March 28, 2007
Austin Henderson had some further points in his comment on Dancing toward the singularity that I wanted to discuss. He was replying to my remarks on a social phase-change toward the end of the post. I’ll quote the relevant bits of my post, substituting my later term “netminds” for the term I was using then, “hybrid systems”:
If we put a pot of water on the stove and turn on the heat, for a while all the water heats up, but not uniformly–we get all sorts of inhomogeneity and interesting dynamics. At some point, local phase transitions occur–little bubbles of water vapor start forming and then collapsing. As the water continues to heat up, the bubbles become more persistent, until we’ve reached a rolling boil. After a while, all the water has turned into vapor, and there’s no more liquid in the pot.
We’re now at the point where bubbles of netminds (such as “gelled” development teams) can form, but they aren’t all that stable or powerful yet, and so they aren’t dramatically different from their social environment. Their phase boundary isn’t very sharp.
As we go forward and these bubbles get easier to form, more powerful and more stable, the overall social environment will be increasingly roiled up by their activities. As the bubbles merge to form a large network of netminds, the contrast between people who are part of netminds and normal people will become starker.
Unlike the pot that boils dry, I’d expect the two phases–normal people and netminds–to come to an approximate equilibrium, in which parts of the population choose to stay normal indefinitely. The Amish today are a good example of how a group can make that choice. Note that members of both populations will cross the phase boundary, just as water molecules are constantly in flux across phase boundaries. Amish children are expected to go out and explore the larger culture, and decide whether to return. I presume that in some cases, members of the outside culture also decide to join the Amish, perhaps through marriage.
After I wrote this I encountered happiness studies that show the Amish are much happier and dramatically less frequently depressed than mainstream US citizens. I think its very likely that the people who reject netminds and stick with GOFH (good old fashioned humanity) may similarly be much happier than people who become part of netminds (on the average).
It isn’t too hard to imagine why this might be. The Amish very deliberately tailor their culture to work for them, selectively adopting modern innovations and tying them into their social practices in specific ways designed to maintain their quality of life. Similarly, GOFH will have the opportunity to tailor its culture and technical environment in the same way, perhaps with the assistance of friendly netminds that can see deeper implications than the members of GOFH.
I’m inclined to believe that I too would be happier in a “tailored” culture. Nonetheless, I’m not planning to become Amish, and I probably will merge into a netmind if a good opportunity arises. I guess my own happiness just isn’t my primary value.
[A]s the singularity approaches, the “veil” between us and the future will become more opaque for normal people, and at the same time will shift from a “time-like” to a “space-like” boundary. In other words, the singularity currently falls between our present and our future, but will increasingly fall between normal humans and netminds living at the same time. Netminds will be able to “see into” normal human communities–in fact they’ll be able to understand them far more accurately than we can now understand ourselves–but normal humans will find hybrid communities opaque. Of course polite netminds will present a quasi-normal surface to normal humans except in times of great stress.
By analogy with other kinds of phase changes, the distance we can see into the future will shrink as we go through the transition, but once we start to move toward a new equilibrium, our horizons will expand again, and we (that is netminds) may even be able to see much further ahead than we can are today. Even normal people may be able to see further ahead (within their bubbles), as long as the equilibrium is stable. The Amish can see further ahead in their own world than we can in ours, because they have decided that their way of life will change slowly.
Austin raises a number of issues with my description of this phase change. His first question is why we should regard the population of netminds as (more or less) homogeneous:
All water boils the same way, so that when bubbles coalesce they are coherent. Will bubbles of [netmind] attempt to merge, maybe that will take more work than their hybrid excess capability provides, so they will expend all their advantage trying to coalesce so that they can make use of that advantage. Maybe it will be self-limiting: the “coherence factor” — you have to prevent it from riding off at high speed in all directions.
Our current experience with networked systems indicates there’s a messy dynamic balance. Network effects generate a lot of force toward convergence or subsumption, since the bigger nexus tends to outperform the smaller one even if it is not technically as good. (Here I’m talking about nexi of interoperability, so they are conceptual or conventional, not physical — e.g. standards.)
Certainly the complexity of any given standard can get overwhelming. Standards that try to include everything break down or just get too complex to implement. Thus there’s a tendency for standards to fission and modularize. This is a good evolutionary argument for why we see compositionality in any general purpose communication medium, such as human language.
When a standard breaks into pieces, or when competing standards emerge, or when standards originally developed in different areas start interacting, if the pieces don’t work together, that causes a lot of distress and gets fixed one way or another. So the network effects still dominate, through making pieces interact gracefully. Multiple interacting standards ultimately get adjusted so that they are modular parts of a bigger system, if they all continue to be viable.
As for riding off in all directions, I just came across an interesting map of science. In a discussion of the map, a commenter makes just the point I made in another blog post, that real scientific work is all connected, pseudo-science goes off into little encapsulated belief systems.
I think that science stays connected because each piece progresses much faster when it trades across its boundaries. If a piece can’t or won’t connect for some reason it falls behind. The same phenomenon occurs in international trade and cultural exchange. So probably some netminds will encapsulate themselves, and others will ride off in some direction far enough so they can’t easily maintain communication with the mainstream. But those moves will tend to be self-limiting, as the relatively isolated netminds fall behind the mainstream and become too backward to have any power or influence.
None of this actually implies that netminds will be homogeneous, any more than current scientific disciplines are homogeneous. They will have different internal languages, different norms, different cultures, they will think different things are funny or disturbing, etc. But they’ll all be able to communicate effectively and “trade” questions and ideas with each other.
Austin’s next question is closely related to this first one:
Why is there only one phase change? Why wouldn’t the first set of [netminds] be quickly passed by the next, etc. Just like the generation gap…? Maybe, as it appears to me in evolution in language (read McWharter, “The Word on the Street” for the facts), the speed of drift is just matched by our length of life, and the bridging capability of intervening generations; same thing in space, bridging capability across intervening African dialects in a string of tribes matches the ability to travel. Again, maybe mechanisms of drift will limit the capacity for change.
Here I want to think of phase changes as occurring along a spectrum of different scales. For example, in liquid water, structured patterns of water molecules form around polar parts of protein molecules. These patterns have boundaries and change the chemical properties of the water inside them. So perhaps we should regard these patterns as “micro-phases”, much smaller and less robust than the “macro-phases” of solid, liquid and gas.
Given this spectrum, I’m definitely talking about a “macro-phase” transition, one that is so massive that it is extremely rare in history. I’d compare the change we’re going through to the evolution of the genetic mechanisms that support multi-cellular differentiation, and to the evolution of general purpose language supporting culture that could accumulate across generations. The exponential increases in the power of digital systems will have as big an impact as these did. So, yes, there will be more phase changes, but even if they are coming exponentially closer the next one of this magnitude is still quite some time away:
- Cambrian explosion, 500 Million Years ago
- General language, 500 Thousand Years ago
- Human / Digital hybrids (netminds), now
- next phase change, 500 years from now?
Change vs. coherence is a an interesting issue. We need to distinguish between drift (which is fairly continuous) and phase changes (which are quite discontinuous).
We have a hard time understanding Medieval English, as much because of cultural drift as because of linguistic drift. The result of drift isn’t that we get multiple phases co-existing (with rare exceptions), but that we get opaque history. In our context this means that after a few decades, netminds will have a hard time understanding the records left by earlier netminds. This is already happening as our ability to read old digital media deteriorates, due to loss of physical and format compatibility.
I imagine it would (almost) always be possible to go back and recover an understanding of historical records, if some netmind is motivated to put enough effort into the task — just as we can generally read old computer tapes, if we want to work hard enough. But it would be harder for them than for us, because of the sheer volume of data and computation that holds everything together at any given time. Our coherence is very very thin by comparison.
For example the “thickness” of long term cultural transmission in western civilization can be measured in some sense by the manuscripts that survived from Rome and Greece and Israel at the invention of printing. I’m pretty sure that all of those manuscripts would fit on one (or at most a few) DVDs as high resolution images. To be sure these manuscripts are a much more distilled vehicle of cultural transmission than (say) the latest Tom Cruise DVD, but at some point the sheer magnitude of cultural production overwhelms this issue.
Netminds will up the ante at an exponential rate, as we’re already seeing with digital production technology, blogging, etc. etc. Our increasing powers of communication pretty quickly exceed my ability to understand or imagine the consequences.