Overconnectedness in Society: Kauffman Networks

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Let’s take a break here to discuss one element of Kauffman’s work with Boolean networks. Essentially, he found that complex networks can behave in one of 3 ways, stable, critical, and chaotic, depending on how the nodes of the network are linked together. Stable behavior never substantially changes — even if the environment changes and flips a few individual node values, the signal cannot propagate and change the behavior of the system as a whole. Conversely, the chaotic system is permanently in flux and can never settle down to stable states. Any signals from the environment that change a few node values are lost in the propagation of noise. He posits that only critical networks are compatible with life – they provide a mathematical basis for a few environmental changes to propagate across a network and change its behavior, while still being able to settle with homeostasis into semi-stable states.

One of the fundamental properties that gives rise to chaotic behavior is that nodes tend to be connected to many other nodes, disrupting the “filtering” of the system. Ghost signals, echoes, become indistinguishable from real, important signals from the environment. What if the Internet has fundamentally changed how people relate to one another, pulling us towards the chaotic regime? It certainly would explain the chaos we are now experiencing as social media comes of age. It also suggests that mild fixes, like banning certain kinds of speech on social media, will not be enough to fix the inherent issue with connecting more nodes together, more people together.

Consider this practical, troubling example. We have enough people in the world now, and are sufficiently connected to them all, that if we go looking for evidence of any worldview, no matter how extreme, we will find real events to support that view. We are closer to living in a “quantum reality” than ever before–if it has any probability of occurring, it will occur, and will provide a basis for a radical worldview that can then grow through confirmation bias. What is top-of-mind now is the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the details of his reprehensible behavior to cover up his misdeeds. While you or I might see this as another case of abuse by someone in power, an age-old story, no doubt the anti-Semites of the internet are vindicated to find out that there was something of a conspiracy between Weinstein and ex-Israeli intelligence agents to discredit and intimidate the women & journalists working to expose him, as revealed in The New Yorker. To someone with existing theories about Jewish conspiracies in Hollywood, this provides dangerous, categorical proof. Already I have seen American anti-Semitic, anti-Communist propaganda from the 1930s resurrected on social media as “proof” that Weinstein’s individual misdeeds are a part of a persistent, systemic, political and racial issue. The only way to get through this is to show everyone that abuse of power is linked to power, not race or politics. My signal does not propagate in their networks, whatever I try.

Part of the chaos in society now is that we cannot agree on what events mean, or what is worth paying attention to. What is certain is that we need more than economic interest in order to be a stable society. The amoral materialism (capitalist or socialist) we have arrived at in society is poor at providing that necessary framework, even as both have out-competed more traditional forms of living that may have been more sociologically sustainable.

Where do we go from here? History suggests a crisis will precipitate, and the Dionysian society will be unable to effectively address it. Once people are less comfortable, there will be bloodshed until our ideologically diverse society is reduced again to the unity of “sick of bloodshed,” or worse, an ideological sect devoted to one or the other network effect will (temporarily) win power. I just hope it holds off long enough for me to situate myself securely, as if there could be any guarantee of security in the face of untamed network effects.