Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fascism, global warming and pet rocks

Every so often, a British politician in opposition to the Government on a particular topic will find himself unexpectedly backed by newspaper opinion polls and will loudly demand the introduction of ‘direct democracy’ or ‘referendum politics’.

That is, an emphasis on single issue voting rather than just five-yearly electing. They never get their way because (1) most issues are too complex for a yes/no vote; (2) nobody can ever agree on how to phrase the referendum question; (3) public opinion is just too variable and dependent on the whims of the popular press; and (4) all politicians are well aware that just as public can validate them on one issue, so it can bite them on the behind in another.

Many is the time I’ve watched the tides of public opinion rise and fall – a million marching en masse against Bush’s War On Terror one minute only to ‘get behind the troops’ the next, hunting alleged paedophiles (and once, in a case of tragic dyslexia, a paediatrician) one day then hounding foxhunters the day after, even crucifying a national footballer after one poor game only to hail him a hero after a win – and thought to myself: "Popular opinion really is, in the words from Verdi’s Rigoletto: mobile, qual piuma al vento”. Or alternatively: "Strewth, democracy just doesn’t work."

How much happier the country, nay, the world would be, if only it were ruled by an all-knowing and infinitely wise benign dictator. Namely, me.

We Duckians have often talked up the value of the hive mind – the process by which a conglomerate of many individual responses to a question will almost always inch towards the best answer – of the value of bottom-up rather than top-down decision-making, of natural selection producing better results than the Big Idea.

But how do we square the Wisdom of Crowds with the Madness of Crowds? Or, as our own Harry Eagar puts it with his usual spiky succinctness in his newspaper column: “Who can forget fascism, global warming or pet rocks?

Elsewhere, I defined the wisdom of crowds as occurring when the individuals don’t know they’re in a crowd and make their decisions independently, while the madness happens when they do know they’re in a crowd and mindlessly follow the flock down the road to fascism, tulip-buying and pet rock ownership.

But still it seems that there’s a fundamental conflict between promoting the benefits of the hive mind, and managing the madness of the mob. In other words, if we move for a moment from the merely descriptive (that the hive mind generally comes up with the best solutions) to the prescriptive (that we ought to do more to harness this power in practical politics), how do we avoid fascism and pet rocks?

And what of the flipside issue: leadership. Winston Churchill was a great and much-loved leader in a crisis. Yet when the War was over, his hive booted him out so that it could solve its more prosaic peacetime problems. Do the crowds give birth to leaders, or do leaders manipulate the crowd? Did the hive produce Hitler, or did he create the hive?

I don’t have the answers, just a swarm of possible ideas, so I leave it to the Duck’s hive mind. What’s the buzz?


Blogger Duck said...

I like your distinction regarding whether the members of the hive are acting consciously as a member of the hive or not. I'm not sure that Harry's use of the term is in keeping with what the originators of the term had in mind. Helping Jeff out with his editorial was, to me, a simple act of collaboration. I'm thinking that "hive mind" is more applicable in a problem-solving exercise, and as Brit mentioned, probably in a manner where conscious collaboration is not the intent, and probably where the people involved don't know each other.

I think that this is one of those concepts that has limited applicability, and therefore lends itself to overgeneralization in a way that could rob it of its usefulness in certain contexts. I'm not sure how you can harness the power of the hive mind - it may not be harnessable, which is to say that the hive mind has a mind of its own.

July 06, 2006 7:49 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Time delay and base culture matter. One notes that of your three examples, two (fascism and global warming) never achieved concensus here and the other faded after a short time. Like the stock market gives good valuations on a scale of years but is random on an hourly or daily scale.

July 06, 2006 9:26 AM  
Blogger Exist~Dissolve said...

You have my vote/forced subjugation.

July 06, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Susan's Husband:

So it's a sort of meta-hive mind theory, whereby the brief manifestations of crowd madness (eg. fascism) are in the long run doomed because the meta-hive mind will eventually select against them.

I can see the picture, but it still leaves us the question of what we can do in the short term to avoid the madness of crowds.

July 07, 2006 6:40 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

We can do little to avoid the madness of crowds, unless we curtail personal liberty.

All that can be done is to attempt to educate people about the folly of whatever they're doing; some will listen. Most will not.

July 07, 2006 7:24 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The American political tradition has probably done the most towards moderating the madness of crowds. Crowd madness feeds on positive feedback, or more accurately, the lack of negative feedback. Having a tradition that encourages independent thought and the expression of such thoughts creates a situation where really stupid ideas are always subject to the friction of public criticism, whatever their popular appeal. The ability of our culture to renew itself through the contributtions from new and various sources gives it a level of robustness and stability that isn't mirrored elsewhere in the world.

July 07, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Hang on, that's Anglo, not just American.

July 07, 2006 8:27 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I stand corrected.

July 07, 2006 10:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

I refute it thus: CFR.

July 07, 2006 7:43 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I've been waiting for Skipper to land his airplane and tell us how he defines hive mind. However, as usual, I'm firmly on the fence.

When I think of hive mind, I think of subsistence farmers. This may be sort of like susan's husband's view of the stock market.

Primitive farmers do not attempt to maximize yields but rather to guarantee a minimum yield sufficient to carry them to the next year.

Unlike modern farmers, they don't plant a 'best' variety but a slew of various varieties, and they mix these all over their fields, on the theory that whatever happens that's bad won't quite wipe out every plant.

That's hive mind working to perpetuate but not improve itself.

Along comes Jethro Tull who applies genius (individual mind) to the problem of yield, which creates a new problem to solve: if you are going to maximize yield, how do you fend off pests/disease/drought?

One way is an attack by a new hive, chemists, who invent synthetic urea and Roundup.

It's a dynamic, and in western society, a sort of meta-hive outlook becomes established in which it's OK for a queen and a few drones to set off on a new venture.

In other societies (China, Islam), it's not OK.

Now that part is a poser.

July 09, 2006 7:30 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Okay. Lemme see if I have this straight. The auto brake system requires 2 IRUs, 2 brake systems, ASBS, 80 knots of MLG spin up and ...

Oh. Sorry. Ahem.

I must admit that I had treated the hive mind as an unalloyed good, without considering its good, close, personal friends, Mob Hysteria and Speculative Bubble.

Sometime ago, Steve den Beste gave ap pretty good precis of the hive mind in its original sense:

... there's another case of intelligence which is particularly interesting. It's referred to as a "hive mind", and it has been most closely studied in colonial insects: termites, ants, and has been particularly well studied in bees. Such colonies are sometimes referred to as super-organisms. What you have is a large number of individual critters who work as a team. Compared to human brains, the number of computing "elements" is far smaller (a few dozen to a few thousand individual bees) and the communication channels have much lower bandwidth but far more versatile encoding (a small number of messages transmitted by pheromones or by special "dances"), and the individual computing elements are far more sophisticated, since they are the brains of each individual bee. (It's true that this is hierarchized, since each bee's brain is in turn made up of neurons.)

And what's interesting about the hive mind is that a hive can demonstrate behavior patterns as a collective entity which seem similar to what we think of as "intelligence". Bees have been studied more closely, but no colonial insect does it better than the soldatos, army ants.

Soldatos do not have permanent nests. A soldato colony can exceed a million members, and they have to keep moving in order to find enough food. They travel to an area, establish a temporary nest, hunt for prey and raise new ants, and when they have thoroughly pillaged the area they move on. Sometimes part of the nest is formed of the bodies of some of the ants themselves, who grab onto one another to form walls around a volume where the queen and the eggs and larvae are concentrated, while others tend to the queen and eggs and larvae and yet others forage, seeking anything edible to kill.

Their primary prey is other arthropods, but they'll also scavenge carrion, and any creature they find which cannot flee will be killed and consumed. They have been known to kill cattle which were unlucky enough to be tied up, and to strip the skeletons clean. A soldato colony's performance is complicated and sophisticated and very successful.

In that sense, if I'm reading it properly, the hive mind is some sort of critical mass decision towards a group goal. In contemporary terms, the hive mind has reached a critical mass decision regarding gay marriage, and the answer is no.

I have often used hive mind to stand for the statistically typical decision regarding some criteria that may very well not have any group applicability. For instance, if you ask roughly 15 strangers to guess a subject person's weight, and none of the 15 know what the other is guessing, the average of the answers will typically fall within a pound of the true value.

Which sort of seems to mean that the net result of individual decisions that aren't subject to herd influence is likely to verge on the "correct" decision.

With regard to Harry's poser, Mr. den Beste said:

In nature, no hive mind exhibits intelligence at a level that approaches the actual intelligence of the individual units which are part of it. Though it is true that the hive mind of soldatos seems to "think" about things that individual ants do not (like "where are we going to camp?"), each individual ant processes far more information much more rapidly and uses it to control their behavior more comprehensively than the hive mind does. That's because the communication channel is so restricted.

Even when it came to primitive tribes of humans, the collective behavior of a tribe's hive-mind rarely surpassed that of extremely primitive animals such as clams: survive, breed, spread, repeat. Most of the benefit from language manifested in the microscopic, such as increased success in hunting and gathering.


And all along the primary limit has been the bandwidth and latency of the communications channel. Each successive technological advance which improved the channel caused a noticeable improvement in the effective intelligence of human hive minds which adopted them.

Steve den Beste goes on to discuss how the hive mind is affected by the internet (and, in so doing, reminds me of why I have found him to be an analytical thinker of the very first rank):

When it comes to blogs, power-law distribution tends to spontaneously induce creation of hierarchical organization, with contributors to high-traffic sites becoming de-facto leaders.

At any given instant, there will be a myriad of such hive-minds exhibiting a broad range of behaviors and capabilities. New ones would form all the time and old ones would falter and die. Some will only "think" in very restricted realms, while others may range broadly. In terms of observable intelligence level they would fall on a continuum. Some might be "geniuses", some "morons", some might operate at the level of animals or even plants. There will be the equivalent of diseases (i.e. chain letters). There will be the equivalent of parasites (file sharing networks pirating music and movies). Some will be valuable and constructive, some will be trivial and useless, and some will be insane. Some of those will be dangerously insane.

Sometimes hive-minds will form in response to others in order to oppose them. Hive-minds will compete and contend. Some will cooperate, forming coalitions. Sometimes that will cause them to merge. Some hive-minds will break into pieces, yielding children whose contributing members sort themselves based on their disagreements. And generally they'll be self-organizing, and many will be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Some of that sounds awfully familiar.

Anyway. I think it is worth keeping in mind some sort of definition for what constitutes a hive mind.

And it is definitely worth keeping in mind that for certain classes of problems, which may well constitute the majority, the hive mind is subject to VMS, and quite capable of all sorts of heinous things.

Jim Crow laws, for instance.

Now, where was I. Auto braking requires the ground roll spoilers to be armed, but is spoiler deployment required?

Stupid manual.

July 09, 2006 5:19 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

VMS := violent mood swing

July 09, 2006 5:44 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

What's wrong with pet rocks anyway?

July 12, 2006 10:54 AM  

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