Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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The Varieties of Scientific Experience

Note: this post has nothing to do with the book by Carl Sagan of the same name, which I just learned about from a comment. Damn Carl Sagan for using up a great title.

I recently realized that certain uses of words like science and scientific really annoy me. The train of thought started with this video of a TED talk by Jane McGonigal. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of what she says in the talk, but that isn’t really what bothered me about it. A lot gets written or said about scientific ideas that I don’t agree with. Disagreement and contention are a normal part of science. Nor was it the fact that it was a TED talk, with everything that signifies. I’ve made my peace with the existence of TED in our world. No, what bothered me was the specific rhetorical approach she adopted, in deploying the idea of “science” in a broader discourse. In other words, I disagreed with her way of talking about science and its place in society more than I disagreed with the science she was talking about.

Thinking more about it, it struck me that people who deal with science experience it in different ways. These varied experiences of science show up primarily when scientific ideas are situated within broader secondary discourses (I’ll leave primary scientific discourses for another post).  When people disagree about science at meta-levels, these different experiences are often the reason.

So something like what William James said about religious experience holds true of scientific experience as well: It comes in some distinct varieties. What are these varieties, and what light do they shed on incidents like my reaction to the TED talk?

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The Scientific Sensibility

I don’t like or use the term scientific method. Instead, I prefer the phrase scientific sensibility. The idea of a “scientific method” suggests that a certain subtle approach to engaging the world can be reduced to a codified behavior. It confuses a model of justification for a model of discovery. It attempts to locate the reliability of a certain subjective approach to discovery in a specific technique.

It is sometimes useful to cast things you discover in a certain form to verify them, or to allow others to verify them. That is the essence of the scientific method. This form looks like the description of a sequential process, but is essentially an origin myth. Discovery itself is an anarchic process. Like the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, I believe in methodological anarchy: there is no privileged method for discovering truths. Dreaming of snakes biting their tails by night is as valid as pursuing a formal hypothesis-proof process by day. Reading tea leaves is valid too. Not all forms of justification are equally valid though, but that’s a different thing.

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Warrens, Plazas and the Edge of Legibility

Long-time reader and astute commenter, Xianhang (Hang) Zhang wrote a very interesting post a couple of weeks ago on his blog: The Evaporative Cooling Effect. It is part of a fascinating series he is doing on social software. The post explores a phenomenon that is very close to the status illegibility phenomenon I explored two weeks ago, and in fact draws inspiration from the same Groucho Marx/Lake Wobegon observations that I started with.

Evaporative cooling is basically the effect of the highest status people in a group leaving, lowering the average status of those left behind.

What I found fascinating though, was Hang’s suggestion for how to combat the effect (and thereby stabilize groups). In my post, I proposed that status illegibility helps create the stability. Hang brings in another dimension, which is illegibility in the group’s environment/context.

In particular, in social software (or physical environments for that matter), smarter-than-average early adopters often leave when the “unwashed masses” start to jump on the bandwagon, devaluing the social cachet. Hang proposes that one of the best ways to combat this is to build (or rather catalyze the evolution of) “warren” architectures instead of “plaza” architectures. Here are the pictures that pair of evocative terms produces in my head. You might imagine something else:

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How to Take a Walk

It was cool and mildly breezy around 8 PM today. So I went for a walk, and I noticed something. Though I passed a couple of hundred people, nobody else was taking a walk. There were people returning from work, people going places with purpose-laden bags, people running, people going to the store, people sipping slurpies.  But nobody taking a walk. Young women working their phones, but not taking a walk. People walking their dogs, or pushing a stroller, with the virtuous air of one performing a chore for the benefit of another, but not themselves taking a walk. I was the only one taking a walk. The closest activity to “taking a walk” that I encountered was two people walking together and forgetting, for a moment, to talk to each other. The moment passed. One of them said something and they slipped back into talking rather than taking a walk.

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Down with Innovation, Up with Imitation!

Perhaps it is professional burnout, but lately I’ve been getting extremely tired of all the stupid things people say about innovation. Especially stupid positive things. A great deal of the stupidity in the conversation about innovation is driven by the desperate urge to be original for the sake of being original. There is a pervasive, unexamined assumption that originality is always a good thing. Copycats, by Oded Shenkar is a delightful little book that takes on a project that I strongly support: taking down the holy cow of innovation and extolling the virtues of imitation.  Ironically, it is one of the most original business books I’ve read in the last few years. It even manages to say something new about the business case everybody loves to hate: Southwest Airlines.

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Digital Security, the Red Queen, and Sexual Computing

There is a technology trend which even the determinedly non-technical should care about. The bad guys are winning. And even though I am only talking about the bad guys in computing — writers of viruses, malware and the like — they are actually the bad guys of all technology, since computing is now central to every aspect of technology. They might even be the bad guys of civilization in general, since computing-driven technology is central to our attacks on all sorts of other global problems ranging from global poverty to AIDS, cancer, renewable energy and Al Qaeda. So turning around and winning this war might even be the single most important challenge facing humanity today. Even that bastion of the liberal arts and humanities, The Atlantic Monthly, has taken note, with this excellent feature on how the best security researchers in the world are losing the battle against the Conficker worm. Simple-minded solutions, ranging from “everybody should get a Mac” to “just stick to Web-based apps and netbooks” to “practice better digital hygeine” are all temporary tactical defenses against an adversary that is gradually gaining the upper hand on many fronts. I have concluded that there is only one major good-guy weapon that has not yet been tried: sexual computing. And it hasn’t been tried because major conceptual advances in computer science are needed. I’ll explain what I mean by the term (it is a fairly obvious idea for those who know the background, so there may be more accepted existing terms for the vision), but I’ll need to lay some groundwork first.

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A Brewing Storm in Psychology

For several months now, I’ve been noticing a distinct pattern in psychology-beat reporting in major sources of commentary like the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. I sense that something really big is brewing in psychology. Big enough to deserve the overused phrase “paradigm shift.” Some of the more obvious elements are a renewed focus on longitudinal studies, narrative analysis, and the impact of social network approaches. But overall, I haven’t been able to put the whole picture together, so I thought I’d share a bunch of (excellent) articles that highlight important aspects of what is going on, as well as my preliminary conclusions. This should make for good weekend reading: many of the pieces I am linking to below are in-depth multi-page pieces.  It’ll take me probably another 3-4 months of simmering before I can figure this picture out, but maybe you can beat me to it or help me get there faster.

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Zen and the Art of Google Wave Mechanics

Much of the discussion around Google Wave so far has been down-in-the-weeds prosaic and business-like. So I decided to seek out physicist turned Zen Master, Roshi Tsu Nami, and historian of technology, Prof. Sophius Trie, in order to get to some deeper insights. Here is the transcript of our conversation. Warning: all three of us are ridiculously enamored of tech-geek-mysticism references, but I hope you can follow our thinking.

Me: What is Google Wave?

Roshi Tsu Nami: 47.

Me: 47? Ha ha! Don’t you mean 42?

Roshi Tsu Nami: Yes, I was referring to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but I do mean 47, not 42. Google Wave is the ultimate answer, to life-streaming, universal communications and everything. But it is about 10% wrong.

Me: Clever. I don’t suppose I get to look smart in this dialogue. I expect I should ask next: what is the actual question?

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Bay’s Conjecture

A few years ago, I was part of a two-day DARPA workshop on the theme of “Embedded Humans.” These things tend to be brain-numbing, so you know an idea is a good one if it manages to stick in your head. One idea really stayed with me, and we’ll call it Bay’s conjecture (John Bay, who proposed it, has held several senior military research positions, and is the author of a well-known technical textbook). It concerns the effect of intelligent automation on work. What happens when the matrix of technology around you gets smarter and smarter, and is able to make decisions on your behalf, for itself and “the overall system?” Bay’s conjecture is the antithesis of the Singularity idea (machines will get smarter and rule us, a la Skynet – I admit I am itching to see Terminator Salvation). In some ways its implications are scarier. [Read more…]