Bossism Is Back, Baby!

Bossism, a term once reserved for political bosses, is making its way into modern business jargon, inspired by Elon Musk at Twitter and massive downsizings in today’s top technology firms.

What’s Bossism?

Writing in the New York Times, Kevin Roose refers to bossism as a worldview that is shared by many executives, company founders and investors, especially those in the technology industry. He calls it “a belief that the people who build and run important tech companies have ceded too much power to the entitled, lazy, overly woke people who work for them and need to start clawing it back.”

Roose asserts that these believers in bossism view Elon Musk as their standard-bearer and role model. Of course, Musk famously purchased the social network Twitter and quickly fired at least three-quarters of the staff. “Mr. Musk’s defenders,” Roose writes, “point out that Twitter hasn’t collapsed or gone offline despite losing thousands of employees, as some critics predicted it would. They see his harsh management style as a necessary corrective, and they believe he will ultimately be rewarded for cutting costs and laying down the law.”

Of course, by many standards, Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been a disaster, both for Twitter as a business and for other companies that Musk leads, especially Tesla. “In three months,” a recent article in The Verge reported, “Musk has… largely destroyed the equity value of Twitter and much of his personal wealth. He has ­indicated that the company could declare bankruptcy, and the distraction of running it has caused Tesla stock to ­crater, costing him $200 billion.”

But the champions of bossism would argue that all the evidence isn’t in yet. Maybe in a year’s time, the chaos will be over and a new, streamlined and profitable version of Twitter will have emerged. On that front, time will tell.

Sensible Wave of the Future or Reactionary Ghoul of the Past?

Massive Layoffs in Techville

One of the reasons that so many tech bosses are rooting for Musk is that they too need to make serious cuts to workforces in order to stay profitable now that the days of virtually free money are over. These layoffs became common in the second half of 2022 and have continued into 2023.

For example, the technology giants Microsoft and Alphabet are just a couple of the companies that announced widescale layoffs in the third week of January. Crunchbase reports, “More than 46,000 workers in U.S.-based tech companies have been laid off in mass job cuts so far in 2023 … and the year is just getting started. That number includes Microsoft’s 10,000-person cut and Google parent Alphabet’s 12,000-person layoff announcements this week.”

But bossism goes beyond downsizings. In one recent All In podcast, investor David Friedberg said in an interview with Musk:

[T]here’s a lot of technology companies that have CEOs and investors and boards. And we all talk to a lot of them and they’re all now having a conversation like, look at what Elon did at Twitter. How can we do something as aggressive, as swift, as deep? Do you think much about kind of the model you’re playing for other businesses and other business leaders, particularly in Silicon Valley and how you’re operating Twitter?

So, yes, there is admiration for the deep cuts Musk was willing to make in his workforce, but this kind of panegyric suggests to me that what some of the bossist wannabes admire is not just the cuts but the aggression, speed and boldness he has shown at Twitter.

The Upper Hand…for a While…Maybe

The hope of the bossists is that a downturn in the technology industry, and perhaps the widely predicted recession-to-come, will gives senior executives the opportunity to crack down on their respective workforces, forcing them back into the conventional workplace and instilling the kind of discipline needed to boost today’s anemic rates of productivity growth.

Maybe that will indeed happen. In a year’s time, the remote-and-hybrid-work trend may have tapered off considerably and more employees could be burning the midnight oil, so to speak, just to keep their jobs. We may all come to realize that pendulum of corporate power has swung back to the bosses and that, in the final analysis, this is best for everyone.

Nadia Rawlinson, former chief people officer at Slack, asserts, “The current tech work force is used to every voice getting a vote, and it will now have to yield to a new world — one with heightened expectations and disciplined investment. Not considering the winds of change will put the careers of many empowered workers at risk.”

Or not.

There are, after all, countervailing trends that could turn bossism into a short-lived and reactionary chapter that will close sharply on the noses of its champions as soon as the economy rebounds.

The Ongoing Battles for Talent

Tech Help Wanted

There are several reasons to be skeptical of idea that the bossism will be a lasting trend. First, as of December 2022, the U.S. unemployment rate was only 3.5%, the lowest its been in the last 10 years. Second, these newly laid off technology employees are tending to find new jobs quickly. In fact, SHRM Online reports, “About 79% of recently laid-off technology workers landed a new job within three months of starting their search, according to a ZipRecruiter survey. Nearly 40% of recently laid-off tech workers found jobs less than a month after they began searching.”

Both of these data points suggest that losing a job is not an existential crisis for most in the tech industry. They have alternatives, at least for now, and so are not likely to be bullied into unsatisfactory work arrangements by the latest acolytes of bossism.

Boomers Out

But there are other issues that can influence the long-term feasibility of bossism as well. For one thing, there has been an ongoing decline in college enrollments since at least 2015, suggesting there will be a long-term shortage of well educated workers, a little publicized disaster that few are even discussing, much less proposing solutions for.

Another point is that much of the Boomer generation has left the workforce and has no intention of returning. The U.S. workforce is still about 3.5 million workers short of what would be expected based on pre-2020 trends. The primary reason for this is that many older workers — around two million of them — have retired earlier than they’d planned to prior to the pandemic.

No Babies Aboard

Then there are other issues such as reduced immigration and lower birth rates. Immigration took a nosedive during the pandemic and, despite the ongoing outrage about a flood of illegal immigrants at the U.S. border these days, legal immigration is only just starting to rebound. At the same time, U.S. birthrates have been on the decline, and immigration is needed to make up this shortfall.

These trends, along with changing attitudes toward work among younger workers, suggest that old-timey, top-down, damn-the-torpedoes, nose-to-the-grindstone bossism will have a difficult time reestablishing itself long-term in any healthy economy.

The Unfortunate Politics of Bossism

I want to back up a bit to elaborate more on the concept of bossism.

Roose’s use of the term seems to originate with a John Ganz piece in Substack, where Ganz borrows the term from the history of apartheid: that is, baasskap or boss-ism.

Something like a class-consciousness of the most reactionary section of the tech bourgeoisie now appears to be crystallizing and, with it, a concomitant set of political practices and ideologies…. The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” … But this vision of “freedom” is not only shared by the bosses and their paid ideologues—there is a “mass” component of the politics as well: this ideal of freedom is shared by a mob that worships the power of the oligarchs and wants its own freedom to consist in the total license to behave online without encountering moral sanction from the pestering wokes or to have personal consequences of any kind.

This is, of course, a politically charged and downright terrifying view of the bossist philosophy. Once I read it, I realized that there’s there’s no way to fully extricate politics from the bossist world view, especially at a time when the second richest person in the world seems to have embraced rightwing politics–and at a time when such politics is increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic.

I deeply wish we could leave politics out of it, but the miserable truth is that politics has explicitly and, I believe, dangerously encroached on virtually every aspect of American life these days.

Bossism versus Talentism

The Charming Boors of Bossism

I am, by nature, a person always scrambling to look at issues from multiple points of view. I can, for example, see the innovative benefits that a person like Musk can bring to Twitter even while bemoaning the kooky, myopic, ham-handed, hypocritical and just stupidly destructive way he’s been going about many things there.

Likewise, despite the sometimes sociologically silly, not to mention darkly hilarious, opinions espoused by the All In peeps, within their own sphere of business knowledge (or, as they might call it, their “kill zone”), they’re also clearly canny and powerful members of the investor class. And, they obviously value vision, energy, ambition, entrepreneurialism, boldness, analytics and intelligence, all virtues in which I believe.

But beneath their bestie bromance confabs, there’s a strong undercurrent of amoral cold-bloodedness that implicitly values capital returns above most everything else (except maybe family and poker) and has little patience for any “woke” ethics that challenge their own self-serving world views and, more to the point, their investment prerogatives.

In many ways, they reflect the good, the bad and the ugly of bossism.

The Sketchy Tenets of Talentism

Talentism is a term that seems to have originated with Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. He argues that “the world of the future is not the world of capitalism, it’s the world of ‘talentism’.”

The idea is that talent rather than money is the true currency of the global economy. “[T]he world’s precious resource is talents,” he states. “It’s not financial capital any more. Capital is always available if you have a talent which is unique.”

Schwab believes this precious resource can be dramatically expanded via digitalization and AI: “I see fantastic new opportunities in education by combining digitalization with artificial intelligence. That will lead to a situation where not only a selected elite has access to education, but everybody can have access to education. But it is the duty and obligation of companies to provide the necessary platforms. Then I think everybody has it in his or her own hands to use those platforms to acquire the skills which are needed in the future.”

It’s a lovely ideal, one that I share in some ways.

But, more to the point, I think Schwab’s idea of talentism can be used to balance the idea of bossism.

The Modern Limits of Bossism

Schwab’s idea is compelling but a gross exaggeration. There are plenty of people in the world whose unique talents will never be fully harnessed (or even recognized) because they lack capital to exploit those talents and/or anyone with capital willing to invest in them.

The ultimate success of talent is largely based on human networks, though that’s a subject for another post.

But talent can be incredibly valuable if properly financed and leveraged. And, aside from the factors I originally cited, that’s why bossism is such a limited concept, no matter how appealing it is in Silicon Valley at the moment.

Because, unless slavery makes a global come back, employers can’t own the talents of another human being. The best a boss can do is harness those talents with the permission of their owners. The desire to hire and retain those talents is behind all the hubbub about employee experience in recent years. Bosses must help create good employee experiences in the workplace if they ultimately wish to leverage the value inherent in talentism.

So, to the degree bossism means making dramatic cuts to headcount, it can only be a short-term strategy. No company can lay off its way to long-term health, only engage in downsizings that conserve cash and ameliorate the near-term concerns of investors. At a certain point time in an economic cycle, the need to reduce capital needs (e.g., payroll) outweighs the need to increase talent-based capabilities.

Where Bossism and Leadership Merge

Despite being the flavor of the day, bossism isn’t just about cutting staff and somehow “taking power back” from employees. From what I can tell, it is also about about moving quickly and boldly to make productive changes. It is about harnessing the aforementioned virtues of vision, energy, ambition, entrepreneurialism, boldness, analytics and intelligence rather than just wielding some large, ego-driven cudgel against talent.

And this is where good leadership comes in.

A great leader has all the virtues of a boss with few of the vices. She is a custodian of both capital and talent, knowing both are essential to long-term success. She seldom if ever needs to bully. She may not let a good crisis go to waste, but neither does she deeply alienate her followers and sow chaos unnecessarily.

So, beware the gilded appeal of bossism. It is the way of the past, not the future, the way of the weak, not the strong, the way of the child, not the adult. Reach higher. Do better. Be an actual leader.

Featured image: Thomas Nast depicts Tweed in Harper's Weekly (October 21, 1871)

Is Time a Reticulum?

What is time? There are so many ways to conceive of it.

Time as a River

River in the Amazon Rainforest
Date 23 February 2006, by Jlwad

One trope is that it’s a river that carries us along. In this metaphor, we are as helpless as so much flotsam and jetsam in the stream of time.  Oh, we can decide what to with our time spent on the river, but–despite our atomic clocks and inflated egos–we cannot influence time itself.

Or perhaps time is inseparable from Einstein’s spacetime. In that case, it’s like as a huge loaf of bread, with all the events of our lives already baked in. Imagine that everything in history, including all the details of your life, already exist. In the final analysis, you and I can’t truly determine what we do with our time. Instead, we are travelers down Fate’s railroad (to mix in a yet another metaphor), going from one pre-existing stop to another.

Time as a Cosmic Web

Or maybe time is a reticulum. Annaka Harris, author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, notes that some scientists believe time is not a fundamental reality. She cites Nima Arkani-Hamed, who said of his fellow theoretical physicists, “Almost all of us very strongly believe that spacetime really doesn’t exist.”

So what does exist? In her article “What Is Time?,” Harris tries to imagine what time looks like if its “flow” is truly an illusion.

[T]he closest visualization I’ve been able to create is that of a web of nodes in which we experience only one node at a time. At each locus, all the other nodes become inaccessible to us, as if a spotlight were continually traveling across this “web of time,” inch by inch, painting our reality. If you were to experience a structure on this web —such as node a, node a, node f; node a, node a, node f—you might interpret the experience as “two node a’s cause a node f” when, in fact, the whole web of nodes already exists in its entirety. The implicit causality would not apply at a deeper level. Causality through time would still illuminate “connections,” it’s just that the underlying reality of these connections would reveal a structure vastly different from the one we intuit…

I’ve tried to wrap my mind around this “time as reticulum” idea. In a sense, it seems similar to the “time as bread loaf” notion in that “the whole web of nodes already exists in its entirety.” Except here we don’t even have the comfort of a linear-like-though-frozen concept of time. Instead, there is a dense web of pre-existing nodes that only give the illusion of cause and effect. 

Woven Time

Because I am a fan of mythologies, I have given some thought to how the Fates (aka, Norns) would see time. The Fates are, of course, the three women who weave the fate of each human being. Each life is a thread and the Fates wind each one into the tapestry of our reality.

Is is just a coincidence that Harris’s notion of the “web of time” roughly corresponds to these ancient myths?

Perhaps. Or maybe there is some archetype at hand, some intuition about the “true” reality of time underlying the one we’ve evolved to experience.

Unstuck in Time

In Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse Five, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time.” That is, he travels along the thread of his own his life, experiencing moments of it in no particular order, never knowing where he’ll wind up next.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’ve recently been feeling–if not exactly unstuck in time–temporally looser within it, like a nail that seems in danger of slipping. One so loose you can turn it with your fingertips.

This started happening after my mother passed over a year ago. I’m still not sure why. Intimations of mortality, perhaps.

It’s hard to explain. It’s not just reminiscing or even being overwhelmed by certain memories. Nor are all my memories–or even most of them–associated with my mother.

Rather, there’s this strange sense in my gut–literally in the area of my midriff–of being connected to people I’ve neither seen nor even much thought about for decades. The feeling comes and goes in waves but is sometimes so strong I need to force my mind back into the present moment.

Time Dragons

All of which makes me wonder whether we not only misperceive time but misperceive ourselves. What would we look like if, in fact, we ourselves were threads in a woven universe with dimensions we have yet to understand?

Bodhi tree leaf with dragon carving, a decorative theme of Ly dynasty, photo by Daderot

Imagine if we are not truly discrete but rather long yarn-like beings curled and tangled around one another in nearly infinite complexity. That is, the “I” that exists here and now is not truly a medium-sized biped animal moving through space but, rather, just one segment of a far larger being that stretches everywhere we’ve ever been and, perhaps, everywhere we have yet to go.

If that’s true, then we are all much vaster that we appear, living threads irregularly interwoven around the globe, which itself may be a cosmic thread woven into the galaxy.

This conjures the disturbing image of billions of pulsating worms in a multidimensional ball. Indeed, “worm balls” exist in nature. As the New York Times reports, “A worm blob behaves as a solid and a fluid, like a ball of dough or a glob of shampoo. It only takes around 10 worms to form a coherent blob. A blob of about 100,000 worms resembles a lump of (red) pizza dough. There is no known limit to how many worms can form a blob, except, perhaps, your imagination.”

Okay, yeah, yuck!

Maybe we should go with “dragons” instead. Serpentine dragons are, of course, often referred to as wyrms (or wurms, worms or orms). Moreover, the common symbol for eternity is ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its own tail.

Time and Again

In the end, I don’t know to what degree these various concepts and metaphors help us intuit the true nature of time. But I do believe that we are slowly groping our way to a better understanding of time. We now know, for example, that time can flow backwards as well as forwards at the quantum level, and, as mentioned previously, physicists are increasingly open to the idea that it doesn’t exist at all.

So, I suspect we’ll keep coming back these and other ideas time and again until we have a fuller understanding of what temporality is. But we need to prepare our souls for new discoveries in the event that a better understanding of time dramatically challenges our foundational ideas related to causation, free will, and even the nature of our selves.

Featured image: By anonymous medieval illuminator; uploader Carlos adanero - Fol. 279 of Codex Parisinus graecus 2327.

The Santa Network

I believe in Santa Claus. For sure. Not a doubt in my sugar-plummed head. But not as a person, or even merely a meme. I believe in Santa the network.

Okay, Yeah, There Was This Guy, Really Nice Guy

True, Santa did originate as a human being in the form of Saint Nicholas, a monk who was reportedly a serious do-gooder type back in the 3rd century AD in the part of the world that is now Turkey. Or maybe he was a bishop in the 4th century? Sources differ.

Whichever, he was known as being famously generous to the poor. Some say he had inherited money. One common story is that he provided dowries to three daughters of a fellow Christian so that they would not to sold into prostitution.

The Holy Bones of Old Saint Nick

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (Egypt) / K. Weitzmann: “Die Ikone”

So Nicholas was of local fame and might have stayed that way if the area hadn’t been subjugated by a Muslim dynasty hundreds in 1087. I don’t entirely understand their motivations, but a group of Italian merchants ended up taking large portions of Nicholas’s skeleton out of his sarcophagus in the Greek Orthodox church in Myra.

This action may have been the real start of today’s network. Nicholas’s bones were relocated to at least two other holy venues, and his fame seemed to spread as his bones were disseminated. Among the places we know about, the bones went to Bari (now in the Basilica di San Nicola) and to Venice (where a church to St. Nicholas was built).

With different sacred sites holding his relics and spreading his fame, Saint Nicholas somehow became a patron saint of various groups: archers, sailors, children and even pawnbrokers. His feast day on December 6th became a day of gift giving for children. Hundreds of years after his death, the man became a happy tradition, a time when people could be at their best.

The Wild Hunt, a Flying Reindeer’s Nightmare

Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921) – Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. 

But Saint Nicholas is not the only personage on whom Santa Claus is based. Eventually the feasting day of December 6th was moved to December 25th, which is of course associated with Christ’s birth.

And then there’s the less known role of the pagan god Odin. Before Christianity came to Northern and Germanic Europe there was the tradition of Yuletide. During this period, weird and supernatural things were likely to happen. This included the Wild Hunt, which was when Odin led a procession through the skies atop his eight legged horse Sleipnir.

In her book Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the WorldMargaret Baker writes that “the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”

Nast Invents Our North Pole Nick

By the time the 1800s rolled around, it was a full blown network event. That is, Santa was a crazy quilt made up of various ideas, traditions, stories, myths, religious ceremonies, and artwork. This quilt incorporated huge numbers of people, who became more closely networked through the means of gift-giving, goodwill wishing, story exchanging, and more.

Then came the illustrations of Thomas Nast. As History.com reports,

In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus

Jolting Volts Into the Santa Network

If Nast and Harpers jump-started our modern Santa, then our new-fangled electrical networks send him into overdrive. Radio, cinema, television, digital: all helped ensure the global expansion of today’s Santa network.

But the network isn’t just made up of gaudy megabytes of mythology. Ultimately, it resides in our immense collective imagination and complex interactions.

The people who are part of this tradition (and I know it’s not everyone, though I imagine most people have at least heard of Santa Claus) are nodes in the network, zipping along our gift, gifs, and well wishes to another across continents and oceans. The folks in all those FedEx, UPS and USPS trucks? They are the connections incarnate among the all the nodes (and, of course, typically nodes themselves in their personal lives).

In short, we are Santa. Our network may have been sparked by a single, sainted individual living close to two millennia ago, but it is we who are–for at least for a short time each year–enacting the Santa myth, embodying its ideal. This Santa is indisputably real. At least as real as our networked minds and our networked societies and nations.

So, happy holidays to you and yours! And to all the gorgeous, living reticula collectively known as Santa.

Peace.

Featured image by cartoonist Thomas Nast

How Will Generative AI Transform the Future of Work?

The short answer is that nobody yet knows, but here’s a summary of recent articles by folks trying to figure out how generative artificial intelligence (AI) might shake up specific jobs and the workplace as a whole in coming years.

  • “Implementing AI during a worldwide talent shortage” is (kind of) about the Catch-22 in which companies lack enough human talent to implement AI systems so they can make do with less human talent. That is, as much as many companies want to harness the power of AI (presumably to automate or at least augment certain jobs), they can’t find the talented people necessary to get those systems into place. Oh, the irony.

New research by SambaNova Systems has shown that, globally, only 18% of organizations [in the UK] are rolling out AI as a large-scale, enterprise-scale initiative. Similarly, 59% of IT managers in the UK report that they have the budget to hire additional resources for their AI teams, but 82% said that actually hiring into these teams is a challenge….[O]nly one in eight IT leaders have fully resourced teams with enough skilled workers to deliver on what the C-suite is asking. A further one in three are struggling to meet the demands placed on them. The rest (over half) are unable to deliver on the C-suite’s vision with the people they have.”

So, what should companies do? One idea is to upskill workers so that they can implement these new and powerful large language models (LLMs) (like the latest Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) models everyone is gushing about). Another idea is to outsource such projects. So, the future of AI will first require many companies to upskill their human workforces.

  • “ChatGPT Is a Stunning AI, but Human Jobs Are Safe (for Now)” is about whether the amazing and increasingly famous ChatGPT large language model will soon be able to replace a large portion of the workforce. Some believe the answer is yes. An article in The Guardian, for example, recently stated “professors, programmers and journalists could all be out of a job in just a few years.” 

But Jackson Ryan, writing in CNET, says it’s not that simple. “[ChatGPT] doesn’t know how to separate fact from fiction. It can’t be trained to do so. It’s a word organizer, an AI programmed in such a way that it can write coherent sentences…It definitely can’t do the job of a journalist. “

Instead, Ryan sees its future use as more a tool than a kind of automation: “ChatGPT and its underlying model will likely complement what journalists, professors and programmers do. It’s a tool, not a replacement.”

  • In CDO Trends, Paul Mah writes about “How AI Will Change Work.” He tends to agree that generative AI will be used more as a tool than a replacement. He writes, “Just like how graphic designers took to using computers, programmers, designers, and writers will soon need to start using AI tools to stay relevant. If you have yet to try your hand at writing the prompts used to generate AI art, let me assure you that it is harder than it looks. Part programming and part writing, it takes a fair amount of effort to get text-to-image systems to generate the artwork that you want.” In short, using these tools effectively requires skills and expertise in itself.

He too agrees that, at least for now, “generative AI won’t kick every creative worker out of their jobs, but it will change how they go about them, and where their time and energy will be focused.” So, how will generative AI jumpstart productivity? Toker suggests three ways: 1) Faster writing as the AI creates notes and rough drafts that writers can build on and revise, 2) Improved customer service as employees “get a transcript of any conversation and get generative AI to produce an analytical summary of what was said,” and 3) Faster mock-up creation “by building out the basic scaffolding at the early stages…[giving] workers more time for creative exploration with customers.”

  • In “7 AI predictions for 2023 from IT leaders,” various AI and information technology experts weigh in on what’s going to happen with AI over the coming year. For example, David Talby, CTO at John Snow Labs, notes, “Dozens of companies offer you products that will draft essays, ad copy, or love letters. Instead of searching through stock photography, you can type a query and get a newly generated image. And this is just the beginning – we’re only scratching the surface of generative voice and video applications, so it will be interesting to see innovations and use cases come forth in the coming year.”
  • In “5 Ways to Use ChatGPT in Your Workflow,” Hillel Fuld discusses using ChatGPT to boost content marketing by using it to come up with ideas on any given topic, helping to create a first draft, suggesting titles, helping with research and shortening text with character limits.
  • In “How to Save Your Job from ChatGPT,” Trung Phan says the new tech can create documents on a range of issues, including legal, financial analysis, sales pitches and even corporate strategies. [Note: Given the bot’s propensity for fiction and exaggeration, however, firms had better be extremely careful for using it for these purposes.] Ethan Mollick, an innovation professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is quoted as saying, ““I think people are underestimating what we are seeing from ChatGPT…If you are a white-collar worker, this is transformative for productivity.” Phan goes on to cite other possible uses:

Lawyers will probably write legal briefs this way, and administrative assistants will use this technique to draft memos and emails. Marketers will have an idea for a campaign, generate copy en masse and provide finishing touches. Consultants will generate whole Powerpoint decks with coherent narratives based on a short vision and then provide the details. Financial analysts will ask for a type of financial model and have an Excel template with data sources autofilled.

  • In Harvard Business Review‘s “ChatGPT and How AI Disrupts Industries,” the authors writes, “AI presents opportunities as well and will create new jobs and different kinds of organizations. The question isn’t whether AI will be good enough to take on more cognitive tasks but rather how we’ll adapt.”

The authors disagree with the conventional wisdom that generative AI will simply improve the speed with which writers write, programmers code or artists create. They note that GPS-plus-AI-maps did not just make taxi drivers better at their jobs; they made it possible for hundreds of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers to compete with taxi drivers. In other words, it changed the whole paradigm. The authors are not sure what these new work paradigms will look like, but they expect they will be transformative.

  • In “Beyond ChatGPT: The Future Of AI at Work,” Karl Moore points out some of the most critical flaws associated with ChatGPT. In particular, the bot does not actually read sources and cite works. Therefore, it can’t be trusted to get things right and can’t help the reader determine the validity of an analysis by drilling down into source materials.

One possible way around this in the future is by coupling generative AI with semantic search, which “seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding the searcher’s intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace.” He states, “When generative AI and semantic search are used together, you can ensure that generative AI chatbot responding to a customer query is providing correct company information, and that responses being provided to answer a critical client question is based on the most up-to-date competitor information.”

  • In “Stumbling with their words, some people let AI do the talking,” the authors discuss the case of the dyslexic business owner who had ChatGPT hooked up to his email account by tech consultant Danny Richman. Now when he writes a message to his clients, “the AI instantly reworks the grammar, deploys all the right niceties and transforms it into a response that is unfailingly professional and polite.” After Richmond wrote about the success of the application on Twitter, many people reached out to him: “They said they always worried about their own writing: Is my tone appropriate? Am I too terse? Not empathetic enough? Could something like this be used to help with that?” One person even told him, “If only I’d had this years ago, my career would look very different by now.”
  • In “Four Paths to the Revelation,” Ethan Mollick formulates “exercises to help you understand the potential impact of AI.” First, treat it like “a magic intern with a tendency to lie, but a huge desire to make you happy.” Give it proper oversight, using your own expertise to guide it, and you’ll become far more productive. Second, give it a scenario and ask it to give you multiple choices about what happens next. You can use this to do anything from create choose-your-own-adventure games to business scenario planning. Third, ask it for lots of ideas. For example, “Give me 25 ideas about how to make money with a medical degree in an industry other than medicine.” After it lists out the ideas, ask it to elaborate on the ideas that seem most interesting and feasible to you. Fourth, use it to engage in a joint hallucination. The example he uses is “Taylor Swift starts a supergroup with the Beatles who have time-travelled from 1969.” He then asks for ideas related to scenarios such as a list of songs they’d perform together (including songs they’d write jointly), a Stephen Colbert monologue after their concerts, and a play about how the Beatles and Swift first met.

But you don’t need to stop there, says Mollick. There are many other options, from asking it to write some working computer code (yeah, it can do that, though the code may not be perfect) to seeing how many of your current duties you might automate.

We’re Just Getting Started

So that’s my synthesis of some of the articles out there on how generative AI will change the future of work. These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There will be many more and better articles as we all become more familiar with these technologies and as thousands of new applications are built around them.

Here’s hoping we can keep up.

Featured image from Mirko Tobias Schäfer, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KUKA_Industrial_Robot_Writer.jpg

A Neural Network Writes About Networks, and Other Marvelously Meta Matters

For over a month now, I’ve been writing about the rising seas of AI-generated media, the profusion of AI-generated art, and the ethical quandaries involved. So, it was only a matter of time before I stumbled onto the topic of AI prose generators like ChatGPT.

Except, I didn’t stumble.

I was pushed.

Pushed by several folks familiar with my interest in AIs and then by the sudden onslaught of headlines heralding the overnight sensation known at OpenAI’s superchatbot. Didn’t I warn you about the coming deluge? The water is rising fast now.

Anyway, I spent a little time today playing with the world’s latest chatbot darling. Here’s some of what I found.

Explain Yourself!

Not feeling very original, I started by asking the chatbot about itself, and here is its self-portrait:

ChatGPT is a natural language processing (NLP) tool that uses a pre-trained language model to generate responses to user input in a conversational manner. The tool takes in user input, processes it using the language model, and generates a response based on the context and keywords in the input. The generated response is then displayed to the user, allowing for a back-and-forth conversation.

Well, that’s pretty prosaic but also nicely succinct. In fact, it’s written in better English than you’ll see in much of today’s blogosphere, both macro and micro.

Alrighty then. So, I wanted to go a bit deeper and asked it a simple question: “Is ChatGPT based on a neural network?” Here’s what it had to say:

Yes, ChatGPT is a variant of the GPT-3 language model, which is based on a neural network architecture. GPT-3 uses a type of network known as a transformer, which is specifically designed for natural language processing tasks. The model is trained using a combination of supervised learning, in which it is provided with large amounts of labeled data to learn from, and unsupervised learning, in which it is allowed to discover patterns in the data on its own. This allows it to generate human-like text that is often difficult to distinguish from text written by a person.

The Network Writing About Networks

But what, you may wonder, is a neural network? Glad you asked. ChatGPT has the answer to that one as well:

Neural networks are a type of machine learning algorithm that is designed to recognize patterns in data. They are called “neural networks” because they are inspired by the way the human brain works, with individual neurons working together to process information. In a neural network, there are many interconnected processing nodes, each of which performs a simple calculation on the data it receives. These calculations are designed to be similar to the way that neurons in the brain process information. The network as a whole is able to learn and adapt based on the data it receives, allowing it to improve its performance over time. This makes neural networks a powerful tool for tasks like image and speech recognition, natural language processing, and more.

The Difference Between Systems and Networks

Then I asked ChatGPT about the difference between systems and networks. I was genuinely curious about how it would parse those differences since I’ve found the distinction challenging myself. I think the question somehow inspired it because it really laid things out clearly and at considerable length:

In a general sense, networks and systems are both collections of interconnected components that work together to achieve a common goal. However, there are some key differences between the two.

Networks are typically characterized by their interconnectedness and the flow of information or resources between nodes in the network. Networks can be thought of as a web of connections that facilitate the transfer of information or resources. Examples of networks in the natural world include neural networks in the brain, social networks, and ecological networks.

On the other hand, systems are characterized by their organization and the relationship between components that work together to achieve a common goal. Systems can be thought of as a set of components that are organized and interact with each other to perform a specific function or process. Examples of systems in the natural world include the human body, ecosystems, and weather patterns.

In summary, the key differences between networks and systems are the focus on interconnectedness in networks and the focus on organization in systems. Networks are characterized by the flow of information or resources between nodes, while systems are characterized by the interaction and organization of components to achieve a specific goal.

Is the Universe a Network?

Honestly, I doubt I would have been able describe those distinctions that well in the space of four short paragraphs. Well done, superchatbot!

So, I took our discussion to the ultimate level, asking about whether the universe itself is a network. Again, the answer seemed inspired.

The universe can be seen as a network because it is comprised of various interconnected systems and structures. For example, the solar system is a network of planets, moons, and other celestial bodies that are held together by gravity. Similarly, the galaxy is a network of stars, gas, and dust that are held together by the force of gravity.

Additionally, the universe is a network of interconnected physical forces and laws, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. These forces and laws work together to govern the behavior of matter and energy in the universe.

Furthermore, the universe is a network of living organisms and ecosystems that are interconnected through the cycles of matter and energy. For example, plants and animals rely on each other for food and oxygen, and their waste products are used by other organisms in the ecosystem.

Overall, the universe can be seen as a vast, interconnected network of systems, structures, forces, laws, and living organisms that work together to create and sustain the complex and dynamic nature of the universe.

Well, okay, so ChatGPT might get a little metaphysical here. For example, is there really such a thing as network of laws? Well, maybe. All in all, though, superchatbot whipped up a Carl-Sagan-esque answer about a topic as large as the universe in just a few seconds.

Poetic Justice

Like many other people, I was blown away by OpenAI’s superchatbot. I mean, yeah, it did some weird things. For example, it told me a pretty off-color joke about Joe Biden and a downright surreal one about Donald Trump. The bot may not be quite ready for its own comedy special yet.

And, it sometimes contradicted itself in weird ways, one minute claiming “I am in a good headspace and am able to appreciate the present moment” and the next “I do not have the ability to experience emotions.”

But still, it was able to do many other fascinating things, from writing love poetry to God in the manner of John Donne to providing a nice little book review of Moby-Dick.

Honestly, circa 2022-23, it appears we writers may soon be redundant, or at least practicing our craft with much greater humility. And it’s not just us, either. I also played a bit with OpenAI’s computer programming tool. Just by describing what I wanted the program to do, I got the codebot to write up several bits of a Python code, from a simple dictionary to a function that identifies whether or not a number is prime.

So, the good(ish) news is that we writers and artists will not be lonely in the unemployment line. Developers will be right there alongside us. Poetic justice, I suppose. In fact, I asked ChatGPT to write a poem on the topic, so I’m going to give it the last rather chillingly optimistic word:

In a world of endless possibility

Where machines can do the work of many

The jobs that once belonged to us

Are now at risk of obsolescence

Gone are the days of endless code

When writing meant pouring out your soul

Now AI can do it faster and better

Leaving writers out in the cold

And as for artists, once so revered

Their skills no longer needed

As AI can create with ease

Leaving them to wonder and grieve

But fear not, dear human friends

For though our jobs may disappear

We will find new ways to thrive

In a world transformed by AI.

Nothing But the Reticulum Exists

No Thing and Nothing

The other day I came across an interview with theoretical physicist and science writer Carlos Rovelli. He was describing ideas from the relational quantum mechanics theory.

Upon a quick scan, one quote caught my eye: “the world is not a set of things with properties.”

Okay, professor. I’ll bite. What is the world?

What’s Interacting?

“The world is a network of interactions,” he states.

Hmm, so, if there are no things with properties, what’s doing all that interacting?

Well, that’s the thing (or, I guess, the nothing?). There’s only the interacting. Nothing has properties until it interacts with something else.

Pretty Zen, right? Hold onto your hat. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Or, um, maybe you have?

Describing relational quantum mechanics, he states, “The idea is that what quantum theory is teaching us is that we should not think that the properties of something (for instance the kicked ball) are always defined. Rather, properties are just the way something affects something else. So, the ball has literally no properties–not even a position–until it affects something, the glass of the windows, for instance.”

Note the word “literally” here. This left me with oh so many questions, especially when he talks about objects. Can there even be objects? So what is an object?

Turns out an object is “the ensemble of the ways in which it affects other objects around itself. An object exists reflected in everything else.”

Got that? No objects unless they interact with other objects. But if there are no objects to start with, where do the other objects come from?

I know some of this is just the inability of language to capture difficult-to-express ideas about quantum mechanics.

But still…

Damn it!

Forced to Read Rovelli (Again)

Once I got to that point in the article point, I knew he had me. I had gone and interacted with his ideas. I could have avoided them. I could have become a human quantum eraser of Rovelli readings.

But no. The ideas and I had interacted and so we both took on properties, I guess. I was then forced to read his next damned book. 

Suddenly, thanks to the instant gratification allure of the Kindle, I was reading Hegoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution. After providing a few character sketches of the originators of quantum theory (Heisenberg, Bohr, Jordan and Dirac) and the key contributions of Schrodenger (who disconcertedly turns out to be a pedophile?), Rovelli quickly outlines the basics of quantum theory, jumps into the famously bizarre implications of the double-slit experiment, and briefly outlines various interpretations of quantum theory, with a rhetorical eye on gently undermining them.

But this is all appetizer stuff, preparing readers for the main course: the relational interpretation of quantum physical.

Rovelli’s Wrought Relationships

Let’s back up a sec. What exactly is the relational quantum mechanics (RQM) interpretation of quantum mechanics? Well, look at it like a game of poker.

You remember how Einstein broke broke 19th-century physics when he said the space and time were only relative rather than absolute concepts?

Well, Rovelli ups the ante on the relativity concept, basically going all in. It’s not only time and space that are relative. It’s everything in the whole of creation!

You Are the Eyes of the Universe

A key part of the original idea is that quantum systems are dependent on observers. That is, the state of the system boils down to a relationship between the observer and the heretofore mentioned system.

Confused? Me too.

Are the observers only conscious beings? Are the ball and window observers unto themselves? That is, do the ball and widow become “real” and interact even if I don’t see them do so, or at least see the outcome (that is, the broken window)?

Reality Is Literally Relative

In Hegoland, Rovelli tries to explain his point of view:

What quantum theory describes…is the way in which one part of nature manifests itself to any other single part of nature….The world that we know, that relates to us, that interests us, what we call “reality,” is the vast web of interacting entities, of which we are a part, that manifest themselves by interacting with each other. It is with this web that we are dealing.

One thing he does try to clear up is the role of the observer, saying that “any interaction between two physical objects can be seen as an observation.” So, I guess that we don’t need a person to see the interaction between a ball and window. They are both observers so their interactions make them take on their respective properties.

At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.

But it’s all relative. For you, a fact may be real yet still not be real for me. That’s the real mind-bender in all this.

The fact that some properties exist only with respect to something else should not overly surprise us. We already knew as much. Speed, for example, is a property that an object has relative to another object. Speed does not exist without being anchored (implicitly or explicitly) to something else. It is a relation between two entities. The discovery of quantum theory is only slightly more radical: it is the discovery that all the properties (variables) of all objects are relational, just as in the case of speed.

The Nodes Are the Links?

According to conventional wisdom, networks are made up of nodes and links, with nodes being connecting points joined with other connecting points via those links. Rovelli writes, “Objects are such only with respect to other objects, they are nodes where bridges meet.”

So, in his view, the links between the nodes only exist when the nodes intersect somehow. I think. So….the links don’t exist and then suddenly they do when the nonexistent objects intersect.

Or, something like that…

Part of my confusion is the fact that objects seldom if ever exist in a vacuum. The ball that’s flying toward the window is, as it travels, intersecting with air molecules, photons, water vapor, and so much more. Are all these things “observers” in Rovelli’s conceptualization?

I think so.

If I’ve got this right, it is the intersection of two no-things that causes something to exist. But then he states, “Entanglement is not a dance for two partners, it is a dance for three.”

The Mysterious Third Dancer

Who or what is the third dancer?

It’s what he refers to as a correlation. That is, anytime there is an interaction between two things, there’s a correlation between them, which he also refers to as an entanglement. Is this related to spooky-action-at-a-distance entanglement? He doesn’t say.

By Paulo Neis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s how he defines it: “Entanglement…is none other than the external perspective on the very relations that weave reality: the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual.”

So, I see a butterfly and, presto, the butterfly and I are entangled. Our reality is the product of that entanglement. Sure, we may have already been entangled with other stuff. For example, the butterfly may have already been entangled with a flower in my neighbor’s garden and I may have already been entangled with my sneakers (among other things) but the butterfly and I literally don’t exist for one another until there’s an entanglement.

At that point, I guess, my sneakers are entangled with me, which is entangled with the butterfly. Am I entangled with the flower on which the butterfly landed before I saw it? Rovelli leaves me guessing on that score.

Whence Lies Objectivity?

You may be asking yourself, “If the butterfly didn’t exist for you until you interacted with it, then why, once I too have seen the butterfly, do you and I agree on its characteristics?”

Good question.

He tries to answer it.

If I know that you have looked at the butterfly’s wings, and you tell me that they were blue, I know that if I look at them I will see them as blue: this is what the theory predicts, despite the fact that properties are relative [his emphasis]. The fragmentation of points of view, the multiplicity of perspective opened up by the fact that properties are only relative, is repaired, made coherent, by this consistency, which is an intrinsic part of the grammar of the theory. This consistency is the basis of the intersubjectivity of our communal vision of the world.

The Mind of God

I don’t know how things that don’t exist (or, at least, don’t have properties) can interact with one another. If he explains that, I somehow missed it.

Maybe groups of realities exist (for example, one with a butterfly and a flower and another with myself and my sneakers) in which all the nodes are interacting with one another. Then somebody (let’s say the butterfly) who has been made real in one reality (by virtue of its interactions) is able to interact with somebody (let’s say me) from a separate reality because of some clash between group/interaction-based realities.

Uh-huh. Even I don’t quite know what that means. I think the holes in Rovelli’s narrative leave me guessing.

Are we all just conceits in the mind of God, with no reality of our own?

Empty Teachings

His ideas also touch on our sense of self. That is, we do not exist in ourselves. Rather, we are made up of a vast reticulum of phenomena, each link and node dependent on others.

Rovelli tries to elucidate further by delving into the ideas of Nāgārjuna, an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher who wrote The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way in the second century CE. “The central thesis of Nāgārjuna’s book,” Rovelli writes, “is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself independently from something else. The resonance with quantum physics is immediate.”

(Well, we should note that the resonance is particularly with his theory of quantum physics, but perhaps it’s churlish to point that out.)

The absence of some core, independent entity is known as śūnyatā, which tends to be translated as “emptiness.” So everything, including you and I, are part of this emptiness. He explains:

[L]ooking at a star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one, says Nāgārjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I conventionally call my “self.”

Networks In and Out

Honestly, I can’t tell if we are literally or metaphorically discussing networks here, but it is interesting to think about the connections between our brains, our physical selves, and our quantum existence.

Our brains are networks, with our sense of self largely being emergent out the electrochemical patterns of neurons. Likewise, the rest of our physical selves are emergent from complex adaptive systems. Now, if Rovelli is on the right track, the whole of the universe is a constantly shifting and flowing network of realities. Reality is only seemingly objective. It is actually contingent and relative.

Everything else is emptiness.

I don’t know if that’s the truth of it, but so sayeth the scholar-saint physicist philosopher Carlos Rovelli. Or, at least, that’s the reality I’ve taken away from our interaction.

How it strikes you is no doubt destined to be different. Still, though our realities must be unique, we are now theoretically entangled: you, me, Rovelli and his thousands of other readers. Luckily, however, emptiness is everywhere, so none of us needs to feel the least crowded. Feel free to stretch out and ponder on your own.

Namaste.

How Long Till Renewables Power the World, Not Just Electrify It?

I recently wrote about the exponential growth of renewables as sources of global electricity. The outlook is fairly bright, so to speak, with the data suggesting that by 2037 the vast majority of the electrical grid will be powered by renewables.

Whether that turns out to be true or not, however, it only looks at a proportion of all energy usage. After all, we know that electricity is just a subset of energy, although we often think of them as one in the same.

In 2021, for example, the world produced 28,214.07 terawatt hours of electricity. In the same year, the world consumed 176,432 terawatt hours of energy. Therefore, electricity represents just 16% of the total energy consumed. Creating a carbon-free clean energy grid is not half the battle. It’s only 16% of it. Our global energy reticulum is much vaster.

IF Renewable Exponential Growth, THEN….

But that 16% figure may not be as depressing at it sounds. Let’s assume that the solar/wind duo continue to double the amount of energy they produce every four years or so.

Now I know this figure may be not conservative enough or may be too conservative. After all, renewable technologies such a wave and tidal energy may start to come into their own during this period, shrinking the periods that represent exponential growth of renewables.

Also, although they’re not renewable per se, non-carbon sources of energy such as modular nuclear fission plants or even nuclear fusion plants may also emerge as a significant source of energy.

But even just sticking with solar and wind energy, if the total amount produced by these sources (which are already the cheapest sources of electricity on the market) double every four years, then they will be able to produce 345,822.4 terawatt hours (TWh) worth of energy by the year 2049. This is, of course, far more than the 176,432 TWh of energy consumed in 2021.

That may also be far more energy than the world needs if, as has happened in the United States since 2009, global energy consumption largely plateaus.

Who’s Right?

If exponential growth of renewables continues, then perhaps folks like author Bjørn Lomborg–who still claims wind and solar energy are a “somewhat boutique” form of energy and that fossil fuels will still account for 70% of energy consumption in 2050–will turn out to be badly mistaken. And not just Lomborg, who seems to be citing data from the U.S. Department of Energy: By current DOE estimates, 75% of U.S. energy will come from fossil fuels in 2050.

Time Is Gonna Tell

Based on the trends we’re currently seeing, my guess is that Lomborg and those DOE projections will turn out to be quite wrong. They fail to take into account the exponential growth projections of renewables. They also neglect other trendlines related to technological innovation, price-driven market forces, and the political will galvanized if and when there are alarming increases in drought and/or a dramatic uptick in the number of heat-related deaths.

On the other hand, what do I know? Some of these folks have spent a lot of time thinking about these trends, so maybe they’ll be right. Or at least closer to right than I’ll be.

Still, I choose to be hopeful. Sure, fossil fuels will be around for the next three decades, but I doubt that they’ll play anything like the outsized role in energy production they do today. (Though they’ll continue a play a role in others areas such as plastics and fertilizer production).

Or, if they do continue to play a large energy role, it will be because they transform fossil fuels into greener fuels (e.g., hydrogen) in ways that somehow capture most of the carbon in the refining process.

Watching the Milestones

We are, of course, already making considerable progress. Scientific American just reported, “Wind and solar output are up 18 percent through Nov. 20 compared to the same time last year and have grown 58 percent compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The government energy tracker predicts that wind, solar and hydro will generate 22 percent of U.S. electricity by the end of this year. That is more than coal at 20 percent and nuclear at 19 percent.”

I should note that 18% annual growth in U.S. renewables gets us very close to a doubling every four years, and this most recent growth occurred before the implementation of the new climate bill.

But how about those longer term predictions? Well, we may not need to wait 30 years to get a clue about them. For example, we should be able to make short-term predications that, if they are relatively accurate, foreshadow longer-term trends. So, here are a couple of markers to hit if we are on a fast track for a low carbon world:

  • By the end of the year 2025, we should see solar and wind accounting for about 5,400 TWh of power globally.
  • By the year 2030 or there abouts we should see solar and wind accounting for about 10,800 TWh of power globally.

Even if we hit those markers, of course, there’s no telling when the S-curve is going to slow things down. And, if the green energy storage problems aren’t figured out and the NIMBY folks stop the growth of more transmission lines, then there could be a backlash against renewables as an undependable energy source. Or, if there is a conflict between the U.S. and China, which makes the lion’s share of solar panels today, then that could throw off the whole global trend.

Choosing Optimism

I know that “hope is not a plan,” but I am considerably more optimistic since the passage of the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most important climate bill in U.S. history. I am not, of course, expecting miracles. But the fact that they passed it at all suggests to me that the corporations that hinge on “green” business models finally have enough economic clout and political prestige to help push such legislation over the finish line.

Then there’s the China factor. China is quickly cornering the market on green technologies and U.S. politicians are finally waking up to the fact that this is the near-term future of the global economy.

So, yeah, I am more optimistic because of my jaded perspective that our dismayingly unrepresentative, sold-to-the-highest-bidder political system is finally scenting the smell of the newly minted dollars printed by green(ish) corporations the world over.

Sure, Exxon and company will stay in business. But at least some balance is being struck in our economic and political hallways of power. With any luck, we might all be the beneficiaries of a saner, greener world over the next three decades, though I’m not fool enough to think we don’t yet have a long, long way to go.

Featured image:  Utah solar; a photovoltaic power station; August 2, 2017, Author Photo by Reegan Moen. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States

You Are the Edge of Chaos

As a human being, you either ride the edge of chaos or you perish.

Maybe that’s the wrong verb. It’s not so much that you ride it but that you represent it: you are the edge of chaos.

I’m not exaggerating. No matter how sedate or mundane your life may seem, you literally live in a zone between order and chaos, being a complex adaptive system, or CAS.

What Is a Complex Adaptive System?

We may feel singular, but that’s an illusion. You and I are biological collectives within a social collective within a planet-wide ecosystem. The cells that make up your body and mind are individual agents doing a dynamic dance with one another, an ensemble that is self organizing.

Complex adaptive systems, including yourself,  operate in a transitional space that exists between order and complete randomness. This is the conclusion of various scientists studying the workings of CAS across a variety of disciplines such as mathematics, physics, computer science and biology.

By operating at the edge of chaos, CAS are able to adapt in flexible ways to their changing environments. So, your cells neither fly apart (too much chaos) nor cohere into a changeless whole like a lump of stone or ice (too much order).

For example, when you find yourself in a cold environment, your body reacts in ways that preserve the complex adaptive system that is you. You involuntarily shiver and the blood flow to your extremities may slow to conserve core body heat.

Other Characteristics of CAS

The ability to bestride the edge of chaos is just one of the hallmarks of a CAS. Here’s a list of other characteristics, all of which apply to you:

  • First, you are made of many relatively simple cells, which themselves are made of smaller and simpler elements. In the lingo of CAS, these components are “agents” that are not too complex in themselves but which interact in complex ways.
  • Second, you are nonlinear. That is, the interactions among the multitude of small components of which you are made is nonlinear. This just means that small changes can become big ones and vice versa.  You’re packed with both positive and negative feedback loops.

In fact, the book Feedback Control in Systems Biology states that “even the briefest consideration of the dynamics which arise from the biological reaction kinetics underpinning almost all cellular processes reveals the ubiquity of non-linear phenomena.”

  • Third, you’re an open system, which means you share information and energy with your environment. You take energy in (for example, you eat an apple) and put energy out (for example, you push a lawnmower).

You also take in and share information. You’re taking in this post, for example, which is information that I’m sending out into the world.

  • Fourth, your behavior is determined by the interactions among your many components. There are, for example, the cells and synapses of the matrix known as your brain as well as the cells in the rest of your body. Although it feels as if you, an individual, are in charge of your behavior, it is really the interactions among your many collective components that determine your thoughts and behaviors.
  • Fifth, you are emergent and, therefore, unpredictable. The interactions among your various components are too complex and nonlinear to be entirely anticipated. What emerges are your behaviors and sense of identity. It’s as if you were your own weather system, and your inner weather person (let’s say your consciousness) can’t always forecast what’s going to happen.
  • Sixth, you have a history. Which just means that one interaction leads to another, and your history largely determines your present state, even if it was unpredictability emergent.

What’s Your Point?

Because you are an open system, you are also part of a larger system, an agent in the global ecosystem.

That whole “I am one with the world” trope? Well, it’s literally true. I guess most of us know that at some level, but the ideas underlying complexity theory make it more explicit.

You and I are CAS but we are also agents in a larger whole. We are parts of the grander reticulum.

Featured Image: "Seeking the edge of chaos is not seeking disorder or randomness but the right balance between order and flexibility" (Joost Pauwelyn); 13 December 2011; https://pixabay.com/en/fractal-julia-quantity-mathematics-63166/ WikiImages

American Turkeys: Identify U.S. Politicians Dressed as Pilgrims

Happy Thanksgiving!

I actually had an ancestor on that cold little ship packed with the quasi-lost and often clueless immigrants who had to have their pasty white behinds saved by the merciful, generous and hospitable natives of the land.

Given the way things turned out for the natives, I get that this is not a day everybody wants to celebrate.

On the other hand, the idea of two groups of incredibly different people peaceably sitting down to share a common meal is a good lesson for our rabidly partisan age.

Thus, my images of our current (and some soon to be swapped out) U.S. political leaders below.

Please take them in the spirit in which they are intended, with humor and goodwill to all people (even the ones we consider fantastically dumb and/or cruel) for at least this one day.

Peace.

You can make it a game if you like.

  • One point for every politician you can identify by name
  • Another point for if you can remember their actual title

Answers supplied below

From top left moving right and then back down to the left:

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House

Kevin McCarthy, Republican Leader

Steny Hoyer, Majority Leader

Steve Scalise, Republican Whip

James Clyburn, Majority Whip

Elise Stefanik, Republican Conference Chairman

Katherine Clark, Assistant Speaker

Gary Palmer, Republican Policy Committee Chairman

Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic Caucus Chairman

Kamala Harris, Vice President

Patrick J. Leahy, President Pro Tempore

Charles E. Schumer, Democratic Leader Chairman of the Conference

Richard J. Durbin, Majority Whip

Mitch McConnell, Republican Leader

John Thune, Republican Whip

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice

Joe Biden, President of the United States

How Networks Cause Reality Wars

The Virtues and Vices of Networks

Networks have a lot of virtues. Your personal neural net allows you to think. The Internet allows you to enjoy an astonishing array services and communications. Networks of fabric clothe you. Networks of roads and airports enable fast, cheap travel.

I could go on but you get the idea.

On the other hand, networks can also cause problems: sometimes fatal ones. In fact, they are largely responsible for the “culture wars” (which I think are more accurately defined as “reality wars”)  causing widespread social conflict to the point of weakening or even destroying democracies.

The Problem with Intelligence

When the network of your brain meets the Internet, we get some terrific things… and some downright dangerous ones.

Jeff Hawkins, the author of A Thousand Brains, explains why this happens. It boils down to language, especially written language.

Our brains can believe stuff that isn’t true. This is especially the case when we’re talking about things that we haven’t directly experienced. After all, mammals’ brains were originally evolved to make sense of their own experiences. Only via language are we humans able to communicate the details of our experience to others.

This is a powerful tool for survival. Imagine our ancestors being able to tell one another in detail about where the tree with the ripest fruit is, about which times of day they could avoid the lions stalking prey at the river bank, or about the best ways to craft a bow and arrows.

No doubt humans have always used language to lie, as well. But lying to others when in a small nomadic tribe will typically be a limited affair, affecting small groups of people who know one another well and have shared most of the same experiences.

These days it’s a different story. Lies can be quickly shared with millions of people who have little ability to verify the facts as presented. This can lead to widespread belief in fabrications, flawed understandings, and convoluted conspiracy theories.

The Truth of Pocket Pink Pachyderms

Let’s say you’ve read on some blog that there is a species of salmon-colored elephants you can hold in the palm of your hand. “Really?” you think. “Too weird!”

The blog goes into detail about how some elephant experts spliced the DNA from Borneo pygmy elephants with the modified RNA of pot-bellied pigs, and how there are rich women in Indonesia who keep them in jewel-adorned bird cages as status symbols.

“Huh,” you think. “That seems way too detailed to be bogus.”

So you Google it and sure enough there’s a YouTube personality telling you they have a good friend who owns one of the tiny elephants and just adores it.

Yes, there’s a fact-checking website that says the tiny elephants are a hoax, but you don’t believe such websites because they’re all controlled by the mainstream media. You never believe anything from the MSM. You believe in real people on the Internet.

Speaking of which, you found another YouTuber who shares your views on many issues and says he personally saw one of the tiny pink elephants. He even shows a video of one of them (though another YouTube watcher claims the creature is just a newly born aardvark, a claim that sounds like sheer sour grapes to you).

Pretty soon you’re part of a private social media channel where people discuss the nefarious black market trade in these adorable creatures. Yet governments are doing nothing to stop this trade. Why not?  There must be an international cover up!

You have not personally seen the exquisite but vulnerable salmon-colored elephants in the flesh, but some people you know strongly believe in “pocket pachyderm” rights and are lobbying to make them legal service animals they can bring on airplanes.

This Is Your Brain on Memes

The pocket pink elephant is just an example of how memes get started and spread. Memes are ideas that spread from from brain to brain much as viruses spread from body to body. That is, they spread quickly, sometimes even exponentially, in groups that are susceptible to them.

Memes carry cultural ideas, but sometimes these ideas are based on false premises. That’s where the trouble lies. Hawkins writes, “On its own, a brain will inexorably move toward more and more accurate models of the world. But this process is thwarted, on a global scale, by viral false beliefs.”

Dangerously Different Realities

We’ve already witnessed some of the dangers this brings. The events of January 6th were largely the result of passionate people believing that there was massive fraud during the 2020 presidential election despite an absence of evidence of the sort that could convince judges that those claims were legitimate enough to be worth investigating.

Although most Americans didn’t believe in the so-called Big Lie, millions did.  This conflict of beliefs among people–who have no personal experiences of events and yet form strong opinions on whether or not those events occurred–is a danger to civil society. And, it allows politicians to play on those beliefs in order to maintain and strengthen political power, even if they themselves don’t truly hold those beliefs.

After all, pols can use the strategy of false beliefs to garner more votes, more campaign funding, and greater support for their agendas. This becomes a negative feedback loop in which false beliefs provide support for politicians and other stakeholders (for example, media outlets that sell advertising), who in turn reinforce those beliefs.

Then these beliefs become so widely shared that certain voters demand their leaders express those beliefs. And on it goes, a vicious cycle of belief in things that never happened and yet must be voiced if one wishes to continue to be viewed as a loyal member of a given group.

Networks and New Technologies

This problem is built into the nature of human language and cognition. But it is magnified by the Internet and other networks (e.g., television and radio).

Unless we address this dynamic, things are only going to get worse thanks to generative AI. Those technologies will make it ever easier to for people to mislead others as AI-fabricated photos, videos and audio to become pervasive.

We are, after all, designed to believe our eyes and ears. When we get ever more high quality video and audio fabrications spread over the global network, our reality wars may further intensify.

So, What Are You Gonna Do?

How do we avoid these reality wars? That’s among the most important questions of our age. Although I don’t hold the answers, here are some ideas to think about:

  • Ensure that all fact-checking organizations cite their sources, that assessments are reviewed by balanced editorial committees, and that the public can easily review methodologies and, where possible, sources. These systems can’t and won’t appease every fact-denier that comes along, but they help demonstrate the legitimacy of their analyses.
  • Use technologies such as blockchain to corroborate the authenticity of media sources. This remains difficult to do well, and associations between blockchain technologies and the vagaries of cryptocurrencies do not endear blockchains to the public at large. But over time, blockchains may serve useful role here.
  • Require that all products of generative AI technologies contain impossible or very difficult to remove identifiers that they are fabrications. And develop fake-spotting technologies that are easily used by anyone.
  • Require social media companies to ensure everyone gets at least a chance at a balanced perspective by modifying their link recommendation engines.
  • Require that this topic of how the mind works amid networks to be covered in schools as one major component of digital literacy.
  • Continue to use popular media to educate people about the dangers involved. Movies and documentaries can ultimately make people more aware of how false narratives and fake news works.

Seeing Things Differently

I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should hold the same positions on political or social issues. To a large degree, people can share most of the same realities and yet hold contrary opinions about them.

In fact, competing points of view are essential to the health of a working democracy.

But we need to at least agree on the fundamental facts themselves when it comes to major issues. From there, we can debate the significance of those facts and how they should addressed.

We also need to forge updated cultural attitudes toward politicians. Yes, it’s a trope that politicians lie. But in our current age, lies are more dangerous than ever before. We need to hold them to a higher standard of honesty than in the past. In fact, the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States suggests that this may be happening.

Networks are a fundamental reality, and the Internet is going nowhere barring some global catastrophe. We’ve got to figure out how to use it more wisely. Otherwise, it’ll tear us apart rather than knit us together.

Featured image from Grandjean, Martin (2014). "La connaissance est un réseau". Les Cahiers du Numérique 10 (3): 37-54. DOI:10.3166/LCN.10.3.37-54. Graph representing the metadata of thousands of archive documents. Wikipedia.