Saturday, July 17, 2004

Another quote from Steven Johnson's Emergence book. He is exploring the concept of feedback as critical to emergent systems; both "negative feedback [where the feedback regulates or restrains the system - jd], a way of transforming a complex system into a complex adaptive system." p 139, emphasis in original); and positive feedback, where the output feeds back into the system, building into a whole new effect.

Johnson uses the "mediasphere", the environment of media, as an example of a complex system. Changes in technology, in this case cable television, and the ability of local stations to feed news into the system; and in policy (rules), that allowed local CNN affiliates to feed stories into the system, as a dramatic change that ultimately allowed the Gennifer Flowers story to come to mass-light during the 1992 primary campaigns.

Once again, we return to the fundamental laws of emergence: the behavior of individual agents is less important than the overall system. In earlier times, connections were hierarchical; they lacked the connections to generate true feedback; and too few agents were interacting to create any higher-level order. But the cable explosion of the eighties changed all that. For the first time, the system started to reverberate on its own. The sound was quiet during those initial years and may not have crossed into an audible range until Jim Wooten asked that question. And yet anyone who caught the nightly news on January 24, 1992, picked up its signal loud and clear. (p 145)

And earlier: "The likelihood of a feedback loop correlates directly to the general interconnectedness of the system." (134)

A couple of pages later, Johnson describes the danger of an absence of feedback. While the Gennifer Flowers affair as an example of "runaway positive feedback", "the tyranny of the crank results from a scarcity of feedback: a system where the information flows are unidirectional, where the audience is present and at the same time invisible." (152)

Like living in a sensory deprivation tank -- eventually you begin to hallucinate.


Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Resources: Open theory

The mechanism being used on the Open Theory web site looks to be an effort to apply the concepts of open source to developing theory ("open theory" or "ot"). "Developing texts like Free Software according to the principle »rough consensus, tasty text!«"

An interesting use of the Internet in collaborative development of political projects...

Although most of the stuff on the site looks to be in German, it also looks like there is nothing to keep any member from starting a project in any language.


Saturday, July 10, 2004

"A strong body of psychological research, supported by widespread anecdotal evidence, confirms the hypothesis that direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development."

This is the opening sentence from a very useful overview, "Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences" by John Davis, who teaches at Naropa University and the School of Lost Borders (he is also my brother).

The paper, and the research it summarizes, is relevant to interconnection and networks in several ways:

The notion of the human/nature connection (and in this sense, nature is understood mainly as "unbuilt", or barely touched by human hands -- "wild" or "natural" environments; although John does reference research into benefits of connections as seemingly trivial as those with potted plants or pets -- well nothing trivial about the relationship to pets). Situating the individual in an environment, where the individual is really just a node in a vast network of biological and physical interactions...

But we tend to compress the network down to two nodes, Me and Nature. John points out towards the end of the paper, that that distinction is ultimately false, because, well, aren't we eating, breathing, pissing, shitting, screwing "nature" too?

"[We need] to reconsider the duality of Person and Place. The psychological benefits of nature are usually framed in dualistic terms: nature affects human experience. A transpersonal view questions the assumption of nature (as one thing) affecting human experience (as another thing)? Or could we speak of a more primary category, Being, of which Person and Place are two aspects.


In a transpersonal analysis, it is also important that we not confuse nature (as the natural world relatively unaffected by human intervention) and Nature (as spirit or the ultimate ground of being). ... The point is that both human and nature are expressions of the same source, Nature.
(see also John's article "The Transpersonal Dimensions of Ecopsychology: Nature, Nonduality, and Spiritual Practice")

Part of John's work includes taking people out into wilderness areas, so he speaks from personal experience as well as from academic learning. On a trip I did with him a couple of years ago, he explored the range of relationships to Nature: Nature as danger; Nature as resource; Nature as commodity; Nature as ?mirror?; Nature as self (in the sense described above). And in these relationships we can see how broader social and economic contexts come to play -- specifically capitalism as an alienating system that reduces Nature to something to be exploited, consumed, bought and sold, and dumped on. The quality of the connections of humans and nature are determined? (to a great extent anyway) by production relations.

Another aspect of the overview paper that jumped out at me was the role of Nature as a "trigger for peak experiences" and personal transformation (or, in dialectical terms, qualitative changes in the personality or self that take place as leaps). "Survey results on frequency and triggers for peak experiences ... shows that nature is the most common trigger for peak experiences".

If thought of as "ego transcendence" and in terms of "Object Relations Theory": "If the self is a structure integrating the various object relations, going to a radically different environment would tend to destructure or disintegrate this self-structure."

The process of "de-structuring" is another way, I think, of saying that the connections within the network-of-the-self are broken, destroyed. This process of destruction is an integral stage of the leap (qualitative change as the shift from one law system to another, one kind of "necessary connections" to another). The old connections are destroyed and new connections forged.

Here we get to aspects of what makes for qualitative change. The "radically different environment" can be seen as the trigger -- a catalytic agent that kicks off a process that is "waiting to happen", but itself is not changed in the process or even incorporated into the new quality. The source of the new quality (say, self-understanding, or healthy, balanced personality) is not in nature-the-external-environment, but discovered from internal wells, or introduced from the outside (teacher, book, dervish, therapist, collective, etc) in the form of ideas, in an intellectual way, but not really integrated until the transcendent or transforming moment triggered by nature.

Or another way to see this is that Nature, the experience of the unity, "Coherence, Complexity, Legibility, and Mystery" [these are the qualities of "preferred environments" per John's references] of Nature is itself the new quality. Some sort of Nature-integration -- we become Nature-Boy and Nature-Girl.

Classic dialectics views causality as arising from within the phenomena, as the result of interacting contradictions. The classic kind of causation results in what physics would call "phase changes", where "quantity becomes quality". These phase changes are triggered by changes in the environment -- the addition or subtraction of energy, for example, in the case of water, and the presence of catalysts or "occasions". ["Nature" or the wilderness setting would be the "environment", and some event in the wilderness -- the appearance of an animal, a strong wind, an eclipse, etc the "occasion" or catalyst. Or other mechanisms might be at work that allow for the trigger effect -- John's paper surveys these. For more on the use of the term "occasion", see my piece "Networks and Interconnection".]

But I think we also have to allow for special kinds of causation that involves the introduction of a new quality into a process, generally of a spontaneous or relatively random character, not predictable, but expected. This kind of causation leads to another kind of qualitative change, a much more profound change: the overthrow of one law system, one type of connections; and its replacement with a new law system, new types of connections.

The "new" quality, in this latter sense of becoming Nature-Boy/Nature-Girl isn't Nature per se, because, as noted, we already are "Nature." It's more of a sense that "we got to get ourselves back to the garden"; a re-realization; a lost, or misplaced quality re-discovered; or given back, given again by being in wild places; but now understood in a more profound, higher, deeper, complete, complex way.


Friday, July 09, 2004

As technology (in particular, the Internet) allows new kinds of connections to develop, old network forms are challenged.

An 7/7/04 item from Internet Week, "Peer-To-Peer Gambling Coming Soon To America" describes the rise of a new form of online gambling that bypasses the "house" altogether. See the "house" (the casino, which literally, Italian diminutive for "house") as the centralized node via which individual gamblers can find a game; or punters can assemble the parimutuel pool. In the past this would be the brick and mortar facility, although with the Internet, the gambling space has become quite virtual. This scheme goes one step further, to remove even the virtual house -- you can become the bookie.

"It's like Kazaa or Morpheus, but for betting", per the BetBug website. If I understand the way this works, the individual bettor offers odds on some event, and escrows the money in an account; any takers also park money in an account (in a Cyprus-based bank). So the website is the vehicle for connecting bettor to bettor, rather that bettor to house, and through the house to other bettors. BetBug scrapes 5% from the winning account for the service.

According to the Internet Week article:

Unlike Web casinos, bettors using peer-to-peer services don't wager against the house, but rather against each other. The online betting services allow users to set their own terms. This shift in risk from more traditional casinos to individual users poses a threat to established online gambling sites. A market that some analysts estimate generates $8 billion per year.

While online wagering is technically illegal in the U.S., BetBug is arguing that this is legal, because the betting takes place between two individuals, like you betting with your neighbor whose garage will collapse first. With no "middlemen" -- i.e., the bookie or the house -- the U.S. Wire Act (the legal basis for outlawing online gaming)is not violated. Or so they argue.

Here's a link to a more comprehensive New York Times article on the same: "Gambling Sites Offering Ways to Let Any User Be the Bookie".

What is clear is that the Internet is changing how gambling is conducted, just as it has changed auctions, securities day-trading and music sales.

While Web casinos are not new, a new generation of online services like Betfair has emerged to allow sports bettors to wager not against the house but directly against each other. The services, by letting individuals set the terms of their own wager easily and efficiently, threaten to diminish the role of more traditional casinos, which set the odds of a contest and then assume the risk for paying a winning bet.