When good memes go bad

Complex systems can have emergent properties. In other words the interactions between the constituent elements of the system can give rise to events, patterns, and behaviours which are not easy to predict by examination of the individual elements in isolation. In fact I would say two other things about this:

  1. To predict the future state of a complex system, even in a statistical way, requires computation of at least equal complexity to that of the system itself. That is to say: for a complex system the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
  2. Emergence is characterised by existing at a different level than the elements which make up the system which expresses the emergent property. For example as a pattern in the arrangement or behaviour of the elements. That is to say: emergence is a meta-property.

It’s worth mentioning the definition of life, in passing: life is an emergent property of complex autopoietic dissipative structures. But I want to talk about an emergent property of human beings.

Humans band together and cooperate, and use language in their interactions. What’s more humans reify abstractions of their social interactions. For example a chimpanzee may be indebted to another chimpanzee for caring for her child. This obligation may give the ape who is owed the debt a status advantage or a better chance of mating with that other chimpanzee in the future. Humans have turned such a debt into a “thing” which can be talked about, quantified, and even represented with tokens and traded for goods.

All this makes the field of human interaction an extremely fertile substrate for emergence. It’s a complex system of the ‘information world’ of human society, and it’s rivalled perhaps only by DNA as a basis for the arising of patterns which are themselves complex systems. That’s its evolutionary advantage to the human species after all: it provides a mechanism for creating extremely flexible and original responses to environmental conditions and propagating those solutions between human groups. That’s how homo sapiens sapiens has spread throughout the world, found food in every environment, and become the world’s top predator and top herbivore.

Human society and the abstractions it has created as tools (and then reified) such as money work nationality ownership and land; all these things become the substrate from which emerge other patterns – corporations, the economy, government, public relations, the futures market, and so on. It’s like the Matrix, but unlike the Matrix’s these meta-patterns don’t look like the trees, people, dirt roads and sunsets of reality. Instead they form their own strange logic in the meta-space of human relationships and actions.

I used the “chimpanzee obligation” example and showed how such an abstraction was made concrete even to the point of being given a physical representation because it’s about the most powerful meta-system which exists in the space of human interaction. The reason money is such a pervasive and influential invention is that it has come to mediate nearly every action of its substrate (food, shelter, status, sex, and power are the major human interactions and money mediates nearly all of these interactions nearly all the time). What’s more it acts like an energy gradient – it forms something like a dissipative structure. [NB This is done I think partly in the fact that the concentration of money which balances its dissipation is "hidden" in that it is tied to the creation at the same time of debt. But I've not, after 4 months of work at this, been able to come up with a coherent analysis. I need the help of an economist who is willing to think in physics and information science. Bear with me, it's not an important part of today's story]

From that substrate – money and what’s called by economists “economic activity” – have emerged a series of astounding meta-structures. The stock market. Banks. The futures market. International trade. Colonialism. The modern transnational corporation. I’m tempted to add “the military industrial complex”, but I think that’s best seen not as a monolith but as a series of large corporations which have found a way to harness deep links and influence within government and the army to subvert public funding and policy to their own benefit.

Because here’s the point I’ve been laboriously working towards: the corporation is an emergent structure which has gone rogue. All the concepts, conventions, mediators, technologies, strategies, and structures which make up modern society and arise from human interaction have a greater or lesser benefit to human beings built into their nature. The corporation arose from a wish by the owners of capital to spread their risk and formalise their returns and the structure of the administration of their assets. Whether or not this was originally a good way of solving this problem, the corporation is designed in such a way that it now benefits very few and harms a great many. It’s not directly the fault of the directors, shareholders, stock markets, or regulators – it’s built into the system and design of corporations, into the way the shareholders have very little influence and the directors are paid well and expected to produce “growth”, but have an incentive to do this by predatory acquisition, manipulation of governments, lying, stealing, and cheating. I’m not saying corporations have a mind of their own, because I don’t think they have a mind. But I do think they respond to stimuli in the same way as any cybernetic construct. They’re built to operate in a certain way and that way is not beneficial to the human race or the planet. That’s the point of my whole digression about emergence: the individual constituents (human interactions) which form the substrate from which a corporation emerges are not necessarily interested in or in control of the actions and motivations of the corporation. Ants don’t “design” an ant-hill, it’s constructed from the gestalt of ant actions and interactions and not by a little six legged guy with a blueprint. Humans may be aware of what corporations are up to, but corporations actions are formed from and beholden to the interactions and structures which create the corporation.

I don’t really want to argue the facts of this in detail. The movie the Corporation has done that pretty well, and you only have to look at the third world, where transnational corporations have been an incredibly destructive influence. They’ve corrupted officials, damaged the environment and preferred to protect themselves with litigation than clean up the problem, stolen resources, overthrown democracies, and created poverty. Even in the west they’ve subverted the political process with lobbyists and lawyers, cheated their own shareholders, driven down wages and conditions, and pulled capital into tax havens. Corporations have made very few people rich even in the middle classes, instead using their wealth for acquisition and control rather than innovation or paying dividends. In an economy which has expanded enormously over 30 years, real wages in the US have plateaued. The large corporations gobble up small competitors while arranging regulation so as to stifle competition. The death of the electric car and the regulation of the internet are two good examples, and meanwhile the US has been dragged into a war to secure oil supplies for our leader’s backers.

All this has happened before. The church was a perversion of religion which caused widespread suffering in the middle ages. By the eighteenth century it had become clear to many humans that its influence in government must be limited, and both the US and France legislated clear divisions between church and state. Corporations seem to have a better propaganda machine on their side – it has now become acceptable to see government run by corporate lobbyists and freedom of information become a matter of the largess of a few big media owners – but people can still reverse the trend of the last two hundred years and reclaim their freedom, environment, and prosperity.

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