In the latest episode of Mindful Cyborgs Chris Dancy and I journeyed to the belly of the beast at Defrag and interviewed investor Chris DeVore from Founders Co-Op on “industrial entropy”:
KF: Yeah, one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is that in the 80s there was dystopian sci-fi people would talk about the mega corporation and you would see these big conglomerates but now what seems to actually be taking over or becoming more prevalent or mega networks . . . so, Y Combinator is one example though. Maybe the founders [00:04:06] would be as well but Paul Graham has explicitly said that part of the point of Y Combinator is to be a distributed peer to peer replacement for the traditional company to give the members of it the benefits of being part of a large company without having to be part of the structure of a large company. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you think that’s actually happening?
CDV: I definitely do and I think this is where the pattern that I think is interesting and there’s a dark [00:04:31] that we’ll get to in a minute is, when everyone is responsible for their own career pathing, like no man is an island, right? We all need different mixes of skills and abilities and kind of promotional states to build an organization that’s capable of things that more than one human can do but this idea of going from hierarchies of organizations with organization design and managers and leadership into networks where you essentially have these flat as Paul says peer-to-peer networks of people that they collaborate in more dynamically as they come together around a project and then they disassembled and reassembled different products. I think that’s fundamentally true about the nature of work today.
Even an enterprise work you might have a project manager but they’re going to hire this sort of coalition of vendors to come together to build a software or to ship certain kind of product and then when that’s over and they then ships over they’re going to disassemble and they’re going to reassemble very organically and I think it’s again very empowering for people who have the skills and ability to navigate and set their own career path and build their own digital identity and kind of how work come to them and be called in to these dynamic networks.
The thing that I worry about is from a skilling standpoint who’s being left behind, who doesn’t have the ability to surf on this very organic dynamic networked economy and how do you make that economy as open or as porous as it can be so that people who are coming out of school right now it used to be they go to a career fair and they get a job. If those jobs don’t exist, what does exist and what are the gateways and points of access for people into the network at this point?
According to the Associated Press’ sources, Osama bin Laden routinely typed e-mails on an Internet-less computer in his compound, saved them to a USB thumbdrive and had a courier e-mail them from cybercafes in nearby towns. Apparently this went on for years, undetected. According to the AP, Navy SEALS found about 100 flash drives that apparently contain series of these e-mail communications.
This is what’s referred to as a sneakernet, and as Internet crackdowns occur all over the world, it may become an increasingly popular way for people to communication.
Now is a good time to establish lines of electronic communication that are not entirely (if at all) reliant on the Internet as it currently exists. Hand delivery of a stack of media is still one of my favorites. At a certain point it the best bit-per-second value known, it has certain privacy features that can’t be beat and it requires very little technical know-how or fancy equipment or money. For all the gnostic freakout of The Matrix, the scene where a disreputable character knocks on Mr. Anderson’s door and passes him a data disc might be the most prophetic.
Learning about cryptography, fidonet and the postal system won’t do anyone any harm. Nothing beats trusted person-to-person connections established in many only-partially overlapping social / professional circles.
Paul Baran, inventor of packet switching and co-founder of the Institute for the Future, is dead. If anyone could have claimed to have invented the Internet, it may have been Paul Baran. From Wired’s obit:
Baran was working at the famed RAND corporation on a “survivable”communications system in the early 1960s when he thought up one of its core concepts: breaking up a single message into smaller pieces, having them travel different, unpredictable paths to their destination, and only then putting them back together. It’s called packet switching and it’s how everything still gets gets to your e-mail inbox. […]
Baran approached AT&T to build such a network. But the company, which at the time had the U.S. telephone monopoly and, backing Baran, could conceivably have also owned the internet, just didn’t see the possibilities.
The military is decentralizing its networks. Here’s a piece I wrote for ReadWriteWeb about it:
DARPA contracted Ratheon in 2009 to build the “Mobile to Ad-Hoc Interoperable Network GATEway” (MAINGATE), a mobile network that both military and civilian organizations can use to communicate using any radio or wireless device. The agency announced last month that the system has now been tested for video, voice and data by both high bandwidth and low bandwidth users.
A key component of MAINGATE is Network Centric Radio System (NCRS). According to Defense Industry Daily, NCRS provides: “1) a backbone radio architecture that enables IP versatile networks and 2) a radio gateway that enable legacy analog and digital communications systems to be linked together.” NCRS provides a self-healing ad-hoc mobile network that enables seamless communication between nearly any radio.
Defense Industry Daily reports that MAINGATE also features disruption-tolerant networking to cope with disruptions caused by line-of-sight issues, spectrum access, congested radio frequencies and noisy environments.
Of course the Internet was never truly free, bottom-up, decentralized, or chaotic. Yes, it may have been designed with many nodes and redundancies for it to withstand a nuclear attack, but it has always been absolutely controlled by central authorities. From its Domain Name Servers to its IP addresses, the Internet depends on highly centralized mechanisms to send our packets from one place to another.
The ease with which a Senator can make a phone call to have a website such as Wikileaks yanked from the net mirrors the ease with which an entire top-level domain, like say .ir, can be excised. And no, even if some smart people jot down the numeric ip addresses of the websites they want to see before the names are yanked, offending addresses can still be blocked by any number of cooperating government and corporate trunks, relays, and ISPs. That’s why ministers in China finally concluded (in cables released by Wikileaks, no less) that the Internet was “no threat.” […]
Back in 1984, long before the Internet even existed, many of us who wanted to network with our computers used something called FidoNet. It was a super simple way of having a network – albeit an asynchronous one.
One kid (I assume they were all kids like me, but I’m sure there were real adults doing this, too) would let his computer be used as a “server.” This just meant his parents let him have his own phone line for the modem. The rest of us would call in from our computers (one at a time, of course) upload the stuff we wanted to share and download any email that had arrived for us. Once or twice a night, the server would call some other servers in the network and see if any email had arrived for anyone with an account on his machine. Super simple.
But Dr. Tononi’s theory is, potentially, very different. He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a “consciousness meter” that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature. […]
For the past decade, Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network. Dr. Tononi has dubbed this quantity phi, and he has studied it in simple networks made up of just a few interconnected parts. How the parts of a network are wired together has a big effect on phi. If a network is made up of isolated parts, phi is low, because the parts cannot share information.
But simply linking all the parts in every possible way does not raise phi much. “It’s either all on, or all off,” Dr. Tononi said. In effect, the network becomes one giant photodiode.
Networks gain the highest phi possible if their parts are organized into separate clusters, which are then joined. “What you need are specialists who talk to each other, so they can behave as a whole,” Dr. Tononi said. He does not think it is a coincidence that the brain’s organization obeys this phi-raising principle.
There may be a literal truth underlying the common-sense intuition that happiness and sadness are contagious.
A new study on the spread of emotions through social networks shows that these feelings circulate in patterns analogous to what’s seen from epidemiological models of disease.
Earlier studies raised the possibility, but had not mapped social networks against actual disease models.
“This is the first time this contagion has been measured in the way we think about traditional infectious disease,” said biophysicist Alison Hill of Harvard University. […]
Happiness proved less social than sadness. Each happy friend increased an individual’s chances of personal happiness by 11 percent, while just one sad friend was needed to double an individual’s chance of becoming unhappy.
Regular readers of this site may have noticed a large number of posts on this site credited to “Social Physicist” – the Twitter handle of Kyle Findlay (and yes, you could be forgiven for confusing our names). Kyle works for a group within one of the world’s largest market research companies, which he describes as a “mini-think tank” with the purpose of exposing people to new ways of thinking and doing things. Having enjoyed his Twitter stream for the past year or so, I got in touch with Kyle Findlay to ask him about the practice of “social physics.” He talked to me by instant message from from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.
Klint Finley: What, as a “social physicist,” do you actually do?
Kyle Findlay: Well, at the moment I’m on my own in this “field,” if you can call it that. It just seems like the best description of what I do and what interests me so hopefully it sticks.
Basically, my interest is in understanding how people act as groups. As emergent entities that have their own (hopefully) predictable and describable topological forms. That’s the lofty idea anyway. And the tools of chaos theory, systems theory, network theory, physics, mathematics, etc. help describe this.
Do you have a background in physical sciences?
None at all. I studied “business science” at the University of Cape Town. My first job was for a company with a strong academic background, started by a professor of religion and a statistician. They used a 5-dimensional catastrophe cusp model to describe people’s relationships with ideas.
The moment I was exposed to this thinking, something clicked. A lot of contradictions that I saw in the world around me were resolved. Ever since I have had an insatiable desire to understand these areas. Which led me to interact with experts in many disciplines from neuroscience to economics, math, physics, AI, ecology, biology, etc. Every field has a piece of the puzzle. I am lucky to work in an environment that gives me free rein to indulge my passion.
Do you think what you do is different from systems thinking or social cybernetics?
They are definitely components. Systems thinking is a broad umbrella term. Cybernetics definitely helps us to understand and describe the patterns and multi-dimensional shapes that society creates. But I think that you need the hard sciences like math and physics to really get at the heart of it. Which is why I am feverishly trying to catch up on many years of missing education.
Do you think there are any dangers in applying models designed for physical systems to human behavior?
Yes there are – you will always be at least slightly wrong. There are a lot of parallels between the way people act in groups and other types of particles. But you also have the same problems of predictability in complex systems: sensitivity to initial conditions, 3-body problem, etc. It’s kind of the paradox of it all, something I am still trying to come to grips with.
What’s the most surprising insight you’ve discovered since you started studying this?
Everything is the same and everything is just information. The universal nature of nature is astounding. You see the familiar signs everywhere: from the atomic through to the cosmic level. It makes me think that there really is only one true science or line of inquiry and that most specialised fields are just facets of this. The more fields I delve into, the more commonalities I discover. It’s become par for the course for me now I think. But in the beginning, it really blew my mind.
Have you been able to apply this stuff in any interesting ways? For example, I know you’ve prepared presentations on network theory and power laws for work.
Those have gone down really well within the silos I work in. People have really been amazed when I’ve shown them these kinds of things. It gets their minds racing.
I’m also doing some work applying systems theory to sports science, which can really benefit from changing the way they view the human body. Music is another area that makes a lot more sense from this point of view.
One of my favourites is understanding how human attention works and how to synchronise communication so that it becomes internalized, but that is very theoretical and could be seen as slightly Machiavellian so I won’t go there.
Also, I’ve been having some interesting chats with a neuroscientist around decision-making, attention, etc. The applications are really endless, it’s just where you choose to focus you own attention.
How would you suggest someone interested get started studying social physics?
Well, considering I’m not 100% sure what falls into the bounds of the field myself, it’s difficult to say. There’s no university course for it as far as I know. I would say that you need to have an intense desire to understand why people do what they do. And a slightly perverse fascination with the human condition. Looking at life from a systems perspective is a good start. Understand that patterns are formed internally, that change is the only constant. You can then use tools like network theory, noise analysis, entropy, etc. to understand these ebbs and flows.
Yes, I know of Stephen Wolfram from his software and Wolfram Alpha. I’ve been intimidated by the size of his book, though. I struggle justifying devoting so much time to one book, which probably says more about me…
Yeah, I haven’t picked it up yet either.
He sounds like a really bright guy. I think I watched a talk of his at the Singularity Summit or somewhere similar, but to be honest, can’t remember much of it.
Most of my reading is in the scientific literature, interspersed with a good book or graphic novel.
Speaking of which, do you know of any works of fiction that demonstrate the principles you’re interested in?
Good question. Not too many spring to mind. A classic is Flatland by Edwin Abbot – the quintessential metaphor for perceiving multiple dimensions. The guy wrote a book about perceiving multiple dimensions in the 1800s! Impressive.
A recent book that blew my mind was Accelerando by Charles Stross. He has a great worldview but his insights were more in terms of extrapolating the directions technology is going in.
It was co-written by Fritjof Capra and consists of several characters discussing the nature of the world from a systems perspective. I have to admit that i fell asleep during it… but I was very tired.
That sounds pretty amazing though.
Yeah – good credentials right there.
My personal favourites are any films or books that push society’s limits. Subversive materials rule in my book (no pun intended). Anything that helps me push back my pre-conceptions and shatter my expectations. They were great at that in the 70s, in music, film and literature. Probably a side-effect of the 60s experimentations. I’m a big fan of exploitation flicks.
Let’s see, what else… I haven’t read Alan Moore’s Big Numbers. But Moore seems to have a pretty good grasp on complexity, judging by Watchmen and From Hell.
I haven’t read Big Numbers either. What elements do you think he draws on in those books?
Watchmen itself seems to be very mathematical – the use of symmetry and so on. In terms of themes, maybe it doesn’t touch on this stuff much, apart from some of Dr. Manhattan’s comments.
Yeah, he definitely weaves a non-linear richness into his tales that is admirable. The way he weaves the various threads of a story together.
I forget why I thought From Hell was relevant. Maybe it’s not.
Also, he calls himself a chaos magician. Watching an interview with him a while back, I could actually identify with a lot of what he was saying.
I wasn’t going to go there, but… have you studying chaos magic or the occult at all?
No I haven’t. That Moore interview is probably as far as I have gone. It’s just not a direction I feel I can go in and remain “grounded” if I want other researchers to take me seriously. But I can definitely see how he got there.
Well, I have and I think you’re better off studying natural sciences, systems, and complexity IMHO.
[Laughs] Cool, thanks for the advice.
But the book Techgnosis by Erik Davis examines a lot of parallels between information theory and cybernetics and mysticism and the occult. I think it stands up pretty well, even if you’re not interested in magic.
I think you have to have a certain detachment to take a step back and observe the world. And when you start seeing everything as inter-related and part of the same thread it becomes easier to start imagining that you can define the tapestry with your perceptions. I guess I don’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. In my view it untethers you. Again, talking from an inexperienced point of view in this area.
Davis’ book sounds interesting though.
From an interview with Manuel DeLanda (who you might be interested in) -conducted by Davis, incidentally:
As Deleuze says, “Always keep a piece of fresh land with you at all times.” Always keep a little spot where you can go back to sleep after a day of destratification. Always keep a small piece of territory, otherwise you’ll go nuts.
Yeah exactly. I find that the concepts I deal with in my day job challenge me enough, and that’s all based on empirically grounded ‘fact’ in the scientific literature.
Most people work very hard to maintain their reality, but I do think that you have to have an affinity towards detachment. A certain world view that is open to having your illusions shattered and actually enjoying that experience. And the cutting edge of science delivers those experiences in spades.
In this case, the fact that the brain – just like the internet – is a network with “small world properties” helps. Every pixel in the brain and every Internet page can be seen as a hub in this network. The hubs can be directly connected to each other just as two Internet pages can be linked.
With eigenvector centrality, the hubs are assessed based on the type and quality of their connections to other hubs. On the one hand, it is important how many connections a particular node has, and on the other, the connections of the neighbouring nodes are also significant. Search engines like Google use this principle, meaning that Internet sites linked to frequently visited sites, like Wikipedia, for example, appear higher in results than web pages which don’t have good connections.
“The advantages of analyzing fMRI results with eigenvector centrality are obvious,” says Gabriele Lohmann from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig. The method views the connections of the brain regions collectively and is computationally efficient. Therefore, it is ideal for detecting brain activity reflecting the states that subjects are in.
Of course, this could all turn out to be hype. Most of my friends have strong doubts that the “Change” Barack Obama represents means anything beyond being an effective ad slogan. My own view is more complex. Personally, I don’t see the next President as a token figurehead or a liberal messiah, but as a dedicated political realist. As Obama himself explains, “since the founding, the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary.” He appears to be actutely conscious of the comprimises he makes and the games he’s playing, and he’s got a larger vision behind everything he’s doing.
Here’s the good news: if I’m wrong, I’ll find out very quickly. The online organizing and social networking that engineered Barack Obama’s rise to the White House wasn’t just an expensive tool, it was a culture. A culture of people who are motivated, informed and demanding, and a culture that will turn on Obama once they suspect they’ve been used.
In fact, we might watch Obama alienate his fan base before he even gets sworn in.