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self-organization, cyberspace, and conspiracy theories


I was just reading The Sword and the Shield: The Secret History of the KGB by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, when I came across this passage:

Until almost the end of the Cold War, no post-war Soviet leader, KGB chairman or foreign intelligence chief had either any personal experience of living in the West or any realistic understanding of it. Accustomed to strong central direction and a command economy, the Centre [KGB Headquarters] found it difficult to fathom how the United States could achieve such high levels of economic production and technological innovation with so little apparent regulation. The gap in its understanding of what made the United States tick tended to be filled by conspiracy theory. The diplomat, and later defector, Arkadi Shevchenko [noted]:
Many are inclined to the fantastic notion that there must be a secret control center somewhere in the United States. They themselves, after all, are used to a system ruled by a small group working in secrecy in one place. Moreover, the Soviets continue to chew on Lenin's dogma that bourgeois governments are just the "servants" of monopoly capital. "Is not tha tthe secret command center?" they reason.
However much the Centre learned about the West, it never truly understood it. Worse still, it thought it did.
As soon as I read this I was struck of how true this is in general, applied to almost any situation where a "reason" is not readily identifiable. Especially with "artificial" constructs (governments, corporations, whatever) but with the world itself as well, we tend to imagine someone is pulling the strings. It's comfortable, in a way, it defines whatever it is that we are seeing, regardless of whether the reality, most of the time (if not all the time), is that things happen through simple rules that determine the self-organization of groups. Birds fly in recognizable flock patterns not because there's an AWACS bird that flies higher up and directs them using a wireless microphone, but because they use simple local rules (say, "stay no less than 2 feet and no more than 4 feet from the next bird, and never be surrounded by more than 4 other birds"). Simple rules, applied locally and consistently on groups generate incredibly complex behavior. With humans, the rules aren't simple, and they aren't applied consistenly. More complexity. We see something we can't put our finger on and we go the easiest route: someone must be behind it. Purposefully. Because the option seems to be that things happen "by themselves". But that's a false option. Things don't happen "by themselves" but there doesn't have to be a master plan either. Groups and individuals, going in similar directions, sometimes closely aligned, sometimes not, sometimes at odds with each other, sometimes not even aware of what the other is doing---this is the essence of most events that tend to be "explained" by conspiracy theories.

But we don't like that idea, do we. It takes away part of our cherised egotism. It places success, in part, in the unseen dynamics of groups. Dynamics that are, at the moment, more or less beyond our understanding. Suddenly "what makes things tick" is no longer individual actions, or plans, but interactions. What's in between. Just like in a phone conversation, when you are talking to someone, where is the conversation actually taking place? In your head? The other person's head? The phone line? The switches? Of course not. But without each component there is no conversation, yet it's not contained in any of them. It's not about the sum being greater than its parts, it's about the sum being something altogether different from its parts. A phone conversation is fundamentally meta-human (sure, this applies to a "regular conversation as well since air is just another medium, but it's easier to see with a phone I think).

But we've had a word for that "place" where conversations or more generally data exchanges and interaction happen, for twenty years now: Cyberspace. And just now I saw that this concept of the land of meta, all those things that emerge as entities on their own from a group of apparently disconnected parts, is a very similar concept, but applied to everyday life, less bound by the digital.

Just an early Sunday blinding flash of the obvious. :)

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on November 16 2003 at 1:45 AM

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