Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Basic Guide to Deriving Politics From Physics. First Take.

As a civilization, we happen to have found ourselves in the curious but uncomfortable situation of being positively confused as to how social systems and economies ought to be operated and implemented. The confusion is so rampant and unchecked, that students can spend dozens of years studying political philosophy and economics and yet remain positively clueless as to the real nature of the beast.

On the other hand, your average physicist, mathematician, or engineer acquires a decent set of skills, and is provided with great insight into the functional forms of things in our universe, yet is left relatively in the dark about how the tools of the physical sciences apply, if at all, to Human socio-politics and culture. Perhaps this blog post will help rectify all that. Perhaps not.

The essence of the problem is this: how are the actions of a large number of individuals co-ordinated to give rise to something which promotes the further co-ordination, well-being, and growth of those individuals - something that is wholly greater than the sum of its parts?

Let us call the emergence and maintenance of such co-ordination, well-being, and growth "sustainability"

How can we structure society, then, for optimal sustainability?

This problem, of the massive co-ordination of a large number of agents, or parts, has been treated historically by the field of physics known as statistical mechanics. Statistical mechanics set out to explain the emergence of the macroscopic properties of matter (temperature, pressure, volume, conductivity, elasticity, etc.) in terms of probability distributions over the component particles. In doing so, it would provide a new foundation for understanding the meaning of life.

But let's take stock of our footing with a simple example. In a glass of water, there are roughly a million billion billion (Avogadro's number, or 10^23) molecules of water, each buzzing around in different directions at different speeds. Yet, when we put a thermometer in the glass of water, we obtain a single reading for the temperature. What is the relationship between the distribution of speeds of the molecules and the temperature? Statistical mechanics shows us that temperature is proportional to the average speed of the molecules in the glass. Hence a connection between the microscopic activity (the distribution of speeds) and the macroscopic observable (the temperature).

Now the glass of water is a particularly simple system. More importantly, it is an equilibrium system, since the distribution of speeds (and hence the temperature) is the same everywhere in the glass. Furthermore, this means it is a minimum information system -> a system at equilibrium has no true gradients, and so maintains a minimum of possible information content. In other words, there is little you can gather about the true speed of a particular molecule from the temperature alone.

In contrast, a non-equilibrium system maintains a certain amount of information in its structure, an amount that is proportional to its distance from equilibrium. Organisms, ecosystems, societies, and economies are very far from equilibrium indeed.

Non-equilibrium systems are driven out of equilibrium by a driving signal. In the absence of driving, a non-equilibrium system decays to equilibrium. But in its prescence, the structure and patterning of a non-equilibrium system emerges to re-present the patterns in the driving signal. Perhaps this is a truism, but it has profound implications for sustainability.

The sustainability we are concerned with is inherently non-equilibrium. Our bodies and economies are driven by certain signals which maintain us and structure our behaviour. For organisms, the primary driving signal is chemical (mostly the smell of food and mates), which is ultimately a re-presentation of the sun. For economies, the primary driving signals are prices, which ultimately re-present resource availability and value.

The essential problem for a sustainable system thus becomes the accurate re-presentation of its driving signal. If an organism, for example, mis-represents the availability of food (chemical or photonic), it will burn all its resources, shrivel up, and die. Similarly, if an economy mis-represents the availability of resources and the value of things, it too will burn all its resources, shrivel up, and die. Indeed, we see much of that today.

Clearly, our economic system vastly mis-re-presents the availability of resources and the value of things. But why does it do so? Why are organisms and ecosystems so much more able to re-present environmental variables than large societies? And what is the source of that mis-re-presentation?

The answer should be clear: the source of mis-representation is centralized architecture. In a society as complex and fast paced as ours, a centralized architecture that does not control literally every aspect of every individual's life (we're not quite there yet) will not have the capacity or the bandwidth to deal with the diversity and magnitude of signals that drive our society. This isn't a political question, it's an information theoretic one. In other words, if you're still using a dial-up connection, you're going to have a bad time on youtube. Governments are connecting through dial-up in a world running on optic fibers.

Now, while politicians may be intelligent individuals, as a government, they render themselves functionally incompetent by virtue of the shear complexity of their supposed object of control. Again, it's not a matter of politics, it's information theory. This doesn't say, necessarily, that government should be abolished all together. Indeed, people will always come forward as decision makers in times of need, and if you want, you can associate that phenomenon with the word government (though I implore you not to), but the sort of quasi-democratic "elect for a term" massively bureaucratic and bloated central architecture of governments today is wholly fragile and physically incapable, regardless of the intelligence of its politicians, of addressing the problems of our modern society. Not to mention their widespread bankruptcy.

What I am saying is this: there is good reason the forest has no government. In the forest, information flows freely between agents, who act on it as they do, and experience appropriate consequences. This gives rise to a phenomenon of "natural selection", whereby those more able to reproduce - those more able to re-present environmental information - survive. But unlike the view of the old evoluitionist, who speaks in the language of "survival of the fittest", what this architecture actually gives rise to is a platform for co-operation at an unprecedented level. As much as nature is a competitive battle ground, it is even more so a co-operative assembly.

Competition arises strictly on account of the fact that resources are limited. This is the circumstance which lays the foundation for informative driving signals: signals which reflect the inherent scarcities of environmental resources (food, mates, land, shelter, etc.). In response to these signals, organisms (over evolutionary time) bounce around their fitness landscapes, "looking" for architectures that are ideally suited for the conditions of their environment and which utilize optimal strategies for responding to driving signals. What they quickly find is that by collaborating with other organisms, higher-level responses which are far more effective and sustainable become possible. Think squirrels and nuts, fungi and trees, bacteria and guts, flowers and bees.

So the insight we get from nature is this: open and honest competition breeds co-operation. And co-operation breeds sustainability. Plain and simple. No need for centralization. No need for government. Just local agents making local decisions on account of local information. That's the only way to respond honestly to the enormous breadth of driving signals we have today.

Politics, then, has been asking the wrong question. Instead of trying to promote information flow, diversity, and innovation in every day society, politics has concerned itself with inhibitting the flow of information, through insane regulations and partnerships and policies and interventions. In almost every circumstance, they interfere completely with the people's ability to respond honestly to signals (mostly, price signals), and in doing so, corrupt society, destroy widespread co-operation, and encourage greed and dishonest competition.

So the answer to the problem of politics can be found in physics - in information theory and ecology, which are non-equilibrium extensions of fundamental physics. In economics, we call it market forces. In physics, we call it emergence. In politics, we call it anarchy. But it's a beautiful anarchy, and it's the only honest solution to the architecture of society.

Now, the problem of politics has historically been linked to the problem of existentialism, that is, to the problem of being Human. But democracy, our alleged modern solution, tied as it is to notions of freedom and independence and choice, is only functional if there is wide spread participation. And surely going to the polling station has very little to do with participation. So, in a rapid paced culture like ours today, true democracy can be nothing other than anarchy, because only through local responses to local information can people be honest with themselves and their society about the value of goods and the possibilities for collaboration.

Forget Republican or Democrat. The question is, will you collaborate with me to improve both our responses to local driving signals? After all, design is not a zero-sum game.

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