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James Brody
November 20th, 2004, 10:40 PM
Networks: Right to Left & Collapse

There were two Americas that voted and there are now two surprised Americas: one that lost the election and one that is surprised that the first is surprised. How come? Duncan Watts give some answers when he discusses the "small world" (SW) phenomenon: we are six steps away from nearly anyone else. There, however, is a second aspect to SW: while we live in small clusters, we rarely notice the links that we have to more remote neighborhoods (Watts & Strogatz, 1998; Sowell, 1987).

HOW SMALL WORLDS WORK

Watts (p. 144) uses a Saul Steinberg cartoon to illustrate his point: it's a map of the US as seen by the average Manhattan socialite. Insect or human, the outlook is the same. There is marvelous detail for the brownstones and shops on 9th Avenue but much less so once you cross the Hudson River. There's next a desolate horizontal strip that holds Iowa, Chicago, and Utah and a final strip at the top where bumps stand for Japan, China, and Russia. Of course, the level of detail is really no less in the upper panels but neither Steinberg nor the rest of us notice it.

Scientists now investigate the profound truth in Steinberg's cartoon! Neural nets in worms, cats, and rhesus, termite societies, families of dolphins, and even societies of scientists and movie actors show small-world effects. Communication is instant within small clusters: everyone in the group knows just about the same thing and at the same time. On the other hand, clusters connect by long links between one of their members and a member of a distant cluster. These links reduce communication time between clusters but (remember the second aspect) most of the time the members of a cluster deal only within their cluster! Even data from a more distant cluster is filtered and interpreted by the one cluster member who receives it. And the importance of similarity in partnerships means that, whether on a bus or the Internet, I populate my awareness with folks just like me.

There is no surprise, therefore, that people in Manhattan not only hang with each other but have relatively select news sources. They choose friends and media that match their imprinted youth and genetic propensities. (See the research on how identical twins, separated near birth and reared by different sets of parents, remain similar in habits and appearance in adulthood.) Further, the members of a cluster, especially if they also share a dose of narcissism (as many do in NY, Boston, Philadelphia, or Hollywood --- they deserve and, therefore, are entitled to receive simply because of who they are), will be shocked (because of their self-focus) and angered (because of their sense of entitlement) not to get their way. Narcissists also tend to stay angry for a long time and to view disappointments and losses as a result of theft. They scream with moral indignation and seek revenge.

Clusters of such people imitate a white rat in a conditioning chamber when the reward mechanism fails: such rats perform more loudly and faster for a long time before they conclude that the old program no longer applies. They will also bite the response lever! In members of political groups, we can expect depression and threats of migration and of the ultimate migration, suicide. Further, the less predictable the rewards on the old program, the longer the rat's persistence after it changes. Ask any gambler! Outcome: leftists do not replace old tactics but escalate them and with a continued drift left. ("We lost because we were not extreme enough!" "The public has a hearing problem!" "The majority is ignorant of how things are supposed to be!")

The larger membership also tends to follow whom they already know and try to convert outsiders. (As Albert Barabasi, a physicist, demonstrates in Linked, a dominant hub usually has a recruiting advantage when new members join.) Another outcome: we can expect audiences in Starbucks and Barnes and Noble to view themselves as prophets and expect traditional Americans to put them back in charge.

WHY LEFT?

The drift left is not an oscillation but has a statistical inevitability in relationship to declining wealth.
As resources collapse along with niches, individual variation faces greater constraint. (The recent find, Homo florensiensis, in Indonesia, was probably once a taller Homo erectus but shrank during ecological constriction. See Brown et al, 2004.) These patterns are often adaptive as population increases and we become more clever and make our living from ever smaller opportunities ... Walmart for those of you in Limbaugh's Riolinda! The Democrat Party, therefore, now has a Marxist* leadership that addresses not only the elite, self-deniers in universities but also the urban poor. After all, the absolute level of resources may be less important than a relative loss of such (see Montague, Hyman, & Cohen in Nature, 431: 760-767, on the shifts in dopaminergic reward systems as a function of sudden increases or loss of reward). The Republicans have similar pressures and have moved center: the former right may cling to the elephant's tail or they can self-destruct by joining the Libertarians!

Cut resources and find that winner-take-all structures (Frank & Cook, 1995) emerge: every participant has less but, at the same time, wealth concentrates into fewer hands. Mike Moore makes lots of money from those who believe in him. We find these same psychological changes inside individual minds after a head injury, many emotional disorders, or after an infection. We also find them in societies of the newly impoverished or the long term poor as in much of human history. A similar uniformity in America predicts our eventual collapse because some bug, living or conceptual, will eventually find a weakness to exploit.

* "Marxist" refers to collectivist, mutualist philosophies: from each of us, whatever we have; to each of us, only our necessities. The term "progressive" is both a lie and another symptom of narcissism.

References:
Montague, P., Hyman, S., & Cohen, J. Computational roles for dopamine in behavioural control. Nature. 431: 760-767.
Barabasi, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.
Brown, P., Sutikna, T., Morwood, M., Soejono, R., Jatmiko, E., & Due, R. (2004) A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature. 431: 1055-1061.
Frank, R. & Cook, P. (1995) The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. NY: Free Press.
Watts, D. (2003) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. NY: Norton.
Watts, D. & Strogatz, S. (1998) Collective dynamics of 'small-world' networks. Nature. 393: 440-442.
Sowell, T. (1987) A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. NY: Quill. (Political science majors, start here, then move to Watts and Barabasi!)

Copyright, James Brody, 2004, all rights reserved.