetically. Where this limit is encountered will depend on the efficiency and effectiveness at various spatial scales of the society’s technologies and cultural affordances for

  • communication and information conservation (for co-ordination of collective action, for ethos teaching, law creation and promulgation, monetary system (i.e. regulated exchange of process outputs) development)
  • transportation (economic flows, enabler of force projection at a distance)
  • force projection (internal policing, and resistance to external threats by other group of various sizes and at various distances over various terrain/ocean barrier types.)

More precisely than saying that hierarchy gradually builds up, we should say that it would be predicted to evolve in punctuated equilibrium fashion toward the maximum supportable size in a given technological/cultural era. The reason for that is that each particular hierarchical society of necessity builds homeostatic mechanisms into its governance rules and procedures; mechanisms which resist any change to the status quo.

Such homeostatic systems of the hierarchical order include laws against treason, laws against usurpation of or ignoring of “legitimate” authorities within the society as established, laws requiring payment of taxes, laws against internal violence, laws enforcing behavioural constraints designed to prevent internal unrest and violence, historical education that builds and encourages loyalty, stories and rituals that communicate and motivate shared aspirations, and of course, law enforcement including policing, and sovereignty maintenance including diplomacy and armed forces.

These subsystems of the hierarchical society actively resist change within certain levels of internal and external disruptive force, but then break rapidly when their capacity to resist is overwhelmed.The overwhelming of a society’s homeostatic systems will occur, generally speaking, when the society’s costs of co-ordination, policing, and defense, as a fraction of the society’s ability to harness and channel resources, rises to a ratio where increasing co-ordination, policing, or defense to a level needed to quell the disruptive influences becomes untenable. When this may occur depends on:

  1. the size that the society (or state) itself has reached, compared to the efficiency of its governing technologies in acting at that scale, and on
  2. the extent to which the society’s economic processes and techniques have depleted the resources in its environment beyond its capacity or ingenuity to renew or replace them, and on
  3. the scale and power of any potentially disruptive active threats.

External Threats: Other societies building themselves adjacent to the boundaries of the society, pose a threat to the society’s order. Societies tend to want to subsume and cannibalize the human and other resources of an adjacent society, because an adjacent society is an unpredictable, self-interested, active, thus potentially dangerous part of the surrounding environment. Yet it contains riches and people power if it can be re-organized to be part of the society that is contemplating invasion.

Internal Threats: An internal faction within a society may start using technologies or organizing methodologies that are more capable or efficient at the state’s scale than those of the dominant state.

If a hierarchical society in a given techological/cultural era does break down, we would expect that latent hierarchies, initially shallower and of smaller compass, would fill the power vacuum. In a somewhat turbulent process of conflict and consolidation, one of them, or an evolved enlargement of it, would eventually become the new dominant or legitimate hierarchical society; the new state government. Unless technology and cultural organizational techniques had advanced, we would expect the new stable state to be of a similar size to the one it replaced.

Because technologies of communication, information storage and processing, transportation, and force projection have increased over human pre-history and history, coordination at larger and larger scales has become feasible, and so the average size of the dominant hierarchical societies (states or other governance orders such as organized religions) has also increased over historical time. One might hypothesize that the hierarchy size has been a function of the population increase in the species. I rather posit that the population increase has been a side-effect of the energy-efficiency gains of technological and cultural development, and possibly most significantly, of the energy-efficiency gains per increment of survival probability that larger and better organized hierarchical societies have afforded.Size of Nations over Historical TimeFigure 1: The Red line indicates the maximum diameter in kilometres of the geographic area of a typical top-level societal group (tribe … nation).

Staircase form of the growth is due to quantum leaps in the technology or techniques for communication, information conservation, control, transportation, and force projection.

The blue and green lines show the incorporation of sub-states, and sub-sub-states into federal versions (i.e. hierarchically layered versions) of nations. Sub-states allow the top-level state to grow larger (harness more resources, quell conflict further out from the centre, invent more complex and efficient organized modular processes) while the technology for transportation and communication and force projection at great distance is still only effective or efficient at the size of the substates. i.e. It allows the state to grow larger on more limited governance technology. Federalism is an innovation in organizational technique that compensates for lack of other technologies of large-scale direct communication and transportation.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century AD, ongoing improvements in technology; notably computing, the Internet, and fiber and satellite communications, continue to shrink geography from the perspective of communication and force projection. Therefore it would be surprising indeed if the average size of the dominant hierarchical societies did not continue to increase. If the cost of effective coordination at larger-than-present-national scales is reduced, by means of these technologies, to feasible tax rates, the hypothesis predicts that there are more energy efficiency gains of increased global security and more energy efficiency gains of global coordination of economic activity to be had.

Perhaps the only question is whether we will end up with two or three top-level federal states/sovereign economic regions in the human world, or just one. One speculation would be that two to three may be more a more stable endgame because they are competition for each other and force each other to continue improving, whereas a single global state would stagnate and frequently be subverted by a few of its dominant substates. Another speculation is that we will go through a two-or-three state phase leading eventually to a single global state having jurisdiction in limited domains such as human rights, amelioration of extreme poverty, mediation and limitation of state or factional conflict, international trade law, and environmental regulation.

If the hypothesis that

  1. energy-efficiency economic benefits of hierarchical governance increase generally with the size of the governed group, and that
  2. ever larger groups can be governed effectively as technology and organizational techniques improve

is correct, then the onus is clearly on political or economic theorists to show why an endgame of further consolidation of power as described above is less likely than a continuation of the status quo.


Upsizing Social Friction: Energetic Considerations in Social Dynamics

March 22, 2008

How To Keep Yourself Together – Once More With (Semi) Formality!


This article is not based on scientific experiment. It contains diagrams and numbers meant only to illustrate general concepts, which are merely hypothesized as pertaining to the operation of human society. Ideas about how to test the hypotheses laid out here are welcome.


Hierarchical societal grouping is a stable configuration for resource-processing intelligent agents (such as human beings and other animals).


a. Hierarchical societal grouping results in reduction of “social friction” energy losses of individuals, through upsizing and outward movement of social friction to the boundary of the group, which leads to higher survival probability of individuals in the group.

b. Aggregated, co-ordinated, aligned and specialized effort allows invention of new complex, more energy efficient living processes within the group.

c. The hierarchical topology of the arrangement yields stable manageability of processes essential to the operation and continuation of the group.

Use of Energy By Individuals Without Society

Tribes protect members and conserve energy for survival

Kingdoms provide even more safety and energy conservation

(larger image)

At the next level of detail:

a. Hierarchical societal grouping reduces per-capita frictional losses of energy to social conflict, by aligning the activity of members of the group via enforced agreements on constraints on individual behaviour; that is, the rule of law, pressure to adhere to social conventions, and development of a shared ethos, within the group. Social friction, therefore, tends to be upsized in the sense that, in the ideally aligned group, it occurs only at the border of the social group, where the group impinges on other groups and may have interests that conflict with those of the other group.

b. Aggregation and co-ordination of effort of individuals within the group allows the invention of new efficient resource extraction and utilization processes, enabling the group and its members to more efficiently use their environment to ensure their survival and growth, to more efficiently defend against environmental threats and other groups, and to transform parts of the environment into subprocesses of the group as a living process.

As the number of individuals and co-operating sub-groups increases, the vocabulary (alphabet and grammar) of process combination increases. Complex processes use hierarchical co-ordination and constraint to corrall together process elements, leading to innovations like supply and distribution chains, scientific and technical process development, and specialized agricultural or manufacturing processes.

The result of innovative combinations of a large vocabulary of societal metabolic processes (i.e. economic activity) can be more efficient than any smaller simpler subsistence process could be.

c. Stable Manageability – Hierarchical social grouping is efficiently manageable (each manager manages only a relatively small and simple sub-domain of the whole complex system, requiring the manager to use only a simple network of communications, and making such management feasible). As well, hierarchical social group activity coordination accumulates surplus resources toward managers (more rewards going toward managers with responsibility over larger, higher-tier domains) yielding stability of the hierarchical co-ordination (management) regime if managers are self-interested.

The consequences of a. b. and c. combined:

Each individual group member must pay a group membership tax, in order to support the functioning of c. hierarchical management and policing of the group’s activities. This tax may be a real monetary payment toward the next levels up in the group control hierarchy, as in modern human societies, or it may be only a metaphor for the opportunity cost the individual pays by constraining their behaviour to conform to the group’s norms and laws. Outlaws can make a good living, for a time, but the law eventually “gets its man”.

But in a successful form of society, a. (friction reduction on survival activity), and b. (emergent efficient complex regulated economic processes), combine to produce a tamed, secure, and “edible”, “shoppable” environment for the individual member; an environment in which they can achieve increments of increased survival probability at considerably less marginal energy expenditure than if they were not cocooned within the society.

Hierarchical groups are stable when Energy Savings (a. + b.) are greater than Energy Tax(c. flow of energy in central direction for group maintenance)

If this is the case, then being in the hierarchically organized group conserves the individual member’s energy so they will have more to use for basic survival, health, welfare, reproduction, and guardianship of offspring. Being in the hierarchical group is beneficial, in terms of survival probability, to each conforming member. From an evolutionary perspective, belonging to the group, and acting according to its constraints, is adaptive.

How To Keep Yourself Together

March 22, 2008

That is really the prime directive of any living being. How do I keep myself together, in good shape, able to function in ways so I can, well, continue keeping myself together. How do I keep myself together long enough to convince that very similar but more beautiful form and function over there that I really know how to keep us together, so that we can unite our forms in function so as to produce a younger, less run-down, and just that little bit better unit of our form and function? Seems circular? Well it is. Life is cyclical, and the definition of its essence is too.

Why do I need to keep myself together; to keep my form and function toned? Well because other things want to break me down. Sometimes it’s just general entropy, raw cruel physics and time, slowly breaking down my cells and randomizing my DNA. But other times, there’s other matter patterns out there near me, or even inside of me, and they; they are actively working, some of them actively scheming, to bring me down, wipe me out, use my land or my own energy for their own evil purposes. There’s tigers, wolves, rats, army generals and rulers of foreign countries, or street thugs and gangs of a different stripe. There’s bacteria and there’s viruses. And each one wants to take my form, and my energy, and, regardless of how I need it to be, they just want to use it themselves. They want to re-pattern me right out of existence. It’s a mean nasty world sometimes. It’s a good thing I have my wits to protect me. It’s an even better thing I have some friends.

It’s great that my friends and I can work out stable and trustworthy and predictable ways that we can spend some of our time and energy co-operating to protect each others’ form and function. It’s a life saver.

If I didn’t have stable, mutually reciprocal agreements with my friends, or the friends of my great grandparents who formed this great friendly nation of ours, I would seriously be spending half of my hard-won food energy every day on fighting off all those aforementioned varmints trying to put me down and steal my resources or my very body or its labours and energy. I’d be burning or stealing their crops, eating their berries, and they’d be burning or stealing mine. The chance of me and mine surviving that? The chance of my form and function continuing hale and healthy over the generations to come? Not very likely.

I’d be wasting the energy I need to be gathering food with on fistfights and factional neighborhood wars. I’d be wasting the time and energy I need to be brooding how to fix things up to be easier for me, mine, and all of us, on petty, exhausting squabbles. I’d be going west, and you’d be coming east on the same path, and we’d have to fight to settle it right then and there. That kind of small scale social friction is exhausting. I don’t know about you, but it would be enough to undo me.

I’m going to join that happy band over there, that mutual protection society, that seems to have got its proverbial **** together. If they’ll let me in. I wonder how I’ll have to behave to get them to let me in to their group and stay in? I wasn’t cut out to be a rugged individualist all the time. I might even agree to pay some tax to the great chief depending on the social contract. I’ll work for us instead of just me some of the time. I guess, if that’s what it takes to keep from being booted out into the cold again. Why? Because over time it’s not quite as exhausting as going it alone in the dark and cold with those beady-eyed varmints all around. Those people all dressed the same over there seem to have it so easy, hundreds of them sittin’ there feasting and dancing together around their campfire with nothing but a few guards on the lookout around the edge of the circle. Now there’s form and function. They’ve got it made.

It’s not fight or flight. It’s fight or flight or build! Build a co-operative society so we can reduce the per-capita energy we waste on fighting and flighting, and get down to some serious friendly competition with civilized rules to keep everyone’s formed and functional limbs attached, some serious time for sharing with rules, so we can specialize our labour. Then we can invent new larger more efficient collective processes for catching and processing our food, building our shelters, making our tools. It could be paradise. It could be the great kingdom. Now if we could just convince someone to be King Kahuna, Queen Bee. Who’s going to be the hero? Who’s going to get us going in more or less the same direction to make all this happen? Who’s going to invent the new organism that is we? Who’s going to shepherd it through growing pains and redefinition? Why would anyone just trying to keep themself together paint that giant “leader” target on their behind? They must think it’s going to make it easier for them and theirs to survive. Seems like a gambler’s strategy.

The Life and Society Column

March 22, 2008

The next series of posts will consist of observations of and some might say rash and brash generalizations about the way that higher lifeforms, such as we take ourselves to be, organize into societies.

A general theme of this series is limitation of the free will of individuals. One theme will be the limitation of free will by societal constraints on the action and interaction of individuals. Another will be the limitation of our will to create whatever kind of society we dream of. What principles might act to limit the form of societies that will be stable?

When I broach this sort of topic, I either get a yawn or a firm objection. The objection is of the sort: Humans are, individually, complex thinking beings with a mind and a will of our own. How could there be any simple forces acting to shape our societies that we could not easily change? And how could any simple rules predict what will happen in a complex society of complex thinking people?

The sketch of the answer is that in large complex systems, constraints may be imposed by several factors:

One is physical laws, generally, and thermodynamics specifically. Persistent complex systems tend to need to be thermodynamically feasible. Systems naturally seek and find states where the least energy use is needed to maintain their form, and distortions of their form take additional energy input.

We may be able to find energetic stability arguments for certain forms of human society.

Second is the observation, proven in studies of a wide variety of complex systems, that the statistical properties at least of the system as a whole are predictable with a simple model of the constraints on the interactions of adjacent elements of the system. Such models typically ignore most properties of the individual elements, and model the collective effect of only a few essential properties of the elements as system-constituents. Many systems are complex enough that the exact evolution of any particular instance of such a system at any time is inherently unpredictable. So a statistical model (stochastic model) that provides probabilistic bounds on the system’s form and behaviour is the best that can ever be achieved. Those statistics are in some sense the essence of the stability that characterises the system. So the fact that the statistics of the system evolution may be determined by simple rules applied to a small set of essential properties of system elements is profound. It is an essential truth about many interesting complex systems.

Third is the observation that a stable or meta-stable complex system, while generated from the interactions of its elements, also becomes the environment of those elements. The whole imposes constraints on the evolution (the form and behaviour and arrangement, over time) of its elementary parts.

We will look to see examples of how society imposes constraints on individuals, and how in turn, these constraints contribute to the stability of society. We will see how upward causation (individuals acting in ways that create, constrain, and sustain society) and downward causation (society constraining but also sustaining individuals) lock together to create a stable complex societal system, but only if the form of the society conforms to certain simple principles.

By combining observations about systems seeking energy-use minima, and observations about mutually reinforcing patterns of upward and downward constraint and causation, we may arrive at a surprisingly simple predictive model of the form and stochastic behaviour of a wide class of complex systems, including human society.

Libra Descendant: Weighing with the Wrong Scales

March 9, 2008

When making a political or economic choice, we weigh the pros and cons of deciding either way. And when we weigh, we usually heavily discount a consequence that may lie in the future, in proportion to how far out in the future it is. Similarly we discount a consequence that lies far away, on the other side of our city, or our country, or the world. We are situated beings, living in the here and now.

Being 6 foot tall animals our important “here” has a definite spatial scale to it. It is from the smallest size we can see, up to a size several times our armspan; a region we can directly manipulate, or that can directly, immediately, and perceptibly harm us. Beyond that, we may give considerable thought and weight to our town or city; the region we can easily walk, bicycle, or these days automobile around in. The region we see and experience day-to-day.

Concern for any geographic domain or population further out than or larger than that requires highly abstract and speculative thought on our part. It is inherently difficult for us.

What about our important “now”? We are often concerned with what we can get done before our next meal or sleep, and we can easily imagine and plan our next day’s and week’s work. We may be able to plan a year or two. How do you make God laugh? Tell her your plans, or more specifically, tell her your five-year plan.

Most corporations focus on planning a quarter or a year or two. Our democratic governments fare little better. They spend much of their energy managing daily or monthly crises as they arise in the media and the public’s attention, and their planning horizon seldom extends past the next election.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Not only is the bush far away, but your capture of the two birds is in the future, and may be prevented by the fickle hand of any number of unpredictable intervening events. Generally, our strategy is to optimize the long term by “integrating over” our tactic of always optimizing for the very short term which we can do with the greatest certainty.

But by getting together into large societies and corporations, and by specializing and hierarchically organizing our means of production, we have managed to organize large-scale and even global-scale industrial activities and urbanizations. These are now causing planetary and centuries-long transformations of the land, sea, air, and of life itself. And yet the 6 foot tall situated and selfish ape is expected to plan these activities in order to avoid large-scale disaster. Our present industrialization and urbanization, unplanned as they are at the spatial and temporal scale of their effects, are akin to the unplanned scourges of locusts or cancer.

Only by putting our best minds to work collectively on our large-scale, long-term problems and opportunities will we improve the certainty of our knowledge about these, and thus be able to avoid excessive discounting of the far out and far away when weighing consequences.

More importantly we have to figure out how to make the democratic majority of us support and believe intellectuals and un-self-interested institutions that would be capable of making unbiased and rational pronouncements on these issues. Some of our number, who ought to be credible, do understand the long term implications of our large-scale actions. But we are pathologically unable, as mass societies today, to listen to these more knowledgeable people, because other people and organizations with vested interests in the status quo have perfected the art and science of managing popular belief and diverting attention.

We are going to need to superimpose a new global scale of governance of our activity, to match the global effects of our high-throughput, high-impact world-transforming activities. Many of the solutions may involve a re-localization and downsizing of activity and governance, but to make that fair, it will need global oversight and regulation.

We’re going to have to figure out how the necessary global scale of governance could be democratic and representative of situated, selfish and short-lived hairless apes, and yet also have as its primary responsibility the weighing, prevention and cure of global problems, like climate change and ecosystem destruction, that take 500 years to have their full effect, and 100 years to slow down.

Solving that puzzle will be the next leap in our maturity as a civilization. Not solving it will mean a depletion of readily accessible natural resources worldwide, a severe alteration of climate and agriculture, a global breakdown of eco-systems, a collapse of our present large-scale human civilization, and an end to the comfortable lifestyle to which the developed world has become accustomed.

Denying We Are Animals

March 8, 2008

The biggest error of our historical, civilized period as humans is that we deny that we are animals. Our dominant cultural teachings insist that we actively deny this. To ascribe animal behaviour to a person is a grievous insult.

In our capacity for abstract thought and imagination of ourselves and the future, we have transcended the capabilities of other animal species on Earth, to be sure. Yet most of what motivates us, much of the time, are concerns and desires that we share with the other animals. We are driven by needs for food, drink, shelter, personal security, and reproduction, as are all other animals. We spend much of our “bandwidth” managing and optimizing co-operation and competition in the quest for surer survival, by forming complex hierarchical social groups, as do most “higher” animal species. Occasionally, we have the time to muse about, or futz about with “higher” concerns like literature, cosmology, and baseball, that other animal species can’t get around to. Occasionally.

Plato separated the ideal from the real. Descartes the mind from the body. But notions of soul and body, of sacred and profane, long predate these, probably being included among the earliest forms of abstract thought. It is one thing, though, to notice a separation between the human soul or mind and its thoughts on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other, but quite another thing to denigrate the latter and exalt the former. Certainly not all belief systems did. West Coast North American spiritual belief places human people as equals among bird people, bear people, and tree people, and I suspect most “Animist” religions did the same. The grand denial occurs only in the more “advanced” religions and philosophical and legal systems.

By denying we are animals, we lose a lot. We fail to understand the reasons for our conflicts, and for our societal structures. We fail to understand the raison d’etre for the moral guidance that our cultural stories provide us; that they glue our societies together against individual organismal selfishness; that they provide ancestral wisdom needed to reign in the dangerous combination of our animal motivations and our big brains’ imaginative capacity to invent many forms of unsuccessful life story.

By denying we are animals living animal-motivated lives of varying abilities and fortunes, we fail to acknowledge the primary causes of despair, depression, schizophrenia, and addiction, and we fail to appropriately counsel our young and our troubled.

By denying we are animals, we fail to understand the interdependency we have with the eco-systems we live in. We naively assume we can engineer something better, without understanding the essence and value of what we are destroying in the process.

This is not a very high form of transcendent intelligence, that misguides itself so.