Healing Ideas


an integrative framework for exploring
the effects of media on community

[Language] [Goals] [Models] [Challenges] [Why Six?] [More]

1. Codes and Excitations: Language/Variable Change

In order to choose between idea sets with your own objectives in mind, it may help to note that ideas (patterns which can be communicated from one person to another and hence replicated in part or in whole) serve as a filter through which we interface to the world. For example the same fight between two particular individuals might be thought of as a fight between: a brit and a sri lankan, an engineer and an ornithologist, a buddhist and a methodist, a democrat and a laborite, a woman and a man, a soccer fan and a baseball fan, a cyclist and a diabetic, or a mother and her son. Any one of these codifications is at best a pale shadow of what really went on. Likewise, some languages lump all kinds of snow or seaweed or cousin into a single word, while others offer fundamental distinctions between types so that even a child would be able to provide emergency workers with key information off the cuff.

The importance of choosing the best filter (hence idea set or language) was memorably illustrated to me in my first exposure to integral calculus. Suppose someone asks you to integrate Sin[x]Cos[x] for x running from 0 to 1. If you phrase the problem in terms of variable x, the problem looks tough. If you instead refer to Sin[x] as variable u, then u is Sin[0] when x is 0, u is Sin[1] when x is 1, and Cos[x]dx translates to du following familiar rules. Thus ∫Sin[x]Cos[x]dx becomes ∫udu, which when limits are defined (again following familiar rules) becomes the final minus initial value of u2/2. For the limits here this is Sin[1]2/2 ~ 0.354. Without choosing a concept set suited to the problem, I'd still be staring at the original question.

Thus referring to Sin[x] as variable u is a healing translation for someone whose problem depends on integrating Sin[x]Cos[x]. On the other hand, if your problem depends on recalling the ratio between side opposite and hypotenuse, thinking of Sin[x] in terms of x is probably better.

2. Healing Goals and the 6 Layer Niche Network

Because ideas can be replicated in many new ways, our toolbox of concepts and languages is perhaps even more important than it was a millenium or even a decade ago. Thus a discussion of our relationship with ideas is timely. Spoken languages (evolved over hundreds of millenia) and written languages (evolved over the past dozen millenia) have helped us develop complex societies.

In particular these codes help us to keep each other healthy, plus to develop and maintain friendships, families, a shared distribution of labor, cultural belief systems, and observations about nature's behavior. One way to quantitatively inventory this social complexity is by thinking of it as a layered multiscale network of correlations (or niches) that individual organisms are involved in (or occupy).

As shown in the figure at right, the layers of this network are often conceptualized as inward and outward looking with respect to three increasingly larger physical boundaries, namely your skin, your family's gene pool, and your culture's idea pool. In other words, our social fabric is built on everyone's ability to take care of themselves, and be responsible to their friends, family, job, culture, and knowledge base.

The extent to which citizens can fill niches on all six of these levels is a measure of community complexity. The impact of policy decisions and disasters on community health may also be reflected by changes in the average number of niche levels (0-6) that each citizen can participate in. Increasing literacy, for example, likely improves a person's ability to contribute to the knowledge base with their own observations. Conversely, loss of one's home to a flood might wreak havoc on long term friendships and jobs, even if everyone's health and family stays intact.

Although an objective inventory of such niche occupancies is difficult (i.e. it is not easy to take the essence of a community and project it onto a spreadsheet), the spirit of a program which seeks to give everyone a chance to simultaneously take care of self, friends, family, hierarchy, culture and profession is well-grounded in our knowledge of simpler (e.g. physical) systems. It may also be satisfying in other ways. Thus for the sake of future discussion, we consider the ability of members to occupy niches on all six scales of organization as a measure of community health.

3. Illustrative layered network models

To quantify, we might (in cross-disciplinary fashion) develop technical definitions for the above concepts (like friendship as a pair correlation, political consensus, culture, scholarly observation, etc.) to be used as complement to their more diverse vernacular forms. To this end, consider associating with each of i=1,N individuals a fraction fij of their attention for each of the j=1,6 niche scales [cf. Appendix]. For example, someone who spends all their time in church-activities or dance-class (i.e. developing cultural connections) might have a larger value of fi5 than someone who spends all their time doing applied mathematics. The six f-values for an individual thus describe the distribution of size scales on which they connect to the community around.

We briefly examine here the relationship between these f-values and the concepts used by individuals and the media (i.e. our choice of variables) to describe the world. A robust measure of a community's level diversity, in these terms, is the average surprisal s (in bits) of an individual's focus given only the fij. Niche level multiplicity defined as 2s, a number between 0 and the active number of niche layers, allows us to put this measure of community health into even simpler terms.

The distribution of niche level multiplicity for individuals in a random community of 10000 is illustrated in the figure above. The niche level multiplicity of this community as a whole (a geometric average of individual multiplicities) is five out of six. In which column of this plot would you fit? How will your niche level multiplicity change during the next decade? How would similar plots look for the various communities of which you are a part? How will changes in the environment and/or economy affect the profile for those communities? These are already potentially interesting questions.

3.1 Advertising Example

The niche layer for self-care might be used to distinguish folks who select coffee, tea, or neither when given a choice. One could experimentally model the effect of ads on (i) the probability fi1 that folks will concentrate on self-care, and (ii) in so doing choose either coffee or tea. Thus we are looking at niche occupancies, and their correlation with specific idea sets. Advertisers are of course already doing this, even if not in this multiscale context.

3.2 Highway Safety Example

To maximize safety, automobile drivers should probably divide their attention between keeping their own vehicle safe, and not endangering others on the roads around. Simultaneous focus on other niche-level responsibilities while driving in this context serves as a distraction. Such distractions can move into real time when one is also holding and talking on a cell phone. Measurements of the resulting attention loss might be put onto a more quantitative footing using the conceptual tools discussed here.

3.3 Applications in Social Psychology

Control systems theory in sociology looks at the way that humans interface to the world through niche-related ideas. Although these ideas differ from one culture to the next, the multiscale or layered-network structure discussed here offers an integrative thread. For example, all human cultures distinguish between family and non-family individuals even if the word associations used are different. Via connections like this, data generated by identity or affect control experiments in social psychology may be used to monitor the effect of media events or social policy on objective measures of community health. If we focus on the way that behavioral resources (rather than perceptual attention) are directed toward community correlations, this same integrative strategy may also be put to use in studying the behavioral ecology of animal communities centered more around genetically rather than culturally-transmitted codes.

3.4 Politcal Science Example

Here, let's select the social hierarchy layer and ask about the effect of ads on (i) the probability fi4 that folks will take political responsibility in a given election, and (ii) in so doing choose one party or another. Simulations over many decades here likely show some interesting oscillations. Again media is already being put to use by politicians, and so a developing awareness of the effect of those actions on community health may be a good thing.

4. Our Neolithic Heritage for Better and Worse

Given a measure of community health (niche level multiplicity) referenced to three physical boundaries (skin, family gene pool, and cultural idea pool), we now consider ways in which our choice of ideas (or variables) has positive (healing or sanative) effects, as well as the converse. Since our relationship to ideas goes back to the neolithic days that all humans share, this may be a good place to start.

Before man's development of written communication the separation between one's cultural knowledge, and man's knowledge of nature's behavior, was probably less well defined. Local culture was the source of both types of knowledge. In communities of animals with less developed oral communication skills, cultural training itself seems to be less developed (although certainly not absent). Thus it is likely that the pre-history shared by all humans involved adaptation of individuals to five, and not six, layers of niche development in parallel with our shared refinement of oral communication skills.

This is important, because adaptation to five niche levels may be something most humans have in common. As humans face more complex challenges to their large population in days ahead, understanding what we can and cannot count on may be important. Businesses, politicians, and advertisers are already putting their knowledge of in-born human responses to work on us.

Here we discuss some impacts of these in-born adaptations on community health, from the point of view of individuals. We first discuss the occasionally opportunistic role of human-developed codes as an antagonist to robust niche development, and we then discuss some negative and positive strategies for giving as many humans as possible an opportunity to fill niches on all six scales of organization.

4.1 Code/Excitation Blurring

In addition to helping us maintain levels of organization in human communities, ideas can also cause trouble. This is especially true now that ideas can be replicated electronically across the planet's surface in less than a second, by anyone with access to a web cafe. Here we discuss technological redirection of niche-forming behaviors, and the web's ability to amplify a neolithic survival trait (inter-cultural xenophobia) into oscillations of destructive cartoonification.

4.1.1 Mediated Interaction as a Niche Substitute

If one recognizes money as a technology developed along with the development of food production and distribution, then one can also see that one of our oldest "professions", prostitution, arose as a way to technologically fake some rewarding aspects of a reproductive partnership with help from a once new technology (namely, the coin of the realm). Any technology that distracts you from responsible interaction with other humans plays the same role.

However just as money has its good side and its bad, so newer technologies (like video games) capable of distracting you from human interaction will likely have positive uses e.g. in education or as occasion for mental, physical, or team skills exercise. Of course, if we emphasize the importance of responsible niche participation on each of the levels discussed above, this will hopefully help folks keep their eyes on the positive rather than the "fake niche" aspect of these technologies.

4.1.2 Boogeyman Cartoons: Xeno-rism and the Web

Our evolved response to the idea of a boogeyman, if we ignore the dynamics of this idea, allows it to run amok in the information age outside of video games as well as in. For example if you respond to someone calling you subhuman by calling them subhuman, then the idea of treating others as subhuman is given a boost by both of you whether or not that behavior is in anyone's interest.

This is illustrated in the ternary plots of individual f-values for groups A and B at right, where a resource problem that might only be solved by scientific observation (f6) precipitates discomfort that results in a xenophobic broadcast from one group of 2000 individuals (B). Because in today's world that broadcast is accessible to all, this in turn also shifts the focus of the other group of 10,000 individuals (A) toward political action (f4). Electronic media capable of sharing broadcast and counterbroadcast could thus shift the focus of both populations away from where it is needed. Note that movement of individual dots in the figure toward f4 denotes a shift of attention toward politics regardless of the side they take on any given issue. If we recognize in this the dynamics of codes that had survival value long ago but can be improved upon now, then we have a better chance to keep such oscillatory cartoonification from causing more damage than necessary.

Thus it is easy to imagine the toppling of each district's statues after deforestation on Easter Island, as well as the electronic ramping of intensity in current wars by humans oblivious to the dynamics of xenophobic ideas in a resource-limited world. This is a special case of the ability of electronically-broadcast ideas to redirect the attention of large subsets of our population via evolved human perception. To the extent that mirror-neurons (cf. the November 2006 Scientific American) directly elicit feelings, one can even imagine feedback loops which allow electronic media to manipulate human attention at visceral levels that bypass logic (and self-interest) altogether.

4.2 Level Blurring From 6 Down...

We discussed earlier how our evolved response to language likely involved mainly niches pertaining to self, friends, family, hierarchy, and culture. This might help explain why folks often substitute their profession (if they find opportunity to develop one) for one of these other elements in their life. At least it is difficult for me to do all six well!

One practical consequence: level blurring from 6 down to 5 increases the likelyhood of extremist niche occupancies, i.e. individuals whose behavior is informed to only a minor subset of the constraints associated with a 6-level niche structure. This is illustrated in the figure at left, where contours of constant net surprisal (separated by 0.1 bit) with respect to the equal-probability ambient (i.e. all fractions 1/N) are plotted. When level f4 and level f6 become one, the contours for f1+f3 and f5 move outward toward the corners of the plot. If such extremism in turn helps replicate an idea which drives this blurring process, that process could easily run away in this age of electronic communications with no conscious input on the part of the participants.

When free energy per capita decreases, Eric Chaisson's anecdotal observations of the relation between complexity and free energy rate density suggest that complexity will also decrease, and thus that pressure to devolve civilization from 6 back down to 5 layers of individual correlation may increase. We mention three examples of this here.

4.2.1 Confusing Observation & Consensus (Science-Politics)

The scientific tradition involves observations of nature, faithfully reported, followed by the iterative refinement of conceptual models for its understanding and prediction. Social consensus about those models has its uses, but is generally a dated and belated spin off. Scientific observation is the horse which pulls that cart.

Similarly teaching science is about training each of us as critical observer, not about teaching the consensus. Thus when scientists and creationists argue about which consensus to teach, they are both helping to blur the distinction between science and politics. Their discussion generally does not involve what observational tools to use. Thus a mistaken idea of science as "taught consensus" has folks fighting for no good reason. Once again our gut level reactions, in the face of ideas with electronic wings, are distracting us from the real challenges at hand. These challenges include decreasing free energy per capita that could help drive this confusion, putting us on a rather slippery slope unless we decide to get a grip.

4.2.2 Confusing Consensus & Belief (Politics-Religion)

Of course the separation between church and state is an old story, with new chapters being written every day. We portray it here in a new light, namely as community simplification (devolution) e.g. toward an endpoint where the alpha-wolf's majority decides on everything including the beliefs of each citizen. In terms of the concepts introduced above this type of community has fewer thinkers than it has citizens, and much shallower complexity. Although things may have to go this way for those still on earth a half billion years from now (as available carbon for plants to breathe becomes scarce), we may want to postphone this sort of confusion as long as we can.

4.2.3 Confusing Belief & Observation (Religion-Science)

In the historical scheme of things the distinction between niches focussed on belief and observation is probably most recent, and hence also the one we've had least time to evolve with. As many have said, of course, there is no a priori reason why belief and observation should be in conflict unless one seeks to promote beliefs that fly in the face of observation. The good news from the other direction is that this scientific approach to correlation-based complexity protects cultural beliefs as an element of structure as zealously as it does the fruits of scientific observation. Simplifiers in either direction are where the real confusion lies.

4.3 Level Building Up Toward 6 For All

We've talked a bit above about ideas which replicate easily among humans in an electronic age, but that also break down community correlations in the process. We mention here a few strategies, which may have already occurred to you as a result, that might help (along with other time-tested ideas) to strengthen correlations instead.

4.3.1 Tracking Soft Correlations in Layered Niche Networks

Rather than concentrate only on economic measures and population (which are relatively easy to be objective about), consider also trying to track niche layer occupancy per citizen (0-6) in a community as a function of time. Why? The reason is that it at least tries to register the impact of policy changes on deeper aspects of community structure. Although objective quantification is fiendishly complex, since even the participants may not be sure how well they are doing, this is a place where technology might be applied to social health as it is already applied to the health of individuals. As economists look for measures of progress linked to the steady state rather than to rates of growth, this might be useful there as well.

4.3.2 Complementarity: Bundling Code & Organism Perspectives

Get in the habit of talking about code as well as organism perspectives when reporting news, and use ideas for their modern relevance rather than simply because they appeal to our prehistoric selves. For example, when two people get into a fight after the exchange of "inappropriate gestures" toward one another, in addition to reporting the human spectacle the reporter might examine the history of such gestures (which in related form even occur among non-human primates in the wild). There are other places where bad behavior by people is not the whole story. In thousands of broadcast hours already this millennium, not one that I've heard has pointed out the way that neolithic cartoonification of others is having a heyday at the expense of all participants in the current spate of "you're evil" exchanges. This in spite of the fact that, as discussed in the introduction, cartoonifications (verbal or pictorial) are pathetically inadequate at describing even an interaction between only two people.

To illustrate, imagine that worldwide media can't resist playing to their consumer's fears about people out to get them, even though the problems those consumers face involve not each other but say limited resources. As in the first animation above, if the press in region B describes a protest group in region A as the enemy, an oscillation of the sort mentioned above might start in the absence of credible opposition to begin with. In other words, in this information environment an oscillation might nucleate from random fluctuations and be amplified into increasingly larger opposing pushes thanks to dissatisfaction, while the growing resource problem itself falls off the radar. Linking the politics (f4) to religion (f5) or family (f3) might increase the amplitude of excursions toward the political corner of the niche-focus simplex (a 5 dimensional triangle with 6 corners), thus increasing an individual's extremism by lessening the pull toward other corners. In this way the media of this example might play an unwitting role in the spectacle via its choice of language, i.e. by having only eyes for bad guys (but not bad ideas).

A global electronic media ignoring replicable code dynamics and limitations, but focused on pushing buttons as cheaply as possible, could thus be doing us more harm than good. In case you missed it, this is a scientific argument that with further development could put yellow journalism into proper perspective in any cultural setting that values community health.

4.3.3 Archived Interaction as Healing e.g Newsgroups vs. Chats

Finally, you may or may not have noticed how instant messaging and chat rooms naturally reduce people to code, and at the same time elicit "flame wars" between participants. These are another set of technologically redirected niche-forming behaviors, since they take place in a world of replicable codes, and they can and are turned off at the flick of a switch much like a video game battle when it's time to go to bed.

However technology also has potential for archiving responsible interaction, and for saving correlations for access by future generations. Usenet newsgroups, recently hooked into browsers and cloned in moderated-access form by Google, are a case in point. Here, niches of accountable interaction on many levels can be developed, nurtured, and later studied as well. Work for over a decade by John Baez on current finds in mathematical physics is a case in point. Although interactions are mediated e.g. via an ASCII stream thus limiting expression in fundamental ways, preserved contributions can also be subject to the tests of time. Is the poster offering new and accurate information? Are they being responsive to the group's needs? What future actions on the part of group members are made possible as a result? Thus you can now create custom locations to place healing ideas for a community of interest, and to simultaneously document the magic that results.

5. Appendix: Why these six, and only six, levels?

Recognizing correlations between systems on different size scales probably requires that we know where a given system starts and ends, or in other words a definition of boundaries. In the case of complex systems, their boundaries generally start out as ill-defined but over time emerge as worth taking for granted.

Examples of this over time include the development of a star from a diffuse cloud of gas, the formation of planets from a bunch of tiny dust particles in orbit, the development of predictably structured enzyme-molecule surfaces from mixed atoms in a random soup, the formation of bilayer cell membranes with highly sophisticated pore structures to facilitate reproduction of useful biochemical cycles, the development of skin-bound metazoans with fancy endocrine, nervous, gastro-intestinal, circulatory, and immune systems from simpler tissue alliances like those found in jelly fish, etc. In each case, the new boundary arrives out of the blue and in poor focus. For a finite time, however, these boundaries begin to take on clear and practical significance. Each new boundary, in turn, is a jumping off point for emergence of the next boundary in life's assembly of layered correlations*.

On size scales up from that of multi-celled organisms suppose that we consider only three such boundaries, namely metazoan skins, molecular code-pool boundaries (already nightmarishly complicated in a geometric sense), and idea code-pool boundaries (e.g. as physically encoded in recordable speech, writing, and a wide range of replicable digital formats including video). At first glance it seems that plants correlate with their environment spatially (cf. figure at right), but otherwise act more as heat engines (which capture thermodynamic availability) than as information engines (which buffer the kinds of code-pool correlation discussed here). For example, what plants show bias toward their own weaned offspring? On the other hand, along with self-care animals seem comparatively active at pair interaction, as well as in the buffering of correlations directed inward (family) and outward (hierarchy) from their immediate gene pool. Activity focussed inward and outward from skin and gene pool can be represented by the tetrahedral 3-simplex shown in the figure at left. The investment of most animals in correlations directed inward and outward from cultural boundaries, however, seems pale in comparison to the attention directed by humans. In order of increasing layer-scale the three boundaries thus give rise to six very popular subjects of human discourse, namely health care, pair bonds, family matters, political hierarchy, culture/religion, and scientific/extra-cultural lore.

In even more basic physical terms, the magic of complex systems comes from the correlations which make the whole more than a sum of parts. This is the mathematical definition of mutual information. Niches that target the nurturing of correlations of the above 6 types (e.g. intra-family or inter-family) might comprise much of that magic in communities. In principle one could directly measure the effect of behaviors on correlations of this sort, like the spatial correlations between red organisms and environmental greenery in the above figure at right (recall that red PLUS green equals yellow). However, the dynamical nature of layered network correlations, as well as the problems that plague measurement of algorithmic complexity in computer programs (e.g. we are likely to miss important emergent patterns), make this an incomplete solution. We therefore suggest asking for each individual: "What fraction of their attention and/or effort is targeted toward the buffering of subsystem correlations in each of these 6 areas?" These are the f-values mentioned in Section 3.

Thus the 6N-element multiplicity matrix for a community of N individuals (with a normalized set of six positive numbers for each individual) is one possible abstraction of the attention-network for individuals in a community. This may or may not offer insight into the dynamics and structure of that community's mutual information matrix with its more direct connection to the second law. One can imagine the latter as a set of N values for each individual, plus a non-directed set of N(N-1)/2 values (all measured in bits) between individuals for each of the niche layers beyond self in which individuals are involved.

Inward Focus Physical Boundary Outward Focus Applies To Correlation Models
Individual Metazoan Skin Environment/Pairs/Friends All Patterns in Space & Time
Family Gene Pool Consensus Hierarchy Animals 4-Scale Resource Slicing
Culture/Beliefs Meme Pool Professional Observation Idea Sharers 6-Scale Attention Slicing

This "attention-slice" strategy for quantifying correlations in animal communities thus builds on recognition of two kinds of thermodynamic symbiosis. The first kind is the informatic symbiosis between steady state excitations and replicable codes, integral to life of all sorts. For example, microbes store information on how to make useful proteins in nucleic acid codes whose perspective is as important as that of the microbes that carry them. Similarly, governmental hierarchies store information on useful procedures in books of law which carve out their own evolutionary tale. The second kind is the trophic symbiosis between multi-celled plants and animals, wherein the former (autotrophs) convert thermodynamic availability (for the most part from sunlight caught by leaves facing skyward) into available work which in turn is thermalized by the latter (heterotrophs) while constructing their layered networks of subsystem correlation. The latter correlations include lively friendships, family activity, team accomplishments, cultural traditions, as well as libraries of observational data (with unavoidable interpretation) on how the world around works. Most agree that these activities fall outside the baileywick of plants.

* A larger list of stacked boundaries which underlie many of the complex systems that we deal with today.

New Level Drivers Physical Boundary Emerging Correlations
stable nuclei voltage gradients neutral matter (electron/proton correlations in space)
density fluctuations gradients in gravitational potential forming galaxies
interstellar cloud collapse radial temperature variation spin up & stellar ignition
orbital accretion of dust & gas radial pressure variation planetary differentiation & geocycles
geothermal & solar gradients compositional variation biomolecular cycles
biological cells bilayer membranes & cell walls chemical communication, microbial symbioses & differentiation
biofilms & live tissues organ surfaces skeletal, respiratory, digestive, & nervous systems
metazoans individual skins pair bonds & redirected aggression
reproductive bargains, family gene pool boundaries social heirarchies & politics, ritualized available work ($)
cultures & belief systems meme pool boundaries sciences & diversity protocols

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