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.

249 comments:

«Oldest   ‹Older   201 – 249 of 249
Anonymous said...

Be certain to have enough lights, binoculars, constellation days .
The situation will allow your site to get the actual daily life backside whilst
your freedom very. This situation will allow you to get very own daily life
bottom whilst your privacy very. Think out of your box and learn
unique corporate the right gifts. https:
//forschungs.diebin.at/index.php/User:EvelyneOD

Anonymous said...

I am actually glad to glance at this weblog posts which carries plenty
of useful facts, thanks for providing these kinds of data.


Also visit my blog ... pron Sex vidose

Anonymous said...

Hi there! I could have sworn I've visited this web site before but after looking at a few of the articles I realized it's new to me.
Anyways, I'm certainly delighted I stumbled upon it and I'll be book-marking it and checking back regularly!


Here is my web site; http://coda.fm

Anonymous said...

I'm starting a new online blog directory and was wanting to know if I can submit your site? I'm trying to inсгease my
directory gradually by hand so that it retains high quality.

I will mаke sure anԁ ρut your blog in
thе propeг category and I'll additionally use, "Blogger: The Social Atom" as your anchor text. Please be sure to let me know if this is alright with you by mailing me at: wendell.overstreet@yahoo.com. Many thanks

Take a look at my webpage - Shimmer Stockings Girls

Anonymous said...

Howdy! ӏ could hаνe sworn I've been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it'ѕ new to me.
Nonethelеѕs, I'm definitely happy I found it and I'll be book-marking аnd checking back often!



Μy web blog :: Inverted Areolas Photos

Anonymous said...

Its such as you read my mind! You appear to grasp a lot approximately this,
like you wrote the ebook in it or something. I feel that you just could do with some % to force the message house a
bit, but instead of that, that is excellent blog. A fantastic read.
I'll certainly be back.

Here is my website; Click Here

Anonymous said...

Howdy! I could have sworn I've been to this site before but after reading through some of the post I realized it's new
to me. Anyhow, I'm definitely happy I found it and I'll
be book-marking and checking back often!

Also visit my homepage :: polo factory outlet

Anonymous said...

home medicine for fatty liver home medicine for fatty liver home medicine for fatty liver

My blog ... fatty liver natural medicine

Anonymous said...

I rarely comment, but i did a few searching and wound up here "The key ideas".
And I do have 2 questions for you if you usually do not mind.
Could it be simply me or does it seem like some of these
comments look like they are left by brain dead people? :-P And, if you are posting at other sites, I would like to
keep up with everything new you have to post. Would you make a list of all of your public pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?


My site; Click Here

Anonymous said...

I am sure this paragraph has touched all the internet users, its really
really fastidious piece of writing on building up new webpage.


My web site :: Louis Vuitton

Anonymous said...

I love what you guys are up too. Such clever work and
coverage! Keep up the wonderful works guys I've incorporated you guys to blogroll.

Have a look at my web site; site

Anonymous said...

You made some good points there. I looked on the internet for more information
about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this web site.


My blog :: best website hosting ()

Anonymous said...

I think the admin of this site is truly working hard for his
site, since here every information is quality based information.



Feel free to visit my weblog; binaural beats download

Anonymous said...

Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading
it, you can be a great author.I will always bookmark your blog and definitely will come back down the road.
I want to encourage you to continue your great
work, have a nice holiday weekend!

Also visit my homepage - Borsa Gucci

Anonymous said...

I got this website from my pal who shared with me regarding this web page and at the moment this time I am browsing this site and reading very informative articles here.



My blog: Wholesale Jerseys Cheap

Anonymous said...

Hello! This is my first comment here so I just wanted
to give a quick shout out and say I genuinely enjoy reading through your posts.
Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects?
Appreciate it!

Feel free to surf to my web page Air Max Pas Cher (overuc.com)

Anonymous said...

My family every time say that I am wasting my time here at web, except I know I am getting familiarity
daily by reading such good articles.

Review my page ... Michael Kors

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I found your blog by the use of Google while looking for a similar matter, your
web site came up, it looks great. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

Hi there, just turned into alert to your blog through Google, and located that it is truly informative.
I'm gonna be careful for brussels. I'll be grateful if you
happen to continue this in future. Many people will probably be benefited from your writing.
Cheers!

Also visit my web page: nfl jerseys from china **

Anonymous said...

Hello, i believe that i noticed you visited my website thus i got here to return the
desire?.I'm attempting to find things to enhance my web site!I assume its ok to use a few of your ideas!!

my site; Kevin Durant Shoes

Anonymous said...

Everyone loves what you guys are up too. This type of clever work and reporting!
Keep up the wonderful works guys I've added you guys to blogroll.

Also visit my website - Recommended Site

Anonymous said...

It's not my first time to pay a visit this site, i am visiting this web page dailly and take good information from here daily.

Also visit my web page - Nike Free Run Sko

Anonymous said...

Stuff with paper towels and dry caused by heat and special sunshine.
They make increasing than the most popular boots you see around community.

Animal locks smells like real hair when burned, synthetic fur does not necessarily quite.
Ugg boot can be distressed both in summer but also in winter.
http://www.boonexdolphin.com/AnjaHundl

Anonymous said...

Due to using various mining harvests the glass got
colored to the exact desired shade. Perhaps the bigger
story, however, is the riotous Haunted Pub Crawl.
As they're made from organic and natural materials, they're water resistant.
The best that do floated however is: Dior Skin Adobe flash.
http://www.werderfriesen.de/forum/profile.

php?id=1279019

Anonymous said...

In fact when someone doesn't know after that its up to other users that they will help, so here it happens.

Feel free to surf to my homepage :: Nike Free Tilbud

Anonymous said...

I'm curious to find out what blog platform you have been using? I'm experiencing some minor security issues with my latest website and I would like to find something more safe.

Do you have any suggestions?

Here is my page ... Nike Blazers for Men

Anonymous said...

It is revealed that at some of the places, kids
are forced into labour. He has also designed his own like of
residence and home decoration. Examples including these top maker bags are Hermes bags,
Fendi handbags, gucci bags, and Prada bags. The genuine designer handbags
might be expensive. http://www.cesurveguzel.com/index.php?
do=/blog/185552/prada-bags-resort-new/

Anonymous said...

I've learn some excellent stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how a lot effort you put to make such a great informative web site.

Feel free to visit my site Cheap Jerseys :: overuc.com ::

Anonymous said...

Helpful info. Fortunate me I found your web site by accident, and I am surprised why this twist of
fate didn't took place earlier! I bookmarked it.

Here is my web site; Mulberry Bags

Anonymous said...

After going over a number of the blog articles on your web page,
I truly like your technique of blogging. I added it to my bookmark website list
and will be checking back in the near future.
Take a look at my website too and let me know how you
feel.

Also visit my blog: Kevin Durant Shoes

Anonymous said...

I really like what you guys are up too. This sort of clever work and reporting!

Keep up the superb works guys I've incorporated you guys to my blogroll.

Have a look at my web site :: Kobe Bryant Shoes 2013

Anonymous said...

My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different website and thought I may as well check things out.

I like what I see so now i'm following you. Look forward to exploring your web page for a second time.

Take a look at my web site ... Mulberry Outlet [www.whatsot.com]

Anonymous said...

I know this if off topic but I'm looking into starting my own weblog and was wondering what all is required to get set up? I'm assuming having a
blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I'm not very web savvy so I'm not 100% certain.
Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

Also visit my blog post ... ranking kredytów hipotecznych

Anonymous said...

Good article. I am experiencing many of these issues as
well..

Look into my site Mulberry Outlet UK

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!
Very helpful information specially the last part
:) I care for such information a lot. I was looking for this
certain info for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.


Stop by my homepage Nike Air Max

Anonymous said...

I was recommended this web site by my cousin. I am not
sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else
know such detailed about my problem. You're amazing! Thanks!

Feel free to surf to my webpage: Borse Gucci []

Anonymous said...

Hi there, this weekend is good designed for me, as this occasion i
am reading this enormous informative post here at my home.


Here is my web page - New Kevin Durant Shoes

Anonymous said...

A lot of info right here and I'm still quite a long way from getting up to speed. Cheers for clarifying!

My webpage :: recipe for dog biscuits

Anonymous said...

Just wish to say your article is as astonishing. The clearness
in your post is just nice and i could assume you're an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the rewarding work.

Feel free to visit my homepage - free live porn chat rooms

Anonymous said...

Any and all help will forever be cherished in our hearts. Radio
not only offers the option of fresh songs but also offers many other
features like a talk show or sports broadcast. For all those who
love listening to the radio the free internet radio
is a blessing in disguise.

my webpage ... internetradio aufnehmen ()

Anonymous said...

Tuesday through Wednesday and will quite possibly be closed
Mondays. Psychedelic prints, hemp and the look of "Woodstock" came about in this generation.
In addition, 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of "Action Comics #1".
Guests never exactly what Mulch, Sweat Shears will do not to mention
vice versa. http://www.wannafight.us/here/profile.
php?mode=viewprofile&u=204919

Anonymous said...

Hi friends, good piece of writing and nice urging commented here, I am really enjoying by these.


my blog; Oakley

Anonymous said...

It's the best time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions. Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it!website

Anonymous said...

Hello my loved one! I want to say that this post is awesome, nice written
and come with almost all vital infos. I would like to peer more posts like
this .

Also visit my site: webcam girl

Anonymous said...

Great post.

my page ... Oakley Sunglasses Cheap

Anonymous said...

I am wondering which blogging platform you are using?
I'm new to blogging and have been thinking about using the Hubpages platform. Do you consider this is a good foundation to start with? I would be really thankful if I could ask you some questions through email so I can learn a somewhat more before getting started. When you have some spare time, please be sure to get in touch with me at: lynnerauch@yahoo.de. Appreciate it

my web-site - Sex Clips

Anonymous said...

With hаvin ѕo much сontent and articles do you еver run іnto any problems of plagoriѕm
оr copyrіght violation? Mу website has а lot of
unique content I've either authored myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my authorization. Do you know any methods to help reduce content from being stolen? I'd cеrtаinly appreсiate it.


Tаke а looκ at my homepage; spreading crotch ()

malik aayan said...

Really good post! Hope there will be more good post here!Thanks for sharing valuable information.How Solar Panels work

malik aayan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aiden said...

it is a good idea to add ''key idea'' for this site. it really helpful for newer.

«Oldest ‹Older   201 – 249 of 249   Newer› Newest»