bogeyman code: ideas that serve us and vice versa

[codes and excitations] [hungry codes] [codes in motion] [striking the balance] [footnotes]

computer and idea codes as separate from their hosts

Computer programs that cause trouble in today's world are a familiar topic. Such programs are basically code strings (like 011011012) replicated (or not) according to the way they affect the computer operating systems and communication protocols in which they've evolved. Program codes that cause trouble include programs that don't work because of accidental bugs or poor design, and viruses or worms whose sole purpose is replication and trouble-making.

Ideas are also patterns (like this sentence) easily replicated in a world of energy-thermalizing steady-state engines. Historically at least the engines used by ideas were not computers (which thermalize electrical energy) but human organisms (that thermalize the chemical energy in biomass). Thus patterns which can cause trouble in human language and behavior have a much longer history. Perhaps because we communicate using language patterns, it seems alas that we're better at discussing computer programs independently of the networks in which they evolve, than we are at discussing ideas as objectively separate from the world with which they correlate.

molecular codes serving organisms, for lunch

We experiment with this problem of "conceptualizing ideas" a bit here. One rationale for considering the perspective of ideas or memetic codes, as separate from that of the organisms they serve, comes from the 20th century insight that description of even the simplest objects in our universe involves complementary perspectives, no one of which is complete. It also comes from the biological insight that the point of view of the genetic molecular code, independent of that of the organism that carries it, can be crucial for understanding processes.

For example, the tendency of a male praying-mantis to willingly submit to digestion by the female it's mating with can perhaps be most easily understood from the point of view of the genes that they are propagating. In tough times, where neither mates nor food are abundant, the male's genes might have their best chance in a female who is as far away from starvation as possible. If these mantids' ancestors encountered situations like this, it makes sense that those males which helped with dinner are the ones with descendants around today. Thus it's the survival of the code here, and not the organism, that calls that dance.

idea codes good and bad, on the move...

In this context, let's turn the discussion from molecular codes to ideas. Automobiles and airplanes and other tools for transporting humans have been around for a while, but tools for replicating and transporting ideas have been globalizing by leaps and bounds, throughout recorded history but particularly in recent years. Which of our time-tested ideas might work well for us in this changing information age, and which are starting to look like they bring handicap rather than advantage?

Consider, for instance, our evolved relationship to the idea of boogey men*. In stone age New Guinea up until the 1930's, people often spent their whole lives within a dozen miles of where they were born, surrounded by potentially hostile communities with strange languages and customs. Fear and even hostility towards strangers with different ideas was a survival trait [1]. Similarly a symbiotic relationship with xenophobic ideas was likely an important survival trait for your ancestors over recent, as well as myriad stone age, generations. Thus it is a capacity that persists in most of us today.

In our modern world however, with its large population and tasked environment, it is important that each of us makes the most of our capacity to help out. Every neuron available may be crucial to filling the ingenuity gap. Unfortunately, xenophobic ideas (that pit one group of humans against another) have been steadily growing in their capacity to wreak havoc on inter-human relationships. Many genocides in the 20th century, and the terrorism in the news today, are some of the more visible examples. It can also manifest itself in various ways inside each community, sometimes for the better [2] but often not. From this vantage point, therefore, xenophobia is an idea easily replicated among humans that in some contexts acts as a virus rather than a survival tool. Instead of echoing ideas (no matter how captivating) whose replication ultimately hurts everyone (regardless of who you point them at), the best bet may be to focus on ideas explicitly concordant with shared challenges. For example when temptation prompts you to direct bogeyman code at folks you count on, the short term benefit of giving in to the idea might be counterbalanced by the malaise for all that it contributes to downstream.

By comparison, other time-tested ideas hold more consistent promise. For example, adaptive family and cultural values are key components in most scientific views of correlation-based complexity [3]. Moreover, these concepts point the way toward integrative strategies (e.g. monitors of standing-crop) to tackle the external challenges that we face, like decreasing free-energy per capita in the present, and natural plus man-made environmental change in the days, years, and hopefully millenia ahead. Such strategies may require a place for everyone's perceptions in solving problems. In addition to bringing on board more eyes, what better way is there to throw water on the "fires of xenophobia" that might otherwise topple everyone's statues (like those of the timber-starved Easter islanders) as we finish off the earth's fossil fuel reserves?

numbers, and the larger context

The focus on ideas illustrated above also suggests strategies for more quantitative work. For example, how much does the adoption by individual groups of a particular behavior code (e.g. tit for tat versus unchecked altruism) serve the larger good? Of more significance is the fact that many first encountering the notes above may be struck by the sense that "codes are not the whole story". Just as excessive focus on organism dynamics opens the door to ill-serving codes, so excessive focus on code dynamics will open the door to mischievous organisms.

For instance the media spectacles of terror and of xenophobia may be two sides of one coin, that like the position and frequency of an oscillation must both be addressed in order to get a grip on either. Who knows, perhaps this xeno-rism simply dials back on progress (specifically, correlations in layered niche networks) in the face of declining free energy per capita by hitching a ride (with help from new communications technology) on a neolithic survival trait.

If so, one path to balance may involve making a point of discussing code and organism perspectives together, rather than separately, when this subject is addressed electronically or in print. For example, if you do a story about two folks gesturing inappropriately at one another, it's better to also report on the gesture's dynamic as a replicator [4]. If instead you focus only on the gesture-exchange per se (organism perspective), the code's role in the process may go unnoticed. A similar problem arises when discussing evolution if the focus is on consensus (what people say) rather than observation (how ideas and nature get along). In both cases the preoccupation with organism perspectives drives conflict. A natural place for information-industry professionals to gain insight on idea perspectives pops up, for example, in cross-disciplinary courses on the integrative subject of complex-system informatics.

Another problem for those inclined to cross-disciplinary work comes with the question: Are there general rules for setting the balance between a focus on organism perspectives (e.g. "others are the cause") and code perspectives like those discussed above? This balance is further relevant to the study of biological systems (like the praying mantids mentioned above) in which molecular codes play a dominant role. Can the concept of complementarity, now familiar to applied mathematicians from work with simpler systems, inspire some practical strategies for striking a balance between the two? This line of thinking also sets the stage for observing the rich interaction between molecular and memetic replicators (e.g. genes and culture) in social evolution, and thus may be an interesting place to put some of our precious ingenuity to work.


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