Monday, February 26, 2007

The key ideas

Anyone coming to this site for the first time may have no idea what The Social Atom is about, or what are the key notions of social physics. Here are a few of the key ideas:

First point: We need to think in terms of patterns, not people. Social science has not progressed primarily because of an excessive fixation on the complexity of individuals, whereas it is collective patterns of order and organization that are often most important.

For example, imagine a crowd on the street, maybe people shopping at Christmas time, or flooding out of a stadium after a big football game. Everyone goes more or less where they want to go, and the chaos of the crowd reflects a mass of different individual decisions. There doesn't seem to be any order or organization. But in fact if you look closely you'll see something interesting - that many people move through the crowd within fairly narrow streams or lanes in which everyone moves in the same direction and flows along with one another. These streams snake through the crowd, form and dissolve, and they tend to persist. Why? Because people find that moving within these lanes or streams, flowing along with their neighbors, is generally easier than fighting with the chaos of the rest of the crowd. Even if a stream takes you a little off course, its better to move with it and then backtrack.

The interesting thing is that no one intends or plans these patterns, yet they end up really having a lot to do with how people move through the crowd. This is the idea of pattern, not people. To understand the flow of people in a crowd, just thinking about atomized individuals and their intentions isn't nearly enough - you have to take account of these patterns.

Now, this is a trivial example and not really important. But modern research is finding that similar patterns influence our lives at many levels - in the way we think, the opinions we have and the clothes we wear, our political beliefs, what we do for a living and so on. Although we tend to think of ourselves as self-determined individuals making up our own minds, we're strongly affected and influenced by what others around us do and we get carried forward in persisting streams of behavior, not unlike those streams in a crowd. These streams lie behind everything from fashions to runs in the stock market to the way we form social classes or have certain values. Without intending to, we help create youth movements, waves of hysteria, religious cults or nationalistic fervor, and these then act as forces that constrain and channel our own behavior. Yet we don't often see this, and as a result we miss the really important forces that influence our lives. To understand the human world better, we need to think of patterns, not just people.

Point two: This perspective actually has quite a lot in common with physics, with key problems that physicists face and the way they go about solving them. Physics is largely about understanding the laws of collective pattern and organization.

Most people think physics is quantum theory, Albert Einstein and relativity, the atom bomb, black holes and so on. This is the popular image of physics, and this is physics, but a lot of modern physics has also gone off in another direction, and most people don't know this. Consequently, there is a great misunderstanding about whether physics can help us understand the human world. People say that can't be possible, because you can't wrap up human life in simple equations, but what they're thinking about is physics as it was two centuries ago, when the whole idea was about finding the fundamental equations. Physics has moved way beyond that, and to see how physics can help, you need to have an updated view of what it is.

Most physicists today actually work on the physics of ordinary stuff such as liquids and solids. Water is a liquid when it comes out of the tap; put it into the freezer and it turns to solid ice. What makes that happen? What happens when water boils and turns to vapor? Ultimately, it is all down to the way the atoms fit together; the patterns by which they fall together in the substance. Take the very same atoms and put them together differently and you get completely new things. Diamond, which is made of carbon atoms, becomes the soft graphite of a pencil tip. You get a new and totally different material just by putting the same atoms together in a different pattern. The key insight in this field that almost all of the properties of a substance - its being a liquid or solid, whether it is soft or hard, elastic or brittle, its color - all have to do with how the atoms or molecules inside are put together. A lot of modern physics is really concerned with understanding how this can be; how organization can emerge on its own, the laws by which it forms, and so on. The answers don't always come down to simple equations, but this science has done a lot to understand how simple processes can give rise on their own to organized forms of surprisingly complexity.

Scientists are beginning to see that much the same is true when you look at the social world. Much more than their individual personalities, what is most important is the patterns of how people interact. Just as you can study the atoms in a diamond in infinite detail and never answer why it is diamond and not graphite, you'd never understand the social world even if you knew everything about individual people. So in a sense, physics and social science really face much the same problem - trying to understand how relatively simple parts get put together to create wholes, collective systems with properties all their own.

Our understanding of the human world is still relatively backward, I think, in part because the philosophy of man and society got off on the wrong track centuries ago and has been stuck with some damaging preconceptions, the worst of which is that man is somehow essentially different from the rest of nature and stands apart from it. This idea is still very influential. Even so, there's been lots of recent work by psychologists showing that individual people often follow fairly simple rules in making decisions. There are universal characteristics that hold across cultures. In every place on earth you find families, you find social norms, you find a few rich and many poor, you find fashions, waves of irrational behavior, religion and so on. These are the social equivalents of things like liquids and solids, only we're not used to thinking of them this way. We'll get more used to it in the future.

Point three: These ideas have real repercussions, as a few visionary thinkers have known for many years.

As one example, take racial segregation. In the US you have whites in suburbs, blacks in inner cities, a long-standing, very important problem. The cause, most people automatically think, is racism. But you have to think a little more carefully. Scientists have actually known for decades that you can have segregation even without racism - that quite innocent human behavior, nothing remotely linked to racism, can make the races separate more or less like oil and water.

Here's why. For the sake of argument, just suppose that everyone would like to live in a nice 50-50 mixed community. But that also no one really wants to be part of an extreme minority of less than, say, 30%. This isn't really being racist. Yet look what happens. If you start out with people mixed together randomly, you will find, just by pure chance, that some neighborhoods tend to be mostly white and others mostly black. Indeed, by chance alone, you'll find that a few people do end up living in neighborhoods where they're part of an extreme minority. Suppose these people move out to a more balanced area. Then the neighborhood they leave behind becomes even more strongly segregated, in turn driving out others. It's a simple mathematical process. In this way, scientists have shown, you can get pronounced racial segregation, pushing whites and blacks into separate enclaves, even if everyone really preferred to be mixed together. It's very surprising and counterintuitive, but true. This is the power of pattern over people. You can easily get an outcome that absolutely no one desires or intended.

Now, to be absolutely clear, this isn't to say there isn't racism. There are racists and their attitudes and actions cause lots of damage, but the point is that racial segregation might not have much to do with racism, which can actually have a much simpler mechanical cause. The point is that you certainly need to know about this if you hope to do anything about it.

Point four: Patterns can also be positive. By learning how to manage them, we could be more effective in making intelligent social policies.

For example, consider the amazing turn around of population growth in Kerala, the southern-most state of India. Until about 15 years ago, population was exploding there as it is in the rest of India, and nothing seemed to work. The government even tried a program of forced sterilization, which also failed. Then something almost miraculous happened. In the late 1980s, the Keralan government - aided by volunteer organizations - undertook a massive effort to stamp out illiteracy in Kerala. Literally tens of thousands of volunteers crisscrossed the countryside and managed to track down over 150,000 illiterates, of whom two-thirds were women. Three years later, in 1991, the United Nations declared Kerala the world's only 100% literate state - and surprisingly, the population then stopped growing. Today Kerala has the same birthrate as European nations. This region of India solved this age-old problem not by addressing re-production directly, but through simple education, especially of women.

Now it's interesting to see how this worked. There are two keys. The first is that education empowers women to seek other interests outside the home, in employment or otherwise. They gain power and have more control over their reproductive lives. You'd expect this to have some effect on population growth, but a second effect - a pattern effect - seems to explain why change came to Kerala so quickly and why it has been a stable change. No person lives in isolation, unaffected by the actions of others. For centuries, Keralans lived simple agricultural lives without need to advanced education. It's easy for parents to decide not to push for education for their children when education isn't likely to be important in their lives. But when lots of people become educated everything changes. When everyone else is educated, and when life comes to depend on education, then what was formerly an understandable decision to forego education now becomes obviously unattractive to everyone. Education itself becomes self-sustaining, not because people have changed as individuals, not because of human psychology, but because of the logic of collective patterns and what supports them. This seems to be a general lesson - that education creates self-sustaining streams of good consequences.

There are also positive streams carrying us forward over much longer timescales. This seems to be the best explanation, for example, for our human ability to be kind to others even in situations when we get nothing directly back in return. No other organism on Earth does this, and there's a real biological mystery here, as evolution is not generally kind to those who do not consider their own needs first. But the deep explanation seems to be that selfless behavior probably helped our ancestors survive within strong and cohesive groups. We tend to forget that more than 99% of human history was history utterly unlike what we know today. Our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in small groups in the jungles and on the plains, and they often had deadly combat with others, or had to compete with others for land. It is not too hard to imagine that if two groups were competing, one being made of completely selfish individuals, and the other of ready cooperators, the latter would have a big advantage. Many of us today have altruistic feelings because such feelings have been essential to the successful history of human groups - so you could say that even individual human character bears the traces of collective, pattern effects.

So the patterns I'm talking about aren't necessarily positive or negative, but can be either.

Point five: There is no contradiction between individual freedom and the existence mathematical laws for the human world much like those of physics. The idea that there is rests on a deep misunderstanding.

Birth rates have gradually fallen all across the Western world over the past 40 years. There's a general trend you find in every country - the US, Germany, Spain. This obviously doesn't imply that any particular set of parents didn't make choices and express their freedom. Patterns can exist at the level of many people, even while individuals continue being free, there's just no contradiction in that.

Think about the end of a music concert. You can begin clapping early or late, clap for a long or short time, expressing your individual attitude. But if you make recordings of clapping - and scientists have actually done this - you find that the way the sound rises and falls tends to follow a universal mathematical pattern, much like clockwork. What's even more surprising is that the very same pattern shows up in the way groups of people change from one kind of behavior to another - the way many people across the globe have adopted cell phones over the last few decades, for example. You cannot understand these trends accurately if you think that everyone made up their minds independently. Rather, as in the case of clapping, lots of people are strongly influenced by what they see others around them doing. The pattern acts back to influence and channel individual actions. So while were free, we're also strongly influenced and channeled by social patterns.

To take another example, consider the stock market. An investor might be the smartest person in the world, and know for sure that stock in IBM or some other company should begin rising rapidly tomorrow. But if for some completely crazy reason everyone begins selling IBM, and its price plummets, that wisdom doesn't count for much - hanging on against the herd may come at a terrific price. Again, the things we do are often strongly constrained by what the group does, and as a result, human behavior is often far more predictable than you might think.

Point six: Doing social physics has become much easier with modern computers. Computational capacity explains why this revolution is happening now.

For centuries the great philosophers and social theorists have played around with fascinating games of "what if." Plato explored what the supposed perfect state would be if it was ruled by wise Philosopher- Kings. More recently we've had spectacular - and often spectacularly painful - musings on the benefits of anything from communism to deregulation. Unfortunately, these musings have always been based around lots of vague words and arguments, because no human mind is smart enough to foresee what really might happen when you make changes in systems involving ten or a hundred or a million people. The growing web of causes and effects just overwhelms the power of even the greatest human mind to foresee what might come out.

But no more - or at least not always. Today, scientists have learned to augment the power of their minds with computing technology. The idea is to build models of social systems - a community, a company, a market, etc. You program lots of computer agents to act like people, to make decisions like people do, to learn and adapt, and then you run the computer to see what comes out - the computer does all the hard work, and very quickly. In this way you can carry out "virtual" social experiments to find answers to "what if" questions, something that has only become possible in the past few years. For example, you can look at the way companies grow. Companies form because people working together can do a lot more than people working on their own. Everyone knows that. What you find in these experiments, however, is a much deeper story about how companies evolve over time - they tend to start out with lots of hard workers, but over time, as they get bigger, tend to get infected with free riders - people who like the big salary but don't actually work so hard, and put more effort into appearing to work hard. This makes older companies vulnerable, and leads to a natural life cycle of the firm. A surprising conclusion is that companies don't persist just by making profits. They persist by having an ability to attract and keep good workers.

This kind of thing is really being used. Several years ago the NASDAQ stock exchange planned to change the tick size - the basic price increment - of its securities listings, thinking that a smaller size would make it easier for the market to discover the price of stocks more accurately. It sounded like an obviously good idea, but the exchange wisely decided to investigate further before going ahead. They developed a model of their exchange based around adaptive computer agents who were able to adapt and alter their trading strategies on the fly, or discover new strategies, just like real people. Then they used the model as a laboratory, and found that reducing the tick size beyond a certain point actually made things worse as some agents were able to exploit weaknesses to cheat the market and make easy profits. These strategies grew less risky and more profitable with a smaller tick size. Fortunately, NASDAQ discovered this before learning the same lesson in reality. These kinds of models are now being used all over the place.


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