Sunday, 21 May 2017

New technologies and Pathological Self-Organisation Dynamics

Because new communications technologies liberate individuals from the prevailing constraints of communication, it is often assumed that the new forces of self-organisation are benificent. Historical evidence for massive liberation of means of communication can tell a different story. Mechanisms of suppression, unforeseeable consequences of liberation - including incitement to revolt - revolution, war and institutional disestablishment follow the invention of printing; propaganda, anti-intellectualism, untramelled commercialism and totalitarianism followed telephone, cinema and TV; and the effects of unforseeable self-organising dynamics caused by the internet are only beginning to be apparent to us. It isn't just trolling, Trump and porn, its vulnerabilities that over-rationalised technical systems with no redundancy expose to malevolent forces that would seek their collapse (which we saw in the NHS last week).

What are these dynamics?

It's an obvious point that the invention of a new means of communication - be it printing or Twitter - presents new options for making utterances. Social systems are established on the basis of shared expectations about not only the nature of utterances (their content and meaning) but on the means by which they are made. The academic journal system, for example, relies on shared expectations for what an "academic" paper looks like, the process of review, citations, the community of scholars, etc. It has maintained these expectations supported by the institutional fabric of universities which continues to fetishise the journal, even when other media for intellectual debate and organisation become available. Journalism too relies on expectations of truth commensurate with the agency responsible for the journalism (some agencies are more trusted than others), and it again has resisted new self-organising dynamics presented by individuals who make different selections of their communication media: Trump.

But what happens then?

The introduction of new means of communication is the introduction of new uncertainties into the system. It increases entropy across institutional structures. What then appears to happen is a frantic dash to "bring things back under control". That is, reduce the entropy by quickly establishing new norms of practice.

Mark Carrigan spoke in some detail about this last week in a visit to my University. He criticised the increasing trend for universities to demand engagement with social media by academics as a criterion for "intellectual impact". What are the effects of this? The rich possibilities of the new media are attenuated to those few which amplify messages and "sell" intellectual positions. Carrigan rightly points out that this is to miss some of the really productive things that social media can do - not least in encouraging academics in the practice of keeping an open "commonplace book" (see

I'm wondering if there's a more general rule to be established relating to the increase in options for communicating, and its ensuing increase in uncertainty in communication. In the typical Shannon communication diagram (and indeed in Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety), there is no assumption that increasing the bandwidth of the channel affects either the sender or the receiver. The channel is there to illustrate the impact of noise on the communication, the things that the sender must do to counter noise, and the significance of having sufficient bandwidth to convey the complexity of the messages. Surplus bandwidth beyond what is necessary does not affect the sender.

But of course, it does. The communications sent from A to B are not just communications like Twitter messages "I am eating breakfast". They are also communications that "I am using Twitter". Indeed, the selection of the medium is also a selection of receiver (audience). This introduces a more complex dynamic which needs more than a blog post to unfold. But it means that as the means of communicating increases, so does the entropy of messages, and so does the levels of uncertainty in communicating systems.

This is what's blown up education, and it's what blew up the Catholic church in 1517. It's also what's enabled Trump's tweeting to move around conventional journalism and the political system as if it was the Maginot line. As the levels of uncertainty increase, the self-organisation dynamics lead to a solidification (almost a balkanisation - particularly in the case of Trump) of message-medium entities which become impervious to existing techniques for establishing rational dialogue. Government, because it cannot understand what is happening, is powerless to act to intervene in these self-organising processes (it should). Instead, it participates in the pathology.

We need a better theory and we need better analysis of what's happening.

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