CCK08: Reflection on Week 6: Part 2

1. Notes on “Complexity and Information Overload in Society: why increasing efficiency leads to decreasing control” by Francis Heylighen

The basic premiss of Heylighen’s paper concerns identifying the impact of ephemeralization on global systems.

Ephemeralization, the ongoing increase in efficiency or productivity of all processesinvolving matter, energy and information, is the most basic manifestation oftechnological and organizational advance (17).

Both of Heylighen’s papers are predisposed to an optimistic view of the future. It would appear that the author is a strong proponent of globalization, without, however, rigorously defending its criticisms.

People find it ever moredifficult to cope with all the new information they receive, constant changes in theorganizations and technologies they use, and increasingly complex and unpredictableside-effects of their actions. This leads to growing stress and anxiety, fuels variousgloom and doom scenarios about the future of our planet, and may help explain theincreasingly radical movements against globalization [my italics] (1).

Perhaps in theory, the reduction of international tariffs in the interests of encouraging trade makes sense; however, the legalities of these agreements are often ratified at the expense of the natural world, local sustainable economies, and indigenous cultures, none of which Heylighen has acknowledged.

…Both the area of land and amount of human effort needed to produce agiven amount of food has been reduced to a mere fraction of what it was. As a result, theprice of food in real terms has declined with 75% over the last half century (WorldResources Institute, 1998). In the same period, the fuel consumption of cars hasdecreased just as spectacularly, while their speed, power and comfort have increased (3).

Ironically, Heylighen cites both advances in agriculture (leading to a decrease in food prices) and fuel consumption in the same breath. We know now that fuel consumption has increased in North America with an increase in the purchase of SUVs, and that the implementation of government policies that support increased production of biofuel has led to a decrease in the growth of grain products for food worldwide, especially rice. This had led to an increase in the price of those food staples, which in some countries, such as Haiti, has led to riots among the populace, which was suffering from high rates of poverty even prior to the spike in the price of grain.

There is also an unsettling irony that accompanies the increase in the GDP of developing countries, in particular China and India:

…In the developed countries, the problemwith food is no longer scarcity but overabundance, as people need to limit theirconsumption of calories in order to avoid overweight. Even in the poorest countries, thepercentage of people that are undernourished is constantly decreasing (Goklany, 2000;Simon, 1995). More generally, the trend is clearly visible in the spectacular growth inwealth, usually measured as GDP per capita, since the beginning of the 19th century(Goklany, 2000). The ever increasing productivity not only results in people earningmore, but in them working less hours to achieve this wealth. Moreover, this economicdevelopment is typically accompanied by a general increase in the factors that underlyoverall quality of life: health, safety, education, democracy and freedom (Heylighen &Bernheim, 2000a; Simon, 1995; Goklany, 2000) (6).

Wage increases occurring in developing countries as a result of outsourcing by the West are in part what has contributed to the food crisis. For example, with the increase of the middle class in China, meat consumption has increased, which is also placing tremendous stress on grain production; grain is required to feed the livestock that are now in higher demand for human consumption. In India, the growing middle class is contributing to tremendous growth in the purchase of affordable automobiles. Granted, Heylighen is not making unsustainability a central focus of his paper, and he communicates as much:

Manythings are still much less abundant than we would like them to be, and althoughincreasing productivity leads to an ever more efficient use of natural resources(Heylighen & Bernheim, 2000a), ecologists have rightly pointed out that our presentusage of many resources is unsustainable. The focus of this paper, though, is not on theremaining scarcities and wastages, which ephemeralization hopefully will sooner or latereradicate, but on a wholly new category of problems created by the emergence of “hyperefficient” processes. To get there, we first need to understand morefundamentally how ephemeralization affects the dynamics of society (6-7).

It remains nonetheless striking how much the world has changed, even since this paper was originally written. Heylighen’s own observations are applicable to the events that have transpired, including the recent downturn in the global economy:

The effect on society of this extension of causal networks is a greaterinterdependence of various subsystems and processes. Any action will have anincreasing number of unanticipated or unintended consequences: side-effects. This entailsa greater difficulty to predict, and therefore control, the overall effects of any particularevent or process. The reduction of friction in causal chains merely increases the speed ofthe process, the number of subsequent effects in the chain, and the risk of snowballing.This reduces controllability but not necessarily predictability: as long as the cause-effectrelationships are known, it is relatively easy to determine when and in how far aparticular process will affect another one. The reduction of friction in causal networks,however, makes prediction ever more difficult, since the number of factors that need tobe taken into account to determine any one outcome explodes, while the myriadinteractions between those factors are likely to make the overall process ever morechaotic, i.e. sensitive to the smallest changes in initial conditions (11).

2. Notes on “Tackling Complexity and Information Overload: intelligence amplification, attention economy and the global brain” by Francis Heylighen

Heylighen’s description of what is required of 21st century education is entirely consistent with the treatment of subject matter in the Connectivism & Connective Knowledge course. The gravitation towards a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to education may necessarily require that the term is largely deconstructed, unless Connectivism serves as the vehicle and the container within which the new paradigm emerges. In this regard, where Connectivism informs education and where education wishes to borrow from a Connectivist framework, it may, without the threat of the education domain being dismantled entirely:

An education for the 21st century will inparticular need to teach us to better understand complex systems, and to avoid thetypical errors of judgment that result from their counter-intuive behavior (e.g. Casti,1994). This requires an in-depth reflection on the observations, concepts and principlesdeveloped in disciplines such as systems theory, cybernetics, self-organization, chaos,evolution and complex adaptive systems (Heylighen et al., 1999) (22).

Heylighen’s explanation of “economy” is similarly consistent with Downes’ characterization of the Seven Habits of Highly Connected People:

At the most basic level,“economy” means simply the careful management of resources, so that as little aspossible is wasted. From this point of view, individuals should learn to optimally spendthe limited amount of attention they have, by investing it only in the most worthwhileitems (24).

The author proposes that “the only true solution…” that will allow humans to manage the phenomenon of ephemeralization “…must involve the synergeticuse…of…three components, in the form of an emergent collective intelligence, or“global brain”.

First, practical intelligence requires extensive knowledge; yet it is extremely difficult to elicit this knowledge from human experts in a form sufficientlydetailed and explicit to be programmed into a computer. This is the knowledgeacquisition bottleneck. Second, true intelligence cannot be completely preprogrammed: itmust be able to develop autonomously, to self-organize. Third, for an autonomouslydeveloping system to acquire knowledge about a realistically complex environment, itmust be able to interact extensively with that environment, so that it can learn from itsexperiences (this requirement of interaction with a true environment is sometimes called“embodiment” or “situatedness”). (28).

Certainly the creation of common ontologies that allow databases to “talk” to one another has evolved significantly with the advent of the semantic web (28). I remain nonetheless skeptical of any uber-initiative, since it smacks of utopianism. That having been said, the formally rendered “collective mental map” is perhaps already being implemented in a beta format, to the extent that Open Source communities, the W3C, or research-based cohorts from around the globe are contributing to the resolution of complex problems (for example, the Genome Project):

The idea is that different individuals, agents or computer programs wouldcontribute their specific knowledge, solve those partial problems or make thosedecisions for which they are most competent. The results of this cognitive effort wouldbe shared with all other components in a coherent system that I have called a “collectivemental map” (CMM). A CMM consists of cognitive resources (typically documents ordatabase records, but this may also include computer programs, agents, and humanexperts), that are linked by a network of associations. This network would be organizedin such a way as to minimize the effort in getting any resource to the place where it is isneeded (30).

To what extent do such projects unfold using a centralized model for information dissemination, versus a more distributed model? I do not know enough about these initiatives to say. Heylighen’s observation that the success of a CMM depends on the extent to which it is self-organized and distributed seems accurate:

No system, human or technological, would be able to exert any form ofcentralized control over such a map so as to coordinate or allocate contributions. Anymechanism of coordination must be distributed over all contributing components. Inother words, a CMM for global society must be self-organizing. Hints on how such aself-organizing mental map could function can be found both in the collective foragingbehavior of ants, and in the organization of the brain (30).

There is a name for the synergetic use of individually intelligent components: collective intelligence (Lévy, 1997). The most famous examples are insect societies, such as ant nests, bee hives or termite colonies (Bonabeau et al., 1999), that consist of individually dumb components, but are capable of surprisingly smart behavior when working together (30).

One of the most accessible articles that I have encountered on swarm theory, and to which I have linked in a past blog, can be found here on the National Geographic website.

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