Society is a Distributed System

What would happen if you tried to write down a list of every single thing you believed?  Not just the important stuff, like “People get out of life what they put into it” or “Most of what happens to us is determined by circumstances beyond our control.”  I mean trivial beliefs, too, such as “Cats have four legs”, or “California is on the western coast of the United States.”

The first thing that comes to mind is that the list of your beliefs would be huge. Suppose that each day of your life, you learn 10 new beliefs.  That’s 3,650 beliefs per year. A 30 year old adult would have over 100,000 beliefs.

A second thing you’ll realize when trying to list all of the things you believe is that you are changing your beliefs all the time. For example, I’m sitting down right now. Therefore, I currently believe I’m sitting down. I believe i’m writing as well.  In a few minutes, I won’t be doing either of those things, and thus those beliefs will change.

Normally, the idea of someone ‘changing their beliefs’ strikes us as something more important and profound than merely getting up from a chair, or opening a door.  This is because some of our  beliefs are extremely critical to our way of seeing the world. Most beliefs that we hold aren’t timeless or universal; they’re little more than descriptions of where we happen to be.  These ‘timeless’ beliefs are generally about how the world operates and behaves at all times, rather than beliefs about how the world happens to be right now.

When we think of ‘conflicts over belief’, we generally think of high level beliefs about philosophy or religion as being at the source of the conflict.  We generally aren’t thinking of ‘low level’ beliefs as being part of the conflict at all. Yet if we buy the predictive processing theory of cognition, these high level beliefs are informed by, and inform, our low level experiences.  

If this widely-held theory is true, you can’t separate someone’s views on what role markets should play in society, from their belief on something that seems mundane, such as, perhaps, the best place to get fresh vegetables.  The profound important things we believe are almost certainly heavily coupled with smaller, seemingly disconnected choices.

This coupling – between high level philosophical views, and mundane, day to day experiences – doesn’t really make much sense without a computational view of human beings.  It doesn’t jibe with how human beings tend to feel about themselves. It sounds weird. That weird feeling arises probably because humans have told themselves a story about how they work, which doesn’t line up with reality. The weird feeling is cognitive dissonance, your clue that your model is wrong.

The complex, chaotic results we see in society as a whole only make sense if you realize that the stories humans tell each other are pieces of software operating on the distributed system that is the human species.  There’s an entire ecosystem of stories, that grow and spread and spawn and mutate over the entire human race.

Unlike most organic ecosystems, however, the human story ecosystem is heavily influenced by its connection topology. Stories spread more like viruses over a computer network than they do like species that inhabit solid ground. There is no concept of “influencer” in the animal kingdom, but networks certainly have supernodes in with massive connection counts.

So it isn’t that each person tells themselves a unique story about their own experience in life, which happens to overlap some with other people’s stories. You don’t have a life story. You have, in your skull, a meat-based computational story jungle, where stories spawn, split and merge with each other, compete for your attention and cooperate to predict your experiences as best they can.  Most of the stories that you think of as ‘yours’ are probably stories you’ve seen elsewhere. We’re all telling ourselves hundreds of thousands of stories, all of which are growing or shrinking in their influence over us.  You might think of your DNA as being a story about how to survive on earth. Your beliefs and cultures are another story on top of that DNA.

Stories as Distributed Software

Humans tell ourselves stories about the world. We talk about what is happening right now, what has happened before, and how we integrate our personal histories with our day-to-day experience.  We talk about how we make sense of other people’s experiences, and the stories they tell us as well. We tell each other stories, about what we’ve experienced, and how we think the world works.

We are computers that continuously measure a number of input signals and compare these measurements with expectations.  We update our expectations to try and more closely approximate our input signals; and we modify our input signals via selective filtering, to make them more closely line up with our expectations. We exchange messages with each other. When we exchange data, we exchange both our measurements, as well as our heuristics for compressing broad sets of those experiences into predictive models.

We misunderstand each other. We sometimes forget things we’ve experienced and things we’ve been told. We get confused.  We build inferences about other people, and act on these inferences. Sometimes the inferences work, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we accuse each other of bad faith, and organize into large groups along these lines. Some misunderstandings are obvious, but many aren’t, and go unnoticed for long periods of time, until a sudden explosion of visible problems causes us to find what was previously hidden only because we weren’t looking for it.

Some people think that the above phenomena are just part of ‘human nature’, and that they’ll never change. I agree that all of those above patterns of behavior are a part of our being human. Unlike most people, I know that all of the above are also things that large networks of computers do.

I know this because I work on large-scale computer networks for a living, and I see networked software systems doing all kinds of ‘perfectly human’ things, all the time. I’d bet good bitcoins that the belief that humans are computers is much more popular among people who work directly with computer networks.

Alan Turing believed that human beings were computers. Most computers weren’t networked in his day, and so the idea of distributed systems didn’t exist. I agree with Alan Turing that humans are computers, and thus I think it’s only logical to conclude that humanity is a distributed system. This doesn’t mean much to most people, since most people don’t work on distributed systems. I suspect that this claim might sound obvious to most people who do work on distributed systems.  

The reason I think it’s important to talk about this is because I think lots of things in life can be improved but only if we can talk about the computational phenomena directly, as being linked to flows of information and the difficulty of managing state in distributed computational systems.  

Forget red-states and blue states. Forget nationalism, the electoral college, and global warming.  Don’t engage in the mind-numbing idiocy of the culture war, where millions of people who have little power spend all day arguing loudly and angrily about things they don’t understand and can’t control, accomplishing nothing other than wasting their precious mental cycles. All of those disagreements and arguments are surface level phenomena. They are icons and windows, not file systems and processes, let alone packet queues, routing tables, or consensus algorithms.

I’ll be writing more on this topic for the next few posts. Consider this the introduction to the sequence. Here’s the final thought:

Justice is more than a Myth

I completely agree with Yuval Harari that humans run our entire society via storytelling.  I enjoyed his book, Sapiens, thoroughly. I think it’s definitely worth reading. However, I think it gets an important aspect of our storytelling society backwards. Harai compares a lawyer signing documents to incorporate an LLC as being like a shaman performing an incantation to summon a spirit.  He claims that in both cases, humans are pretending that something which doesn’t exist is real, so they can use the imaginary thing to coordinate their activities.

The reader is left with the unsettling feeling that modern ideas like justice and human rights are just elaborately dressed up versions of old myths that we now believe to be false.  Harari seems to be arguing that the idea of human rights belongs in the same category as the idea of a god of lightning who hurls bolts from the sky because he’s angry.

After you read Sapiens, check out the classic ‘Things Fall Apart’, by Chinua Achebe. Achebe describes a fictional African society, and we get to see it as a living, breathing, messy organism where stories are supremely important.

We witness a scene where a man who keeps beating his wife is confronted by ‘his ancestors’ (really some men in the village, dressed up in masks), who warn him to stop this behavior at once.   The author remarks that the wife-beating character wouldn’t listen to anyone, but takes his “ancestors” seriously.

Harari would have us believe that any system of justice which relies on ideas like ‘all human beings have a right to dignity’,  is just ancestor worship dressed up in a more presentable interface.

I think Harari has this backwards, and makes the mistake that a lot of people do, which is to see the modern present as being some weird, distorted version of the same old nonsense of the past. Most people see modern computer databases as being newer, faster, more powerful versions of babylonian clay tablets.  

I think it makes more sense to take the reverse perspective, and to see ancient people using styluses to mark up clay tablets as being primitive forms of computation.  In fact, the word computer used to refer to a person whose job it was to do computing. I think it makes far more sense to see those old human beings as being primitive versions of the modern machines, rather than the other way around.

Could you have modern democracy without mass media? Most journalists well tell you ‘no’. Maybe they’re just being self serving, but I think there’s a deep truth to the idea that without a literate, informed populace, you can’t have democracy.  Nobody seems to have connected the dots and concluded that you can’t have a literate informed populace without the technological means to make that happen. I think that the printing press was a hard technological requirement for democracy. Likewise, I think future, more just, more fair governments will depend heavily on technology that is only just now being invented.

In other words, rather than seeing human rights as being a slightly less embarrassing, yet still completely mythological construct, like a modern Zeus,  we should be seeing ‘primitive superstition’ as being clever solutions to difficult problems that have always plagued human beings, but that aren’t really solvable in the absence of lots of computing hardware.

I think we can have a just, fair, safe, and healthy society. I think it’s eminently desirable that we build this society. Many people believe the first two, but I seem to find myself among a very few in that I think that a just, fair, safe, healthy society requires boatloads of computing hardware. I think that the reason the world has been so brutally unfair up until now is  because it had to be, since we didn’t have the computational resources necessary to build a fair, safe society for millions of primates.

I don’t think the present is some altered version of the past, where we have faster gadgets but the same old superstitions. I think the past makes more sense as being viewed as a  best-effort attempt to build a world like present, but in the face of all kinds of technological limits.

We shouldn’t mock our ancestors as being primitive superstitious idiots who didn’t have the modern perspective we do. We shouldn’t dismiss them as having clung onto religion because the world was dark and they needed comfort. We should honor our ancestors as heros who made the difficult choice to build and enrich what was a dark, dismal world. They understood full well how ugly the world was – because that fact was shoved into their faces daily, rather than hidden behind newspapers, television screens, and disintermediation mechanisms like markets and borders. They saw the ugliness of the world daily, and had the courage to hope and dream of a better future for us, their descendants.

So rather than see lawyers signing a corporate certificate as being a modern form of a shaman performing an incantation – I think we ought to see that shaman performing the incantation as being like an extremely rudimentary version of a cryptographic signature from a root of trust.

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